Mitchel Davidovitz is a photographer, composer, and sound engineer residing in California. He recently put together an experimental EP consisting entirely of audio television samples. Tomatrax caught up with Mitchel to ask a few questions.
What inspired you to put this project together?
In the early summer of 2013 had ideas about putting together some kind of project based around recordings of television for a few reasons. An obvious one for me was that my two main artistic mediums are sound and photographic imagery, which is exactly how television is presented. The more passionate reason was that it is something so many people absorb without really thinking about the societal ramifications, and I wanted to expose what is truly being presented. I read Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, which was incredibly eye opening and I decided to fully devote myself to the project in order to provide further evidence of what they described, but in a new and hopefully captivating way.
You collected 34 hours of television, was there any method to how you collected it?
I don’t own a television, so I recorded from my parents’ TV. I pulled the audio via an RCA to stereo ¼” cable straight out of the cable box and recorded it in Logic Pro. For the visual part, I placed my camera about eight feet away and used a cable release. I sat and watched pretty much the entire time so that I could take notes of important or relevant things that I saw.
Was it hard to sort through the material to form it into pieces?
Sitting through 34 hours of TV with a critical mind the entire time was much more challenging than I expected. It really wore me down. As I mentioned, I took notes the whole time, but once I started composing the music, I realized there was more hidden in the audio than just what I had put in my notes, so I began listening to the entirety of the recordings once again to find important pieces of audio and connections I hadn’t noticed the first time. It was a serious mental challenge that took weeks. Composing it was also time consuming, but a much more enjoyable part of the process. One of the biggest difficulties with that was that I had no control of audio stems, meaning if I had two recordings of dialogue that I wanted to place together because of their meanings, but they both had music or other sounds in the recordings, then I had to get really creative to make it work and sound cohesive. I couldn’t exactly delete the underlying music that someone was talking on top of, I had to embrace it or try to radically alter it. At times it just couldn’t be done and I had to abandon many ideas, other times I found workable solutions.
Did you know what subjects you were going to cover before you started collecting the material or did you work it out as you went through it?
I had some idea of the types of things I would get. I did some research before I started recording, including Manufacturing Consent, which I mentioned earlier, and also Chris Hedges’ book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. These two books really primed me for the type of things I would likely find, and they were quite accurate. Chris Hedges’ commentary on the connection between surveillance, reality TV, and hidden camera type shows is pinpoint accurate, for example. I also knew, however, that there would be certain subjects and themes I didn’t expect, so I tried to record a really wide variety of TV.
Do you generally watch much TV?
I watched a ton of TV growing up. I eventually became pretty disillusioned by it and it’s hard to watch now. I don’t own a TV and I plan to keep it that way, but I watch a few things online. There are some really interesting and subversive shows put out on Adult Swim that I enjoy. I also try to watch Democracy Now as often as I can.
Did you think about adding any music of your own to he EP?
That’s an interesting question because it strikes to another important question: what is music? I would argue that it is simply organized sound. My piece is experimental and uses source recordings of material produced by other people, but the entirety of it has been recontextualized, reprocessed, and drastically altered. So yes, the entire composition is made of music of my own. The viewer doesn’t get to know exactly how much liberty I took. They don’t have access to the original files. Some parts that sound like direct copies of other songs have actually been altered dramatically or subtly to convey a message or emotional cue, but purposefully done in a way that is difficult to tell. To get back to what I imagine the intention of your question was, there were a few times I thought about how much easier it would be if I could just record a guitar part or find someone to record a violin part. I chose instead to find guitar and violin parts I could manipulate and pitch-shift, or recordings that I could transform into guitar or violin sounding instruments with processing. It was important conceptually that I only use recordings of TV for the project.
Has there been any reaction to the EP from the people who were sampled?
I doubt any of them know about my project, but that may change with some press coverage that is coming out soon. I don’t think they’d make a big deal of it because they probably don’t want people listening to something that shows how absurd and transparent they are. I’ve released it for free as an educational resource and heavily modified the original material, so there is no violation of copyright law. It is, however, a bit of a dream of mine to receive a cease and desist letter from one of those people. I’d throw that in a frame pretty quickly! (Should I not say that? Are there lawyers cringing while reading this?)
You also do photo art, how does doing this compare to making music?
Some friends and I joke a bit about “tones” and how they are all the same – sound tones, visual tones, olfactory tones… the list goes on. There are a lot of connections between images and sounds, but they obviously have their own unique characteristics. In a lot of my other visual work (which can be seen at www.mitcheldavidovitz.com ) I manipulate images in various ways, either before it comes into the camera, in the camera itself, or afterwards. This is a lot like how I make my experimental electronic music, essentially documenting something and then recomposing and manipulating it.
Do you listen to your own music?
When you are your own sound engineer, you have listen to your own music enough to make yourself sick! I hadn’t listened to my project in a few months and did again before presenting at a research competition. Recorded music is so fascinating because over time, it stays exactly the same, but you change, so your perceptions and interpretations are never the same as the last time you experienced it.
What other music do you listen to?
I listen to all kinds of music… there’s so much good stuff out there! Scott Johnson’s album Americans was influential on Window of Normalization because of how he makes music based around regular dialogue in a really hip way ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FNR4M-3Bu4 ). Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Death Cab for Cutie, Joan of Arc, Sigur Ros, and Joy Division.
Now that this EP is out what do you plan on doing next?
My music is a bit all over the place at the moment. I’ve actually been playing a lot on my singing saw lately. The other day I performed at a chamber music concert with another musical saw player as a duet, then later that night the two of us went and busked downtown on accordion and singing saw. It was interesting going from playing such stereotypically high art music to street level low music in a the same day. I’m actually headed off to the Farmers’ Market in a few hours to do some busking today. As far as recorded music goes, I’m becoming increasingly interested in how strange super-markets are and have started some visual work based on things I’ve collected from them. I’d really like to create a composition from recordings I make in super-markets and have it performed over the intercom system of one, but I don’t know any super-market owners/managers who would let me do that. We shall see…
Check out Michael Davidovitz website to find out more!