Digital vs. analog. The head vs. the heart. Traditional or unconventional. Choose your side. Or don’t. The best bet? Use all of them.
Subscribing to this last idea is the highly inventive New York-based duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, known as the Books. On their records they mix the core elements of acoustic guitar, cello and spare vocals with the electronic manipulation of these instruments and samples of found sounds and human voices. The end results are musical collages, reconstructions and mini-masterpieces that exemplify what is possible in the musical age of the computer.
Mad scientists of audio mixology, they construct in many cases what would seemingly be impossible to replicate in the live setting. However, performing as part of the third annual Communikey Festival of the Electronic Arts at the Fox Theatre in Boulder Friday evening, the Books presented a sold-out crowd with an overwhelmingly wonderful bricolage of sight and sound. It was a multimedia performance that went far beyond the live music realm to create something both intelligent and emotional.
Zammuto (focusing on acoustic guitar, vocals and occasional laptop tweaking) and de Jong (cello and bass) were joined on stage this evening by a new multi-instrumentalist who, in his first onstage appearance with the band, covered everything else from violin and keyboards to electric guitar and samples. All three were supported by the spectacle of perfectly synced video for each song, which utilized the same found-object technique that the Books manipulate so well. The combined effect was riveting and often dreamlike.
Performances ranged from the quietly introspective and uniformly triumphant “An Owl With Knees” to the transcendent, as with the flawless “Take Time.” Their nimble musicianship was downright jaw-dropping, exemplified with the note-perfect take of what in the recorded domain was cut-and-pasted guitar work on “That Right Ain’t Shit.”
Further, they offered a nod to tradition in their cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” and showcased a sense of humor both visually with “Meditation Outtakes” and aurally in the (sometimes equally terrifying and funny) samples of what children will say in a new song from their upcoming album “The Way Out.”
Though there was an apparent scholarly — almost clinical — focus on detail from the group in both the audio and visual aspects of what they were presenting, there was never the loss of humanity involved. Zammuto often explained exactly what and where the digital samples came from and included how, in some cases, they related to his own life. And de Jong, head tilted skyward, eyes shut as he played, became rapturously lost in each performance.
The audience was right there with him. Taking in the digital and the analog, the visual and the audible fully with head and heart.
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Michael Behrenhausen is a Denver-based writer, musician and occasional Reverb contributor. The worst crime he ever did was play some rock and roll.