Moonchild and other thoughts on sampling

When it comes to sampling and remixing, there is more to talk about than just copyright infringement, according to Eduardo Navas. There are profound cultural issues to be reckoned with: “as a form of discourse Remix affects culture in ways that go beyond the basic understanding of recombining material to create something different,” (3). Take “Rapper’s Delight”, for instance, by Sugarhill Gang. The Gang samples “Good Times” by Chic, loops it, and raps atop. Navas argues that this type of sampling is “regressive” because we are using the pleasure of the repeated loop to insulate ourselves from, I guess, the brutality of existence. “The power of sampling is always based on a diversion, one that can be presented, as a state of repressed desire that is completely mediated, showing no solution except to point to itself,” (28). The sample and its repetition is an escape from reality.

Tommy-rot, I say! I am sympathetic to Navas’ desire to move away from mere discussion of copyright when it comes to sampling. And it’s not Navas’ fault that he has pushed my buttons, but it is a pretty old saw by now: cultural critics start applying Freud, Barthes, and Deleuze to musical repetition and we find out that it’s all bad, bad. Escapist (as in Navas’ application of Barthes), craven consumerism (Robert Fink talking about American minimalism), revisiting trauma (Wim Mertens). Can’t we let repetition off the hook a little bit? Maybe, just maybe, we’ve dramatically over-theorized.

Instead, let’s assume sampling has something to tell us and that it’s not that we’re repressing. Take, for instance, “Doors Closing” by Moonchild, available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music and so forth, in their 2017 album Voyager. (Thanks to my wife for finding this music. The album is perfect for a stay-in date night or for a dusky summer evening. Or both!) This particular track samples the sound of a public transit vehicle closing its doors.

Jingle Jangle

This electronic jingle-jangle, accompanied by the conversational yet conclusive “doors closing”, is a good fit for the lyrics of the song. On the one hand, the keyboard and bass play underneath the jingle-jangle (yes, I will continue to use this word) and cleverly harmonize it and embed it into the texture of the song on loop. On the other hand, the “doors closing” morphs into a set of lyrics: “You think my love is an open door? \ No, no, you can’t come and go as you please.”

I suppose it would be easy to chalk this up to a clever play on words. The 1:24-long deep cut is hardly a candidate to overthrow much of the existing scholarly criticism on musical repetition and mixing and so forth. But I think there is a lot going on in here that deserves some attention.

First, let’s take a minute to laud these three great musicians, Amber Navran, Max Bryk, and Andris Mattson. What they did here is pretty smart. And you’ll have to forgive me if I wax a little nerdy here. Scroll down more hastily if this ceases to be interesting. This is the jingle-jangle, notated musically:


It’s got a nice sound; I can see why these guys were attracted to it. It’s an A-flat chord next to an F9 chord, and so you get a pleasant, Debussy-style enharmonicism. Now, how an alternative R&B group would approach these chords is another question. They make the overall song happen in F, so that deals with the F9 chord and gives the sound a bluesy feel. But this A-flat chord is a tricky one. They treat it in two ways.

One interpretation of the Jingle-Jangle

This first way is to envelop the A-flat triad, enharmonically, into a F#13(11+) sonority, the favorite sonority of jazz since Art Tatum. This works really well, since F#-dominant is a tritone-substituted V7 into F. Great!

But what worked for a substitute chord should work for its original, right?

Another interpretation of the Jingle-Jangle

This is the second way. It’s a little darker in its sonority—C9(13-/9+)—but the payoff is great. What’s even better is that we now have two different “interpretations” of this jingle-jangle, two different ways of understanding its harmonic content. More importantly, it has become musical. See, there’s a reason I keep calling it a jingle-jangle—is it really music at all, when it’s just a little sound that tells people to stand clear of the doors? But Moonchild has bestowed upon it the dignity of Being Music. Now, bets are, if you commute on some random LA subway and you have heard this song, you’re going to feel strangely moved by this jingle-jangle.

So sampling is a way of dignifying things that are too mundane to be perceived aesthetically. But there is even more to this, I think.

The sample itself (jingle-jangle + “doors closing”) is a fascinating semiotic unit. The sample, heard in its original context on the subway, signifies that the doors are about to close. How does it do that? The unit operates externally as an index, to borrow Charles Peirce’s term, that is, “our interpretation comes in virtue of some brute, existential fact, causal connections” between the sign and signified. (This and the following come from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) The doors will close when we hear the sound; we can expect them not to close if we don’t hear the sound just as much as we expect them to if we do. But within the unit, there is another signified-signifier relationship, between the jingle-jangle and “doors closing”, the music and the words. This is what Peirce might call a symbol, that is, “if we generate an interpretant in virtue of some observed general or conventional connection between sign and object, then the sign is a symbol.” There is no causal or necessary connection between the jingle-jangle and the man speaking. They merely go together to reinforce the aggregate semiotic content: the music serves, maybe, to grab our attention and, if we’re used to it, to remind us of what’s about to happen, whereas the words make it unambiguous to first-time users of the subway.

Moonchild in “Doors Closing” bifurcates this semiotic unit right down the middle. They take advantage of the fact that the relationship between the symbolic sign and signified is more or less arbitrary. On the one hand, they take the words and use their ambiguity to equivocate and make a clever song about love and commitment. On the other, they take the jingle-jangle and make it into some jazzy music. But there are even further layers of metaphor here. Because “Doors closing” is not just a metaphor for “Commit to this relationship or get out” but it is a metaphor for: “I am like a house (or a subway or whatever); I have a life, a schedule, other priorities besides you. You can’t just access me whenever you’d like.” In other words, “Doors closing” is a metaphor for a metaphor.

This ties back into our musical analysis above. Not only have Amber Navran’s lyrics taken advantage of the ambiguity of “Doors closing” to multiply possible meanings, but the keyboardists have taken advantage of the ambiguity of the jingle-jangle to enumerate different possible musical meanings. Both of these aspects of the original sample are getting disassembled and reassembled in similar creative ways.

Hand-drawn diagram for the visually-minded

At the end all of this, we have sampling and looping that has operated constructively. It is a bit like reading a metaphysical poet: from the mental gymnastics of the poetry, our ears and eyes are trained to face the world itself as a poetic object, where mundane things (a compass, a flea, yes, even a subway jingle-jangle) can be heard aesthetically, with the aid of a little irony and playfulness. Armed with weapons such as these, no human should be afraid of pessimistic psychoanalysts, or so I say.

Things I mentioned:

Eduardo Navas, Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling

Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice

Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music