Life: The Remix

Two concepts I’ve been mulling over this week are “remixes” and “fan fiction.” Pretty mainstream, but also kind of radical when you think about it.

When my son Ben, part of the electronic music group The M Machine, first told me a few years ago that he was working on a remix of another artist’s song, I asked, do you have permission? Silly me. Yes, he said, they’re paying us to do it. Huh?

I associated this kind of thing with what we used to call mash-ups, like the Grey Album (Beatles White Album + Jay-Z’s Black Album = Danger Mouse’s Grey Album).  But that was so 10 years ago.

The M Machine remixes the tracks of other artists in their own unique style, creating versions of songs that suit different dance genres; and it happens the other way around, too: other artists remix their songs (sometimes by invitation, sometimes not). In fact, The M Machine just released a whole album of remixes of their own songs, each produced by a different artist: Metropolis Remixed.

Unlike the one-of-a-kind nature of a Picasso painting or a Tolstoy novel, these digital creations seem to be made to be remade, with the artist’s blessing, as long as credit is given where credit it due. There is a difference between stealing and remixing; permission is the key.

The universal availability of ideas – the fluidity of creativity – seems new, but of course it isn’t. In a Ted Talk from 2004, Kirby Ferguson offers an entertaining demonstration of how songs are rooted through the ages in earlier songs… and, let’s face it, everything is a remix.


So, what about fan fiction? My daughter Betsey introduced fanfic to me. You know about obsessive fans: Think “trekkies.” These fans write stories about characters or places – from movies, TV, literature – that spin off from the original creations. They keep the fictional universe intact, so to speak, but take the characters wherever they want them to go.

Mostly you will find these stories on the Internet. The stories aren’t commercially published, although sometimes there’s a break-through to the other side. The fanfic communities online are enormous and passionate and prolific. (Google fan fiction and you’ll see)

But unlike the remixing world, there is an uneasy relationship between the original authors and the fanfic writers. You don’t find authors paying other writers to remix their original works as fan fiction…at least not yet.

Fan fiction isn’t the same as music remixing, but there are still intriguing similarities. Ideas float out there in the universe, how hard should we try to hold on to them, maintain “ownership” and integrity? Perhaps life is a remix, in every medium, and as Kirby Ferguson suggests, we should embrace it.

Remixing the Medium

Here’s what got me thinking about remixes. Two weeks ago, our family came together to honor my father, who had passed away earlier in the summer. We went to Cape Cod to scatter his ashes in places that were precious to him in his life. It was not sad. It was full of laughter, love, poems, songs, and poignant memories.

So, is it a stretch to think of this as a remix of sorts? A body is transformed, ashes are tossed into the sea, energy is redistributed, the medium is new. I feel that something creative will come of this remix. I will embrace it.

Rituals of Summer

I’d like to think a summer weekend in Montreal could become an annual tradition. We’ve done it twice now…it could happen.  In addition to the obvious appeal of this beautiful city, there are several compelling attractions: The M Machine and The Tailor.

TMM_327x327_Now I. The M Machine is an electronic music group from San Francisco started by three guys, one being our son Ben. When they play in our vicinity, David and I make the effort to see them. For the past couple of summers, The M Machine has given us a good excuse to drive 6 hours north for a weekend in Montreal.

Just being in Montreal is a treat for the senses: the fabulous food, the festivals, the fun atmosphere, the French. And when you add an evening at Le Belmont with The M Machine, it’s sensory overload. Mind you, the boys took the stage at 1:45 AM and played until 3 AM, so my senses might have been a bit dulled by fatigue, but here’s the five-senses lowdown.

  •  Hearing: A billion decibels (a little exaggerated maybe, but that’s what it felt like–and I wore my ear plugs all night) of ear-splitting electronic dance music.
  •  Seeing: An amazing, gorgeous video production synchronized to the songs and projected on screen, plus strobe lights and an all-around visual workout.
  •  Smelling: Smoky. Sweaty. Not that bad.
  •  Feeling: Bass so low and loud that it resonates in the gut as it shakes your teeth loose. (Sound like fun?)
  •  Tasting: A few sips of beer–all I could stomach at that hour

The crowd loved it and a good time was had by all. Part of the fun of going to an M Machine show is the ritual of hanging out in the “green room” with Ben and the other 2 M’s, Andy and Eric. There is a lot of respect for parents who show up for electronic music gigs at 1:45 in the morning.  More than one fan came up to us after the Montreal show to laud our “parental credentials.”

AlbertoShopII. The Tailor. His name is Alberto Enr and his shop is in the hip Plateau neighborhood of Montreal.  David discovered Alberto last summer, a hot tip from a shirt seller across the street. Alberto’s workshop is in the back of his son’s bijou (jewelry) store.  Presumably, years ago, the tailor shop took up the whole space…but times have changed.

Last year, Alberto performed excellent same-day hemming services on two, just-purchased shirts, for a very reasonable price. This year, David brought two old shirts to Alberto for hemming. He had gone for months wearing these too-long shirts, just dreaming of the day when he could take them to Alberto in Montreal.

Six hours north to find a good tailor?  We’ll chalk it up to a love of ritual. Alberto doesn’t speak much English, so the pantomime antics of hemming details are fun to watch. His shop opened at 11, and even though he had a stack of other pending items on the counter, he agreed to have the shirts ready for pick up by 2 PM.

L'Avenue du PlateauPerfect. We walked for hours through Parc du Mont-Royal, had a great late brunch at L’Avenue (destined for ritualdom), and made it back to Alberto’s to pick up the beautifully hemmed shirts.

We do the tourist things in Montreal, too. But I’ve come to understand that destinations become special when you invent your own small rituals, make your own little discoveries, and find your own unique reasons to return. If and when The M Machine plays Montreal next summer, we’ll be back for the weekend.

Shout Out

OK, in the interest of calling attention to ingenious collaborations and creative mash-ups, this is a shameless shout-out to Betsey Swardlick who, with fellow creative Owen Curtsinger, wrote the liner notes to The M Machine, Metropolis, Part 1, recently launched by the electronic dance music group The M Machine. (One-third of which is Ben Swardlick).  The music is amazing and the fact that it is accompanied by a full back-story, plus illustrations, makes it very exciting. Remember when vinyl records came complete with lyrics, session notes, and all kinds of good stuff to read while you were listening? This is like that.