The Books: Making Music Through Found Sound The experimental duo has spent the past decade making music based on samples — snippets of audio that its members chop up and rearrange. Sample-based music is nothing new, but the way the two men behind The Books write music puts the band in a class by itself. Their fourth album is called The Way Out..
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The Books: Making Music Through Found Sound

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The Books: Making Music Through Found Sound

The Books: Making Music Through Found Sound

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GUY RAZ, Host:

The Books is the name of an experimental duo that spent the last decade making music based on samples - snippets of audio that they chop up and rearrange. Sample-based music is nothing new, but the way The Books do it is. They've just released their fourth album. It's called "The Way Out," and Jacob Ganz paid them a visit.

JACOB GANZ: The circumstances that brought the two men in The Books together are a lot like the music they make.


Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh...

GANZ: Both rely on large doses of randomness and luck and chemistry.


Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Woman #1: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh...

GANZ: Ten years ago, Nick Zammuto met Paul de Jong when a mutual friend discovered that the two lived in the same New York City building. De Jong invited Zammuto and his wife over for dinner.

NICK ZAMMUTO: And I noticed he just had this stack of minidiscs - it was very mysterious - just lined up against his wall. And I'm like, what is that? And he's like, oh, those are my reference materials.

GANZ: Those minidiscs held sound that de Jong had collected from various sources over many years. Zammuto was making his own field recordings, and the pair started working together immediately, matching de Jong's found sound with Zammuto's guitar, turning sampled clicks and whirs into percussion. Just two weeks after meeting, they finished their first song.


GANZ: They named it "Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again."


PAUL DE JONG: I think in the first track, almost all the elements that they're still working with are there.

GANZ: Paul de Jong.

DE JONG: The found sound and our instruments and the fact that we recorded pretty unassumingly in our apartments with the window open and you hear a crow in the background and it all becomes part of the music. And that, I think, created our sound right there.


GANZ: This would eventually be the first song on their first record, which was called - in typically chopped up and rearranged fashion - "Thought for Food."


Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Got myself a (unintelligible) Tammy and Brad...

GANZ: Zammuto studied chemistry in college and taught himself music theory. De Jong was born in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. He grew up in a, quote, "musical family" and learned to play the cello when he was young.

There are elements of contemporary classical, sample-based electronic music and folk in The Books recording, says Mark Richardson, the managing editor of the music website, Pitchfork. He reviewed each of the band's first three albums for the site and says The Books don't quite sound like anyone else.

MARK RICHARDSON: Their music is very easy to appreciate immediately because they use pretty sounds. It's not harsh and noisy. There's a lot of space. There's ringing guitars, there's cello, there's melodic, but it's also hard to put a finger on. And I think there's this in- between spaces aspect to The Books that I find really appealing.


ZAMMUTO: (Singing) I didn't know that. I didn't know that.

ZAMMUTO: (Singing) I didn't know that. I didn't know that.

GANZ: The band has carved not only its own sound, but a particular way of creating music. De Jong the collector, and Zammuto the composer, only use audio from analog sources: video or audio cassettes or LPs they find by raiding thrift stores while they're on tour; nothing from the Internet; nothing that their listeners would be likely to find on their own. It's all stored in the studio in Paul de Jong's house.

GANZ: A large room filled with photographs, musical instruments, books, records, and in the corner, a computer that houses the single most important element of The Books sound.

DE JONG: What you're looking at is a screen where it has all the files or source that I've been cutting down.

GANZ: De Jong's sample library, much bigger now than a pile of minidiscs against the wall.

DE JONG: The sound library now has 35,000 individual named samples, and it's growing at a staggering rate. I have hundreds and hundreds of uncut hours of sound that I'm working on every day that we've never seen before.

GANZ: Meditation instructions from self-help tapes, single bass guitar notes, conversations between a parent and child - all cataloged and precisely named so de Jong can locate sounds and group them according to theme.

DE JONG: It really is irrelevant who the originator is of the recording. What is relevant is that there is a universal humanity.

GANZ: That human connection is important to the process as well as the music. De Jong now lives at the Northern edge of the Hudson Valley in New York. Zammuto lives an hour farther north, on a wooded hillside in rural Vermont. And though they could easily send digital files back and forth over the Internet, they still meet once a week, halfway between their houses, to talk about their progress - how samples are grouped together, what music they might inspire - before they return home to keep working.

Take the sample that forms the backbone for the song "30 Incoming" from the group's new record. It's a series of messages pulled from a single answering machine cassette that the pair found in a thrift store.


Unidentified Man #4: Hello, Larry. Call to wish you a good evening. And wish you a good rest.

ZAMMUTO: I knew that that was a beginning to a song.

GANZ: Zammuto says that the sound of the voices on the tape gave him clues to the emotional tone of the song.


ZAMMUTO: Larry, I would whip Bob good because he ain't no Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone.

GANZ: But his musical inspiration came from what might seem like a throwaway element.

ZAMMUTO: The idea that I had was to actually to use the dial tone as an actual musical instrument.


GANZ: Sitting in his studio in a shed behind his farmhouse, Zammuto demonstrates how he ran the dial tone through a filter that created a pulsating effect, then matched the tone of the tone to de Jong's cello.


GANZ: He added guitar played with a tremolo effect to give it the same wobbly feel as the processed dial tone...


GANZ: ...a complicated, driving drum pattern...


GANZ: ...and his own multi-tracked voice...


GANZ: bring the whole song together.


Unidentified Man #5: Hey, Rose, you get your (unintelligible) bill?

GANZ: Zammuto says when he first listened to the sample that anchors "30 Incoming," it struck him as a sincere, moving, intimate moment. But others who listened thought it was creepy. And that gap, he said, is actually an important element in The Books music.

ZAMMUTO: Just by placing two disparate elements next to each other, they immediately start a conversation as your brain tries to wrap itself around their relationship. And I think it's your mind itself that creates that relationship in a lot of ways. And that's what the music is about, I think, is the ability for the mind to, you know, given any two things, your brain will just fill in the gap. And we're always interested to see how big we can make that gap before it falls apart.


ZAMMUTO: Hey, I would whip Bob good because he ain't no Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone.

GANZ: What's happening here? Are we eavesdropping on lovers? Are they alive? Dead? Are we listening to the beginning of a story? The end? Is it a conversation? A performance? The deconstruction of the human voice into musical tones and cues? Are we just notes on a scale? You fill in the gaps.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.


RAZ: You can hear samples of The Books' music and learn more about how the band finds sounds at


Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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