Side A, Track 1: Growing Meanings
I want to start by telling you about a recent mix CD I made:
Mix for the Truck
Last summer, when I moved
from Florida to Illinois, I wanted to make an epic CD mix to accompany
my two-day drive. I knew I would be alone the whole way in the cab of a
26-foot Penske truck. I didn’t know if it would have a jack for an mp3
player, so the mix had to be on CD. It had to capture the emotions of
leaving, along with the anticipation of new beginnings, all the while
encouraging me to drive on.
And as I worked on the mix, I knew I wanted to give copies of it to
friends because, you know, that’s the way mixes work. They’re made to
You’re hearing the first track, a piece called “Back 2 Skala” by
artists Skrypnyk and ambient. The thing is, I don’t think any of the
twelve friends who received a copy of the mix CD had a reaction to this
track anything like mine. It’s a rearrangement of one of my favorite
tunes from the 1995 Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger, a ReMix you can
get for free at a site called OverClocked ReMix. Here’s the original
track, composed by Yasunori Mitsuda.
I’ve been listening to that game’s soundtrack for ten years, reliving
my memories of playing the game fifteen years ago. But I don’t expect
any of my friends to hear those layers of meaning in the song’s chord
progressions—to them, it’s probably just a piece of glitchy, synthy
electronica. We make different meanings from it, based on our
experiences and memories.
And when that next track begins, the meaning of the mix as a whole
starts to shift. How does this juxtaposition suggest a different
meaning, a richer meaning, that was communicated in the first track
At its core, those questions are what this piece is about: how we make
meanings from a musical mix.
From a narrow perspective,
this project is about me: the choices I made
when curating the tunes I included on the mix CD I describe above.
After all, that CD was unabashedly personal; I even gave it a
hard-to-pronounce title that wove together my name and the name of my
new city: ROCK::man /
. So on one level this piece is concerned with
the choices I made as composer and how that mix continues to surprise
me whenever I hear it.
But I also want to move beyond the personal to consider how it would
sound to other audiences—
the ways you would “get” the
things I intended you to get, and the ways your experience would be
nothing like what I intended.
My goal is also to suggest new ways of thinking about sonic arrangement
when composing musical mixes, whether the source material is on vinyl,
cassette, CD, or mp3. When engaging in the rhetoric
that’s what I’ll claim, that composing a curated
collection of cuts is something like rhetorically composing an
hope you’ll ask yourself, “What kinds of seeds am I planting
for my listeners by choosing these specific tracks?” (The piece ends
with questions to ask yourself as you compose mixes on your own.)
And seeds is a word I use very purposefully. I’m remixing it from a
talk composer Brian Eno gave in 2011. He contrasts two different
analogies for composing music:
Eno on Gardening
An architect, at least in the traditional sense, is somebody who has an
in-detail concept of the final result in their head, and their task is
to control the rest of nature sufficiently to get that built. Nature
being things like bricks and sites and builders and so on. Everything
outside has to be subject to an effort of control.
A gardener doesn't really work like that. . . . But what I think about,
I suppose my feeling about gardening, and I suppose most people's
feeling about gardening now, is that what one is doing is working in
collaboration with the complex and unpredictable processes of nature. .
. . .One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully
planting them and then letting them have their life. And that
life isn't necessarily exactly what you'd envisaged for them.
Now, Eno is talking about composing sounds themselves, not arranging
the tracks of others in a mix. He’s excited by processes a composer
uses to put different inputs together in new ways, without quite
knowing what the end result will sound like. In the same talk, he even
says, “I'm deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the
same position as any other member of the audience. I want to be
surprised by it as well. And indeed, I often am.”
But we also plant seeds when we make mixes. Seeds that grow into plants
that look something like what we expected, but which outgrow our
expectations too, dazzling us with their color and height and bumps and
Yet before we move into a consider of the seeds I planted with my
driving mix, I want to listen to a few songs from rhetorical studies.
My hope is that singing those old songs to my seeds will make them
happy plants that bloom for us into new meanings, full of unexpected