COMPOSER GREG HALE JONES GOES POLYHISTORIC
Like O Brother Meets Moby, Jones' Music Mixes Contemporary Magic
Xeni Jardin - GRAMMY Magazine - May 21, 2002
What do you call a moody, digital composition with cameo appearances by Walt Whitman, Thomas Jefferson, a Great Depression-era sister vocal act from Louisiana, and backmasked banjo tracks?
If you're composer Greg Hale Jones, you call it folktronica.
The Emmy and Clio Award-winning composer received critical acclaim for score work on films including The General's Daughter, in which he threaded soulful vocal samples from historic Library of Congress archive recordings together with original, trancelike electronic arrangements.
Jones' new independently released project, Crossing The Willamette, began as a sequel to the General's Daughter compositions. The film's soundtrack sold over 90,000 copies, and producer Russell Ziecker asked Jones to compose more work in the same vein for a project which was to have been titled General's Daughter 2: The Field Recordings. But soon, Jones found himself detouring into new creative terrain as mysterious and historically rich as the bayous and back-country roads immortalized in the early music that inspires him.
Jones isn't alone in his folk-roots fascination: recent work by other digitally inclined artists like Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, and Moby also samples old black music in new techno contexts. In fact, both Jones and Moby used tracks from the very same archives recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress as source material.
However, unlike dance artists who experiment with traditional music and use it as conspicuous retro ornamentation, Jones approaches historic material with a willful caution and reverence: history itself becomes an elderly collaborative partner. In his work, archived recordings are deconstructed, re-pitched, re-tuned, and transposed meticulously in an aural mosaic. New settings are constructed around traditional vocal elements. Layers of diatonic harmony are an exquisite patchwork, cut and stitched into existence from a beautifully worn parent blanket. Not only do the original songs remain intact, they are the work's consistent
In Jones' adaptation of the traditional song "Boll Weevil," a mournful, scratchy, Alabama cotton-field ballad merges seamlessly within a sparse arrangement of electronics, strings and organic percussion. Jones, who is classically trained in orchestration, arrangement, and composition, contributes instrumental accompaniment and background vocals. The resulting amalgamation of past and present is simple and articulate.
"The vocals in 'Boll Weevil' were recorded more than 60 years ago using what is now extremely old technology, so the pitch reference isn't good," he explains. "Almost syllable for syllable, each step had to be re-tuned. I can do this because of recent advances in digital music editing software – 'Digital Performer' is the application I use – but I could never have done it with tape alone. To me, that's totally amazing ... my jaw still drops thinking about it. I can make the woman singing 'Boll Weevil' in 1940 sound like she's perfectly in tune with a contemporary arrangement, with the verses organized in a completely new way."
The transparency of Jones' editing process inadvertently caused controversy during the production of the General's Daughter soundtrack.
"The people at Paramount insisted I'd taken a lot of the music intact from the Library of Congress recording. One of them just wouldn't take my word for it. I told him, 'Look, the vocal tracks were a cappella and I had to work with them and re-tune them,' and he said, 'No, no, no – that banjo was in the field recordings.' And I said, 'No, I played the banjo,' and he said 'No, no, no, you didn't.' He wouldn't believe me, and I don't blame him. Technology allows you to blur the line between old and new so thoroughly – using this editing software, you have your mitts right on the original sound. You're hand tweaking it like sculpture."
Obtaining permission to sample the Library of Congress recordings was relatively hassle-free, says Jones, but it was granted with an unusual condition.
"The Library of Congress basically tells artists, 'Go ahead and use this stuff, we don't mind. But we want you to find the heirs of the people who sang it, and compensate them as fairly as you can.' So when we were putting the General's Daughter soundtrack together, we put a great deal of effort into finding the people who might be heirs of the folks who sang these songs, and sure enough we found some of their descendants in Louisiana.
"And a guy from Paramount Pictures actually flew out there, drove out to their home, and personally brought this woman a check. He asked her, 'What are you going to do with this money?' And she told him, 'I'm gonna get a telephone, that's what I'm gonna do.'
"I'm deeply interested in the lives of the people who are singing, and what they are singing about. The more you dig into the history behind these recordings, the more interesting it gets. It's like finding a key that unlocks what it is to live in the United States, and what we owe to a lot of otherwise obscure artists and creative minds that mainstream white history has ignored."
When asked how he feels about the success of the soundtrack for the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, and the renaissance of interest in American folk music it sparked, Jones laughs.
"I was watching that so closely. I felt like I shared the same thread with those artists, though they may or may not feel the same way. I have this odd affinity for both folk music and electronic tools – it's sort of like being a hermaphrodite. It's just an odd combination.
"These early sources create a sense of authenticity in a time where we're really not sure what's authentic anymore," he continues. "We're at a moment in history where we're surrounded by this removed self-consciousness that is so bleak. Traditional music can be so heart-stoppingly sincere, and I believe people connect with it out of a hunger for that authenticity."
(Xeni Jardin is a co-founder of boingboing.net.)
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