Interpretation is one of the cornerstones of modern pop. In the 50s and 60s singers who would never have dreamed of writing their own songs would take songs from writers who would never have dreamed of singing them, and interpret them. Sinatra was renowned for decades as the finest ‘interpreter’ of modern songs, taking material and turning it into his own, finding the core of a piece and revealing it to us all.
Then in the 1960s, the role of interpretation in the development of pop music took a few different and often more problematic turns. Countless of the big hits of the decade which we still know 50 years on are second or third generation copies. Songs passed from group to group until one version achieved some sort of memetic superiority. This was not always a chummy passing of the baton (“I say, this ditty didn’t work out for me. Why don’t you have a go at it old fruit?”). Genres, sometimes whole cultures, were plundered for songs which could be parlayed into rock’n’roll success.
Since then, the role of interpretation in rock and pop seems to have dwindled to the dread cover version in which some band either pays tribute to or attempts to ride the coat tails of some other band, usually to the benefit of no-one except the original publishers. Performers are sampled, mimicked, sometimes pastiched, but rarely will an artist embark upon a serious reinterpretation of another artist’s work. Even when they do (Flaming Lips cover ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Steven Malkmus covers ‘Ege Bamyasi’) there’s a sense that these are fun excursions, tributes, a laugh.
Meanwhile in other forms, notably literature and theatre, reinterpretations of stories, works, themes and pieces are a critical part of the discourse.
Where rock and roll moved away, dance music has taken on the full power of reinterpretation. Here the remix is so all-pervasive that radical re-imaginings of tracks routinely eclipse the originals, often becoming the core reference point for a piece of work. Undeniably it’s a fertilising, energising process, producing a seemingly endless sea of imaginative music.
Somewhere between the world of the radical remix and the Warhol wing of the modern art gallery sits Italian producer Donato Dozzy’s 2013 album ‘Plays Bee Mask’. The seven tracks, numbered ‘Vaporware 01’ through to ‘Vaporware 07’, take as their source the 2012 track ‘Vaporware’ by the Philadelphia-based electronic ambient artist Bee Mask aka Chris Madak. The original is a 13-minute soundscape which does its title proud, steadily forming ideas which disperse before they can resolve. It’s a beautiful piece, constantly changing, buzzing with life yet always shifting and uncertain. It’s a pure pleasure to listen to.
Dozzy took on the task of remixing the track and, presumably, realised quickly that to attempt alternative versions of the whole piece would be folly. the original ‘Vaporware’ shifts through many abstract phases with little through-line other than it’s drifting mood. Hammering these down to a rhythm or adding yet more sounds as ballast would have crushed them. Instead he took individual elements from the original work and isolated them, creating space in which to allow them to stretch and breathe and to allow him to examine them fully.
Each track seems to take a single motif from the original, mount it among other sounds, and set it slowly twisting and rotating so we can hear it from all angles. The care and attention is impressive. The sounds are enveloping, beguiling and beautiful. The record starts with rainfall and warmly chiming bells, progresses through steady, fizzing drones, pulsating voice shards, arpeggiated squelches which fall like tropical rain on bouncy leaves and head-nodding chord progressions with just a hint of rhythm before coming back down to where it started, with dripping bell chimes.
It’s perfectly possible to fall in love with ‘Plays Bee Mask’ without ever having heard the original ‘Vaporware’. I did. However, once you’ve grown accustomed to both, they begin to resonate, each highlighting and amplifying individual details of the other. The two works begin a fascinating dialogue. It’s quite some trick. It’s clear that Dozzy found the constraint of working with the raw material of someone else’s work immensely inspiring, and the results are a jewelled wonder. ‘Plays Bee Mask’ works as a puzzle, as a tribute, as individual tracks, as an album-length suite and as a pure experience in sound.
Tom listened: We chatted on the evening about Rob’s use of Spotify. If it has meant that he is more likely to find such wonderful music as this, then maybe we should all be doing it. I thought Plays Bee Mask was stunning, much prefered the album to the original and although it peaked in the middle, I enjoyed it all the way through. Dare I say it, I would be more tempted to pick this up on CD as the LP seems to have annoyingly short sides but as far as electronic music goes, this chimed with me as much as anything else I have heard.
Nick listened: I much preferred the ‘remixes’ to the original (which seemed to struggle to find direction), and enjoyed the remixes very much, but I can’t be as effusive as Tom; bits were blissful and beautiful, but others seemed a little too perfunctory – I thought about saying ‘formulaic’ but a lot of the point of electronic music is exploring formulae, so that didn’t quite make sense. I think I mean that some of it, for me, lacked a little emotion. But a fascinating, Borges-esque concept, really intriguingly executed.