Somewhere there’s a mega-traditionalist who views the birth of polyphony in Western music as the start of its downfall, not just of Western music but of the West. With the mixing of voices came the opportunity for confusion, chaos and conflict, in place of the uniformity of single melodic lines (and of devoted, obedient theological thought, or at least the illusion thereof).
To hear a mind-bogglingly broad DJ set by Wobbly consisting almost entirely of vocal music, “Thousand Year Choir” (MP3), polyphony was a kind of implicit precursor of sampling, as multiple voices began to quote and reference each other in a form that grew increasingly center-less as composition evolved. That rudimentary folk music per se persists in various cultures to this day, whether as continuous cultural practice or backwards-glancing tradition, is no contradiction; if anything, the persistence of ritual singing reinforces the very simultaneity that enables Wobbly’s many-layered performance.
Of course, given the antipathy in some circles toward sampling, these two considerations of polyphony may not be unrelated.
In any case, Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) plays out this centuries-spanning process in a nearly hour-long mix, recorded live in his home on three sound sources (allowing for two post-production edits, he explains), that begins with early-music heroes Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin, makes its way around the globe, stopping in Japan and Kenya, before leaping into the recent present, courtesy of Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Female voices are particularly well represented, including those of Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas and Mystere des Voix Bulgares. Though the overlays here often sound unprecedented in their imaginative leaps, they do bring to mind the pop-Gregorian antics of Enigma and the pre-Columbian-flavored mass that Ennio Morricone scored for the film The Mission.
When Wobbly DJ’d at the opening of the Matthew Barney exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last week, he did a four-player take on this choral continuum, albeit with his own electronic effects and some more pop-minded reference points. (Full list of the contents of the “Thousand Year Choir” MP3 available at Wobbly’s website, detritus.net/wobbly.)