Performance Saturday, November 13, 2010 | 10 PM

The Books

Zankel Hall
Experimental music duo The Books mix electronica, folk, and acoustic music with samples of video, sounds, and speech.


  • The Books
    ·· Paul de Jong
    ·· Nick Zammuto
  • with Gene Back


    Program is approximately 1 hour, 20 minutes, and will be performed without intermission


  • The Books

    Location has always been significant to the Books: Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto began collaborating while living in New York City more than 10 years ago. The Way Out, the Books' fourth full-length album-their first since 2005's Lost and Safe-has, from its start, also been shaped by location: The positioning of two books on a shelf, their titles cast in the same font, caught de Jong's eye at a Salvation Army thrift store in Cincinnati while on tour. It was there that the duo found an album title and a path to explore. They have now settled with their respective new families north of New York City, and work from their home studios-de Jong from a converted bookstore in New Lebanon, New York, and Zammuto from a converted tractor garage in Readsboro, Vermont. They meet often in a small office located on the campus of Mass MoCA, the renowned contemporary arts museum in North Adams, Massachusetts.

    The title The Way Out means many things, of course, but the primary meaning is quite literal. All of the sample material-the signature elements of their records-are drawn from outdated media: obscure, private-press LPs; plus VHS tapes and audio cassettes that are being land-filled en masse. These recordings-literally on their way out-are rescued from certain extinction and given new life as the foundation for absurd (and absurdly beautiful) sound art disguised as abstract pop songs.

    The yin and yang of the Books' process is based on de Jong and Zammuto's long-standing collector/composer relationship. Although there is significant crossover in their roles, it is this primary dynamic that has continually propelled their unique vision. Apart from cello and guitars, the primary instrument and inspiration of the Books is de Jong's extensive sample library, which has grown by leaps and bounds since Lost and Safe. Through obsessive collecting and cataloging, de Jong has amassed one of the world's most compelling and unique sample collections. He carefully organizes the samples into a series of nested folders with broad subjects such as "Spoken Word," "Vocal," "Animals," and "Instrumental," that are then further filed into hundreds of sub-folders with curious labels like "Foghorns/Pipes," "Strange/Small," "Insects," "Mechanical Instruments," "Telephones/Beeps," "Breathing/Sighing," "Impediments," "Laughter," and so on. Says de Jong, "In a way, the subjects for a new record choose themselves by standing out through a combination of sheer mass, musical qualities, and content that resonates with both of us. During the process of composing an album, I remain on the lookout to enlarge the library and widen the subjects that we have chosen to focus on. In the case of The Way Out, these areas were meditation, self-help therapy, and yoga records, among others."

    Using the library as a starting point, Zammuto then finds threads, themes, and unifying rhythms that become the seeds for musical compositions. The compositions are then built from the inside out by adding studio recordings of the duo's guitars and cellos, one-of-a-kind homemade instruments, and occasionally sung lyrics. The result is the tightly knit, highly rhythmic sound-collage that has become the signature sound of the Books. Thanks in large part to the ever-increasing scale, scope, and organization of the library, The Way Out represents a huge leap forward for the Books. Zammuto explains, "Since there's more to draw from, I've been able to find far more coherent lines within the compositions, so that each track becomes a kind of world in itself. That's the sound we're after-every track has to go beyond belief in some way, but still feel real and sincere at the same time."

    Each track on The Way Out features a single source or group of related sources, stripped of their original contexts, dismantled, and reconstructed into a new shape that brings out unexpected meanings and universal themes. Recorded in July 2009, the Books had the great honor of being invited by producer-engineer Drew Brown to work in London for four days (and nights) at The Hospital, the studio of legendary producer Nigel Godrich. With Brown's generous help, they were able to gather and record elements for The Way Out using Godrich's mind-boggling collection of vintage instruments and synths. The Books pride themselves on producing, mixing, and mastering their own recordings at home using simple gear, and The Way Out is no doubt their most accomplished production thus far.

    The Books' legendary live show has always incorporated video as a primary element, creating an experience somewhere between a rock concert and a film. In a way, the video serves as a kind of "front-man" for the band, rather than a typical ambient backdrop. As with the majority of the audio samples, the video is mostly culled from abandoned VHS tapes from the 1980s and '90s. The video is tightly synchronized to the band's live performance, conveying a vast emotional energy that is often simultaneously hilarious and profound. Zammuto and de Jong are increasingly incorporating audio and video simultaneously; the effect is exhilarating for the senses of both the audience and the band, and bridges the age-old gap between the two. The Books have also added a new member for their stage show: the über-talented multi-instrumentalist Gene Back, whom they met through a recent collaboration with cellist Zachary Miskin. With the addition of Back's extremely capable hands, the Books are able to present the innocent wisdom and surreal charm of The Way Out in a way that is both technically faithful and emotionally revelatory.

    "Genre-wise I can't explain this record," concludes Zammuto. "It hints at clear reference points only to subvert them seconds later. I think instead of looking at music stylistically, it makes more sense to look at the environment and process that created it. In our case, it's a kind of chaotic pile of compelling detritus, acted upon by a lot of patience and free-play that allows it to shake itself into a kind of order that favors emotional sense over literal sense. There's always a feeling of self-assembly when a composition is going well-like these things were always meant to be together-and the effort goes into creating the conditions for self-assembly, rather than forcing things into a preconceived shape. We're the filters. That's basically what we are and I think that's what everybody is in this culture, where there's so much information around us all the time. That defines who you are in the end, what you filter and why."

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This performance is part of Signatures.