Keep Going!: The Use of Classical Music Samples in Mono’s “Hello Cleveland!”*

Sara Nicholson, Eastman School of Music

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  1. In response to questions regarding Luciano Berio’s 1968 Sinfonia, the composer stated “I’m not interested in collages. The references to Bach, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc. are … little flags in different colours stuck into a map to indicate salient points during an expedition full of surprises” (Dalmonte and Varga 106–107). In Martin Virgo’s response to questions regarding the impetus for Formica Blues, the 1997 debutCD cover of "Formica Blues" release of Mono (the pop duo he formed with Siobhan de Maré), one can hear shades of Berio’s explanation when Virgo says “It’s just about the way that the styles have collided … I actually probably like more new music than old … I don’t romanticize the past at all” (“Mono’s Official Webpage”).

  2. Similar to Berio’s Sinfonia, Formica Blues contains samples of various musical works. Unlike Sinfonia, however, these samples are heterogeneous: they are taken from a variety of musical traditions, including excerpts from Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By,” John Barry’s “Ipcress File,” Gil Evans’s “The Pan Piper,” Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16.

  3. Virgo insists that Formica Blues “simply evolved from the most played records in his collection, meshing past and future contained within clear pop parameters” (“Mono’s Official Webpage”). Music critic Charles Taylor describes Formica Blues as follows:
  4. What distinguishes the album from a shopping list of mid-60s cool is the enormous affection de Maré and Virgo conjure up for the period they invoke. It’s the lack of irony or distance in that affection that [is] the key to understanding this band.
    The language of Virgo and his critics suggests a further correlation with Berio’s description of Sinfonia. Berio disagreed with the “collage” label so often attached to Sinfonia with its implications of “relativizing and recontextualizing” images; rather he believed Sinfonia to be less “a collage of quotations” and more “a homogeneous work that looks within itself” (Dalmonte and Varga 106, 109). Martin Virgo’s emphatic statement that his music is “past and future contained within clear pop parameters” betrays a similar urge towards homogeneity.

  5. However, the structure and content of Mono’s music seems incongruous with Virgo’s own language. For example, a fog of confusion could engulf the listener upon hearing “Hello Cleveland!,” the tenth track of Formica Blues—a song that on the surface sounds homogenous yet paradoxically presents a heterogeneous collage. In a single, instrumental song that lasts under five minutes, Mono samples Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, Anton Webern’s Six Pieces, Op. 6, Arnold Schoenberg’s Op. 16, and Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite, presumably some of the “most played records in his collection.”

  6. “Hello Cleveland!” begins with an ascending guitar arpeggio punctuated by the strike of a triangle. Although possibly inspired by a moment in Webern’s Six Pieces, this introduction is not a sample but of Virgo’s own creation.1 Several seconds into the song, a solo piano enters with material that, although newly composed, sounds strikingly similar to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies or Gnoissiennes. A drumbeat in five-four meter accompanies this piano part, which Virgo loops for almost a minute. At this point, he introduces the aforementioned samples, beginning with a one-second sample of the fifth movement from Berio’s Sinfonia. The samples repeatedly follow each other, often punctuated with the one-second Berio sample, until the last minute of the song when the drumbeat ceases and Virgo loops a newly-composed chord progression played on a piano (again reminiscent of Satie) for the final minute of the song. (See Table 1 for a listing of the samples’ origins, their placement within the original work, and their placement within “Hello Cleveland!”)

  7. The function and intended purpose of pastiche in “Hello Cleveland!” becomes highly problematic, primarily because such an endeavor is contingent upon a listener’s familiarity with the sampled material. For the mainstream listener, the samples in “Hello Cleveland!” act at best as “classical music” simulacra—free-floating signifiers that lack a specific referent. For the classical music connoisseur, the samples act not as simulacra, but as direct signifiers that provide semantic counterpoint and add further layers of interpretation to the song.

  8. Mono’s sampling technique balances tentatively between Fredric Jameson’s postmodern “blank parody,” and the modernist aesthetic of borrowing pre-existing material (111–125). In an attempt to explore this nexus of modernist and postmodernist borrowing, I offer two possible interpretations with corresponding listener responses. First, the “connoisseur” perspective: “Hello Cleveland!” is a self-conscious artistic statement through which Mono attempts to position itself as a culminating point in a long and distinguished traditional lineage. By sampling classical works, specifically Berio’s Sinfonia, itself comprised of borrowed materials, Virgo offers a self-reflexive quotation of quotation. In so doing, Virgo constructs his own musical museum, placing himself within the museum’s walls. Such an interpretation echoes a modernist aesthetic of intentional quotation. In the second interpretation, “Hello Cleveland!” is not a self-conscious narrative, but rather a pastiche of various elements that results in a complete collapse of self-conscious dimensions, an “exhilaration of surfaces” (Manuel 233) and little else.2 Virgo does not intend the source of the samples to be recognized, nor, he claims, should there be any meaning attributed to their source or temporal placement.

  9. Consider a broader context for interpretation: Mono’s music can be loosely classified as ambient, a subgenre of electronic dance music, or techno, associated with a subculture of youths who created music in dance clubs and raves in the late 1980s and early 1990s.3 Originally, DJs improvised this music by layering programmed drumbeats over samples of pre-existing material that the DJ then altered through the manipulation of two turntables. Similar to dance or techno, ambient music characteristically consists of a repeating melodic and/or harmonic figure and sparse vocals; yet unlike techno’s quick tempo (100–130 beats-per-minute) articulated by frequent drumbeats, some ambient music is “designed to lull [one’s] mind through more soothing rhythms” (Hilker).4 Furthermore, creators of ambient music sample much of the genre’s musical elements from pre-existing material. Unlike other sample-based genres, including rap and hip hop, ambient artists consistently borrow from the Western classical music tradition. (See Table 2 for a few such examples.)

  10. This kind of borrowing of classical music raises a variety of questions for the modern music scholar and critic. David Toop, one of the few scholarly writers on ambient music, provides the perspective of a subcultural insider—he is both an ambient music producer and fan. In his book Ocean of Sound, Toop describes ambient music as a conflation of often-disparate elements, not unlike a musical landscape filled with borrowed materials. He goes on to chart the genealogy of ambient music, which for Toop began in 1889. He states: “The day when Debussy heard Javanese music performed at the Paris Exposition of 1889 seems particularly symbolic. From that point … accelerating communications and cultural confrontations became a focal point of musical expression” (xi). Toop avoids the traditional distinction between high and low art; rather, he looks across the broad musical spectrum to those figures who worked with musical pastiche, quotation, or borrowing to “communicate” with the audience through “cultural confrontations.” For musicians who compose ambient music, these “cultural confrontations” result in the borrowing and quotation, often via sampling, of classical works.

  11. For Mono, this “confrontation” between high and low art is central to Martin Virgo’s musical background and interests. As a classical pianist trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Virgo worked on a variety of dance remix projects with Björk, among other musicians. His work as artist and producer led him to create Mono with singer Siobhan de Maré, a musical outfit that has allowed him to explore his myriad of musical influences. Although the ambient music genre relies heavily on pastiche techniques, the source of the sampled material in “Hello Cleveland!,” as well as its quantity, seems remarkable. The obscurity of the web of samples intimates a secret code of signifiers that begs interpretation and suggests a relationship more nuanced than mere “confrontation” between high and low art. Virgo’s sampled works represent the dominant high modernism of the academy. Indeed, Virgo admires the works of the second Viennese school and confesses that “this isn’t music that tends to rear its head in a lot of popular music, but it’s what I listen to, and I’ve absorbed these influences” (Molineaux).

  12. 1    2   Endnotes

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“Hello Cleveland!”


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