View of “American Producers,” 2014–15.

View of “American Producers,” 2014–15.

“American Producers”

View of “American Producers,” 2014–15.

“American Producers” was the second iteration of the Playback Room, a project series organized by Wolfgang Tillmans that proposes that the art world attend to music on the latter’s own terms. The project aims to present music at its intended playback quality and to submit it to contemporary art’s viewing habits and interpretive frameworks. Here, visitors entered Between Bridges through a tunnel designed by artist Anders Clausen into a white-walled exhibition space sparsely arranged by Tillmans in collaboration with Clausen: Ten wooden chairs stood in two rows facing a top-end hi-fi system calibrated to the acoustic and architectural specifics of the room. Sound-dampening acoustic panels of white felt lined the walls. On the ceiling, red, white, and blue fluorescent lights further highlighted the fact that, as promised by the show’s title, the producers of the twenty-three songs issuing from the sound system on a loop––that is, those who determined the beat, sound, and mix, who weren’t always the same person as the artist who performed these—were all from the US.

There were three tracks from the 1980s and one from the ’90s, and these songs highlighted qualities shared by some of the rest: The 1983 club hit “I.O.U.” by the British synth-pop group Freeez, produced by New York’s Arthur Baker, served as an indirect reference to the disco roots of much dance music. Tyree’s “I Am,” from 1988, followed in that vein, given that Tyree has been a staple of Chicago-based house music since the mid-’80s. Coming from a different direction, Michael Jackson’s 1989 single “Liberian Girl,” coproduced with Quincy Jones, was an important contrast in terms of its major-label provenance. Jackson is also the indispensable pop (as well as R&B) benchmark for several of the modern artists featured: Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean, The-Dream. Other producers might have seemed distant from that lineage at first glance, but are in fact only one degree removed at most, as some have produced tracks for popular acts such as A$AP Rocky (Clams Casino and AraabMuzik), FKA twigs (Clams Casino and Arca), and Kanye West (Arca)—though these were not necessarily the tracks of theirs in the show. The one from the ’90s, Missy Elliott’s “Mysterious/Beat Biters” (1999), in some ways stands as a precursor for the delivery styles of both Azealia Banks––who in “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” from her 2014 debut, exhibits Elliott’s self-sure attitude and candidness about sex—and Zebra Katz on “Ima Read” (2012), which owes at least as much to ’80s ball culture, or vogue.

One of the show’s more interesting features was the almost universal shift in sound around 2012. Most tracks released since then have a distinctly fuller sound, often achieved via some sort of noise or distortion, such as an electric hum. Through a conscious reproduction of clipping (which occurs when a sound system gets overloaded and the loudest parts get left out) and the application of compression, some of the youngest producers create tracks that are atmospherically big, often evoking club spaces, with which they’re largely associated. Nguzunguzu’s “Smoke Alarm” (2012) and Arca’s “Thievery” (2014) are good examples of this, as is Kingdom’s “Fogs”––though it was already released on the London label Night Slugs in 2010, before he went on to found Los Angeles–based label Fade to Mind.

Another fascinating aspect of “American Producers” was the near complete absence of songs using acoustic instruments or even replicas of their sound. Further consideration of the way in which this sonic landscape might function as a representation of our contemporary environment––and of the impact of now-omnipresent consumer technology on production and playback––would inform our understanding of what it means to produce and interface with culture today. That’s how we know that the Playback Room series is right on point.

John Beeson