“We live in a glut,” says Andrew Whiteman. “In the First World, there’s too much of everything. So curation and choosing what to steal or what to use is a more important thing than the expression of the self.”
In the computer age, the modern music-maker is rich with tools and options; the prospects of overstimulation and overthinking are very real. Whiteman is speaking from Austin, Tex., the annual site of the massive South by Southwest music festival, speaking of overload. Whiteman, a member of Broken Social Scene who, with his wife, Ariel Engle, makes up the Montreal indie alt-folk duo AroarA, is taken with the notion of artistic constraint. AroarA’s debut release is In the Pines, an EP adapted from a 2007 book of poems by the American avant-garde writer Alice Notley.
Whiteman’s thinking is that by placing limitations within or upon the creative process, the artist is focused, thus resulting in superior art. Otherwise? “People can get lost. Nothing gets done, or what you do get done sounds very mediocre. Artistic muscles are not being flexed.”
Whiteman is not alone in the belief that paring down options needn’t be about concession – it can be a conscious decision, one that helps direct energy. Halifax singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett has used the technique, on his 2004 triple-album Three (so named because of its meticulous creative constraints tied to that number) and on 2012’s Scrappy Happiness (which was produced within a demanding self-imposed schedule). And Jack White has spoken at length about analog-recording purism and the two-tone colour restrictions of his former outfit, the minimalist stomp-rock duo White Stripes.
With In the Pines, written and recorded at an Ontario farmhouse owned by singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (a friend of Whiteman’s), it was decided to use outdated sounds whenever possible in an effort to create lo-fi music of an indeterminable era. The result is hypnotic, uncluttered and intense, often droning rhythmically with brittle electronic sonics to accompany Engle’s vocals.
Yes, it was recorded on a laptop, but some of the beats sound as if they came from your grandparents’ doily-topped organ. Another sample was produced from a snippet of guitar from an old Mississippi John Hurt recording, with the note spread across a keyboard. “Instead of playing piano notes,” says Whiteman, whose previous band was Apostle of Hustle, “I’m playing a piece of Mississippi John Hurt.”
Hurt’s inclusion in the music was not a whimsical choice, as Notley’s poetry was heavily influenced by traditional folk music. While writing about the experiences of a woman undergoing treatment for hepatitis C, she listened to old rural sounds. In the Pines, the folk song, dates back to the 1870s. It is most often associated with Lead Belly’s recorded versions in the 1940s or Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged reinterpretation from 1993 (as Where Did You Sleep Last Night?).
Notley is a favourite poet of Whiteman and Engle, and given the musicality existing within her work, they decided to set the words back to music. Whiteman then met Notley in front of her Paris apartment to pitch his idea. She was initially dubious, feeling that her poems were already musically exact and that’s why composers react to them. “I’ve already composed them myself,” she explained in an e-mail interview.
But because In the Pines contains lines from folk music and songs by Bob Dylan (who famously appropriates poetry and traditionals himself), Whiteman’s idea made a different kind of sense to Notley. “When I use a line or phrase from a folk song I am giving the words a poetry tune as words, but I am also hearing a traditional melody and inviting the reader to hear it, too,” she said. “I guess I felt that Andrew had a right to set some of the lines to music. Or set them back to music.”
Folk music is all about reuse, appropriation, handing good lines down. Dylan understands the tradition, as do Whiteman, Notley and the poet and “uncreative writing” proponent Kenneth Goldsmith. “Writers don’t need to write anything more,” he has said. “They just need to manage the language that already exists.”
Notley’s poetry not only inspired AroarA’s music, but focused and stimulated it. The project’s conceit and constraints, according to Whiteman, helped him concentrate on rhythm, melody and harmonies – “the actual music-making thing.”
As for the general tradition of appropriation, Whiteman makes no apologies for the practice. “I’m a raven,” he says, referring to a pilfering type of bird. “I see a shining thing and I go get it.”