Frankenstein Goes to Holocaust: Mostri Sonori, Hyper Mash-up, Audio Espropri
University of Padova (Italy)
The task of reviewing this second book by Riccardo Balli (aka DJ Balli), written in Italian for the independent publisher AgenziaX (Milan), is a challenging one, not least because the book has a very unique approach to structure, genre, content and language. In short, it is not far from the truth that this is the most bizarre and unconventional book I have ever reviewed in my scholarly career. As the title itself suggests, the book is not just a classic essay on music culture, even though much of its content are “serious” essays or interviews; instead it is an original and unique texture of different kinds of materials and literary genres, including parody and situationist détournements, imbued with a dose of sexually explicit pranks.
Two things are, however, clear and plain: first, that Frankenstein goes to Holocaust is a tribute to the culture, practice and aesthetics of plunderphonics and music plagiarism, and a useful and inspiring read for musicians and listeners who fell in love with making music by cutting and pasting sounds produced by other; secondly, that Balli’s book is above all an act of creative writing or, even better, an imaginative attempt to compose a book that is completely dissimilar to any other book about music I have come across. Indeed, while the regular essays about plunderphonics and plagiarism included in the book are interesting readings (including, for example, the Italian translation of John Oswald’s classic Plunderphonics essay), where the book shines is in its challenge to develop a meta-discursive reflection on plunderphonics and plagiarism, instilled with a demystifying attitude.
To understand the approach of this book more deeply, it is useful to say a few words about DJ Balli’s activity as artist, musician and cultural entrepreneur (a history that I know quite well, knowing him for almost two decades). Since the late ‘90s, DJ Balli has been engaged in creating and supporting several kinds of radical, disturbing and downright weird electronic-based musics, both as musician and manager of the experimental music label Sonic Belligeranza. Recently, his enduring creative efforts have expanded toward book writing, again exploring some of the most unconventional electronic music genres. The first fruit of this literary foray was Apocalypso Disco (2014), which explored the landscape of electronic post-techno music genres through a literary re-writing of Philip Dick’s novel Clans of the Alphane Moon: a story in which a fictional society is divided into seven tribes, based on different electronic music styles. The essential structure adopted in Frankenstein goes to Holocaust recalls what is already seen in Balli’s previous work with even more space to the work of literary détournement, but this time focusing on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; evidently a very fitting metaphor to talk about those music styles characterised by putting together sonic parts coming from many different “bodies”.
Hence, the book unfolds by intertwining different kinds of materials, including at least three categories of texts, held together in a unique flow of forty-six short chapters. First of all, we have “conventional” texts, represented by essays and interviews on significant issues concerning plagiarism and plunderphonics, written by journalists, musicologists and plagiarism practitioners. Among them, an interesting reading is the opening essay by Francesco Fusaro about the roots of plunderphonics in classical music, focusing on the sub-genre of “musical variations”: the basic compositional practice of creating new music by elaborating themes composed by other composers (featured in the repertoires of Haydn, Schumann, Liszt and so on).
The relevance of this book is not just the content, but also the way it is reflexively reworked with a plagiarist and demystifying attitude. Thus, for example, we also find another seminal text on plagiarism, Plunderphonia by Chris Cutler which is not simply translated from English to Italian, but also creatively elaborated through alterations in the original text, enriching it with musical references as well as sexual pranks, putting in practice (in textual terms) the art of plundering existing contents to create something definitively new, yet always within a frame of demystification of authorship.
A second layer in the book’s composition is the core literary metaphor that supports the patchwork put together by the author (i.e. the creative elaboration of the novel Frankenstein), revisited by twenty-three experts in alternation with the book’s other contents. As is obvious, the idea of a new living entity made up by parts coming from other dead bodies is a perfect metaphor to give expression to the culture of plagiarism and plunderphonics. To do this, Balli’s writing exercise consists of re-writing Shelley’s original text infusing in it musical references coming from those same music electronic genres performed by Balli as a musician (including styles like 8-bit music, gabber and grindcore), with the further addition of other interventions. In these excerpts we read about Mary Shelley (called Squirting Mary) and Lord Byron(anism) engaged in an MCing contest where all participants “should attempt to create the most horrific sonic monster of music history” (25). After much effort, the monster finally comes to life in the shape of a mash-up generated in Shelley’s “bedroom studio” with a Gameboy, where the modified machine starts producing “most scary sounds: remixes of neo-melodic Neapolitan singers in a porno-grindcore style!” (38).
As the readers can tell from these examples, demystification is a relevant ingredient of the book, as the author does not attempt to sacralise the art of plagiarism, instead insisting on a relentless endeavour to reframe plagiarism in a sarcastic way, explicitly linked with the situationist tradition. This demystification is particularly evident in the third type of content in the book, represented by a set of Dadaist passages where, for example, famous bands’ names are distorted in irreverent ways with mash-up techniques; some also accompanied by humorous visuals, including a photo of the singer “Woody Allin”, a poster of the “Turandeath Rancid Opera” or “Lionel Nietzsche’s” album “Is it Truth you are looking for?”. Probably the most situationist section of the book is where the author recalls the history of his alter ego, Bally Corgan—inspired by Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins (who the author physically resembles)—an alter ego actually used by DJ Balli along the years in both his recordings and live acts. Above all, this last example helps to understand the actual continuity between the situationist spirit of the book and Balli’s whole artistic career.
Unfortunately available to an Italian-speaking readership only, the book succeeds in offering an original, meta-discursive and demystifying contribution on plunderphonic culture, not just for the content it offers, but also for its ability to intertwine multiple discursive layers, producing an experiment that is finally able—like Frankenstein’s efforts—to give birth to a weird and bizarre textual monster.
Balli, Riccardo. 2014. Apocalypso Disco. Milan: AgenziaX.
Cutler, Chris. 1994.“Plunderphonia”. Musicworks 60: 6–19.
Oswald, John. 1986. “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative”. Musicworks 34: 6.