Scanner: Warhol's Surfaces
intermedium rec

Robin Rimbaud's an old hand at merging sampled voices with electronic backgrounds. After all, he initially gained notoriety when he captured the voices of unwitting telephone callers and dispatch operators with his scanning device and then added them to his compositions; live, the effect was even more powerful, with Rimbaud scanning voices in real-time from the concert stage. On 1988's ‘A Piece of Monologue,' he composed a tape piece for radio that featured a lengthy spoken word presentation of Samuel Beckett's writing, and then even more extensively incorporated Derek Jarman's voice into his 1997 homage to the late film-maker titled The Garden is Full of Metal. Which brings us to Rimbaud's latest recording, an hour-long piece created for Bavarian radio broadcast and commissioned by intermedium, a Bayerischer Rundfunk media art organization.

Rimbaud uses interview material with Warhol from the early ‘70s as his raw material. One is immediately struck by the very sound of Warhol's voice which is less familiar than are his ubiquitous visage and artworks. The timbre and cadence of his drawling voice startle at first and the listener becomes absorbed by his speech rhythms, pauses, and inflections. One's attention is drawn to interstitial elements like breath inhalations and 'uuuhms,' especially with the voice positioned so high in the mix. Rimbaud, like Steve Reich, recognizes the incredible musical potential that even the most monotone and affectless delivery promises, and proceeds to exploit that fact throughout the work. What won't be unusual to many is the banal content of Warhol's utterances, his obsession with trivialities, and his seeming shallowness.

Given an electronic artist's stereotypical reliance upon repetitive, looped structures, Andy Warhol seems like such natural fodder for electronic treatment that it's surprising he hasn't been broached before in this manner. Rimbaud boldly manipulates Warhol's voice in befitting manner, filtering the artist's voice prismatically in varying ways. Scanner fashions drone-like ambient backgrounds that typically support rather than compete with Warhol's voice, although in some cases Rimbaud places his electronic settings at the forefront. For example, his ghostly, atmospheric music dominates on “The Factory,” with Warhol's filtered voice only occasionally seeping through the electronic cracks. The nine pieces have different characters but flow continuously into one another, giving the recording a unified feel; similarly, Warhol's voice appears on all tracks with the exception of the last piece, a sparkling coda titled “Five Views of an Onion.” Here Rimbaud uses his own voice recitatively, an approach used before on “Pomona,' his contribution to Mille Plateaux's 1999 Modulation & Transformation 4. Why Rimbaud decided to introduce his own voice rather than stay with Warhol's alone is unclear, but obviously the change of voice lessens the otherwise unified impression of the work.

The opening “Camouflage” is the longest piece at fifteen minutes. Against a signature Scanner rhythm bed of humming and rumbling, Warhol's voice enters but in fractured, cut-up form first and then, alternately, in normal interview form where his voice exhibits both bored and sing-song qualities. Rimbaud's approach is minimalistic, with a subtle array of grinding and plucking effects combining with the deep rumble of the base. Its last five minutes conjure images of Manhattan's streets by featuring metropolitan sounds of car horns and trucks. Warhol's voice appears in normal fashion (such as when he reminisces about revisiting a former neighbourhood in “Bringing Back a Past”) but more often than not Rimbaud applies extreme transformations to it. On “Becoming Someone Else,” “Tomato Soup,” and “Marilyn Four Times,” Warhol's voice dissolves into indistinguishable garbles, while “New York City Street Map” finds it stretched into echoing fragments alongside shimmering, spectral electronics. The most provocative piece, “Turning the Dial,” exploits to the fullest Warhol's 'and, uh' and 'uhmms' by repeating them ad nauseum until they cohere into rhythmic loops accompanied by simple percussive patterns and electronics. Warhol's comment that “I mean you just keep turning your dial, and it just never stops” is here treated by Rimbaud literally.

In spite of its imaginative treatments, Warhol's Surfaces feels like a long recording; presumably its sixty-minute duration conforms to an imposed radio broadcast length. One might imagine that the relative insularity of Scanner's electronic approach and the recording's excessive length are intentional, as both reinforce themes of one-dimensionality, boredom, and repetition so indelibly associated with Warhol. Rimbaud's recording is, all things considered, a captivating and fascinating aural distillation of Warhol's persona, and yet one can't help but feel like something of greater imagination might have been created, given the incredible rich potential the subject matter affords. By comparison, Terre Thaemlitz's magnificent Lovebomb offers the clearest indication of what can be accomplished when voice samples are treated with intelligence and imagination. On 'Sinesti Musicale del Linciaggio Futurista,' Thaemlitz uses miniscule edits of Futurist F.T. Marinetti's proclamatory voice so that the edits assemble to form the utterance “Hung three niggers in the square,” thereby connecting the track's two subjects: the Futurists' call for revolution, and the injustice of a 1906 racist lynching of three black men in Springfield, Missouri. Unlike Thaemlitz, Rimbaud adopts a more straightforward approach and deliberately works with a more circumscribed range of materials, yet he too manages to maintain the listener's interest throughout by the force of his imaginative manipulations.

November 2003