Weird Flowers and Unfamiliar Melodies: A Book Review of Uproot by Jace Clayton

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Spotify subscriptions, spontaneous and exclusive album releases, dust-covered CDs in the cellar, people and things traveling more distance in less time: I think it is safe to say that we live in a world that seems to be very fast-tracked and often leaves people with a sense of disorientation, and even perplexity. Now, imagine how much easier it would be to embrace this development, instead of fighting against it? Of course, that is easier said than done, but if you decide to take the plunge, here’s a little help by your side. It’s called Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, written by Jace Clayton aka DJ Rupture. In his first book, he shares his first-hand experience of what it means to be part of the music industry in a globalized and digitalized era, raising fascinating questions about its benefits and difficulties.

The book opens with a meditation on becoming and being a DJ and the things that come with it. Clayton sees a DJ as a performer, not just a mere jukebox. Giving a first glimpse of the bigger picture to follow, he states: “I want the giants to fall […] so we can see what weird flowers start blooming in the spaces left vacant.” Following up on that statement in the next chapters, Uproot discusses a wide range of topics pertaining to the music industry. Starting with a relatively early development known as Auto-Tune, moving over to the rise of MP3 files and continuing with copyright issues and distribution of music, Clayton takes the readers on a decade-spanning journey in an episodic structure. He intertwines these developments with characters from many different backgrounds, all striving towards a successful existence in music and its making. Music travels, thus the authors and the readers travel with it: we are introduced to Clayton’s contacts in locations such as North Africa, Mexico, or Ireland. In addition to providing insight into these places, he is also not afraid to depict certain problems he encounters on the way, such as when he fails to arrange an unfiltered interview with a young female singer in Morocco.

However, the book covers much more than just musical and technical concepts. With comparisons like Auto-Tune serving as a veil that protects the femininity and innocence of these female singers, Clayton establishes imaginative parables and demonstrates his knowledge of the culture and its customs, and serves as an interpreter for Western readers who may not be familiar with the environments he deals with. The impact of this book is not just restricted to music-freaks: it serves as a prompt to reconsider our philosophies and ways of living, reading, listening, and traveling; and wants us to explore the vast area that broke open through increasing globalization with an open mind. As Clayton writes:

 “Acknowledging that you don’t know what’s going on while being willing to linger, listen, and learn is all it takes. Noise appreciated as poetry becomes music. Foreign languages learned turn familiar. Allegedly exotic sounds approached on their own terms – whether it’s sacred music from a Vietnamese temple or Hanatarash’s calamity waltz – can reemerge as soul and set up camp inside yours.”

Sections like this give way to the observation that Jace Clayton goes about writing the same way as he approaches his musical career. He is a collector of curiosities, patching together his findings from just about anywhere in the world, combining them with much care and humor into a bigger entity that has the power to entertain an audience and introduce them to a new perspective. His writing is highly articulate and almost musical itself (there are just too many quotes I could place here to illustrate that point), bringing together literature, sound, ethnology, technology, and much more. It helps us to assume the point of view of an industry insider, but is thoughtful enough not to overwhelm the reader, and even sometimes provides occasional explanations about terms that might not be known to everyone.

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Jace Clayton

Towards the end of the book, the author introduces significant questions about the future. A big concern here is the preservation of music, which is a highly valid concern in an age of online-streaming singles and albums without even having access to music physically. Which songs and artists should be preserved? How, and to what extent, is it possible to render an authentic picture of music in the past? How can all of that information be retained? Clayton gives an answer by recounting an episode about how he tried to transfer music from the Arabic sphere, and lost all traces of the information about the songs: the Arabic alphabet refused to be transformed into the Latin alphabet, and the songs were left in an illegible hybrid of numbers and signs instead. Besides that, such examples of clashing cultures have the power to position the book within a bigger picture – just think about the refugee crisis and other recent events connected to increasing circulation of material (and humans) all around the globe.

To sum up, this book is very much recommended to anyone who is interested in where the digitalization and globalization might lead us and what its effects on music are – and will be. Any readers interested in music production, diverse cultures or people who just like to see beyond their own nose are definitely in good hands here, too! If you follow the suggestion and read the book, be sure to check out the corresponding website: uprootbook.com. It is full of YouTube videos, SoundCloud snippets and more material that the book alludes to, and – just like the title of Clayton’s last chapter “Active Listening” suggests – it leads the reader towards a multimodal and active reading or listening experience. So: grab the book, put on some tunes, and hurl yourself into the adventure!

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

By Jace Clayton

FSG Originals (August 16, 2016)

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