Pasha Malla

Among Little Instruments

I’m glad I waited to write this. With the Internet there’s always that nagging urge to get on things quickly, because they expire so quickly: Something interesting pops up and prompts a sudden, always fleeting rush of attention—if you have anything to say, say it fast!

And maybe that absence of consideration, of slowing down, is why there’s so much stuff online that feels temporary, disposable, and almost instantly redundant, regardless how instantly thrilling. It’s an overwhelming, exhausting way of negotiating culture that makes me feel anxious and frantic and competitive and worried—but then there’s Kutiman’s Thru-You project, which, returning to a year after it first hit, feels just as novel, exciting and affecting as it did in March, 2009.


Kutiman, “Mother of All Funk Chords” (Thru You, 2009)

On March 11, 2009, Tech Crunch writer Roi Carthy wrote, “If you haven’t heard of Kutiman yet you’re about a week late on the latest music sensation to be incubated on the Web,” and went on to extol the “interesting social media angle” of the project. (A week late, pal!) Carthy’s was typical of the initial journalistic outpouring (which all but dried up within the month) about Thru-You: The urgent desire to break, then define, in largely technological or commercial terms, what it meant, rather than, in artistic and human terms, what it was —and, let’s not forget, remains.

But wait. If you haven’t heard of Kutiman before, and haven’t been able to figure out what’s going on from the above clip, here’s the deal: The Israeli DJ and producerThruYouHomepage crafted entirely new songs out of edited, tweaked and spliced-together videos he found on YouTube, and posted them as a freely available, online mixtape at thru-you.com. Everything you see and hear comes from some original source, all of which are documented and acknowledged in the CREDITS section of the website, and none of which Kutiman received permission to use.

While Thru-You certainly raised questions, to anyone who cares about such things, about copyright and technology and whatever else, the people involved were getting lost in the discussion. This was dismaying, because, at least to me, the humanity of Thru-You is what makes it so amazing.


Kutiman, “Wait For Me” (Thru You, 2009)

Here’s W.B. Yeats, in his introduction to Ezra Pound’s book of Noh theatre translations: “I love all the arts that can still remind me of their origin among the common people.” Yes! Me too! Art-making should, I think, be fully democratic and completely accessible, and I like when there’s an echo of that accessibility in the finished product.

Pound’s socialist invocation of the plebeian, or at least the popular, is something I value greatly in music, books, visual art, movies and theatre. (I don’t know that dance works on these terms, though I also don’t know very much about dance.) I want voices that falter; I want raggedy, flawed stories; I want portraits that are just a little off and actors that flub their lines and sunspots on the camera lens and the screech of fingers sliding along guitar strings. When it comes to art, I crave anything that suggests the involvement of human beings, with all their inevitable fallibilities and fears and fuck-ups.

“I am bored and wretched,” Yeats continues, “when [the artist] seems no longer a human being but an invention of science.” We have a lot of art as science (and commerce) these days, so much that feels crafted by formula. And while I’m not quite as bored and wretched as Yeats (I think autotuned vocals, if used judiciously, can be pretty awesome), what inspires and moves me about Thru-You is that such remarkable work has been crafted from the humble, generous and brave artistic gestures of ordinary people.

It is lonely to make art—or at least to write, the only kind of art-making I can speak about with anything approaching authority. I spend most of my workday either typing at my computer or reading books, alone, and everything I write comes out of this loneliness; in some way everything I write is about loneliness, too. Though maybe all art is an articulation of loneliness, of acknowledging that each of us is alone on the planet and the hope that, through making something creative that represents ourselves, we might be able connect in some intrinsic, spiritual way with another person.

Of course the thing that’s nice about music, as opposed to writing, is that it can be made much more easily—in concert—with other people. I’m envious of the community cultivated by musicians, and it doesn’t seem just a semantic coincidence that what they do together is called playing.


Kutiman, “Babylon Band” (Thru You, 2009)

Consider the videos that Kutiman used to create the seven tracks that comprise Thru-You. They include a new mom singing into her webcam, an agogo lesson that looks to have been filmed in a public shower, and a Handycam-taped complaint about a used Farfisa organ.

Who are these people performing for? They’ve posted their videos to YouTube, so they’re clearly after some sort of audience. And that strikes me as such an expression of loneliness, that reaching out for anyone, anywhere, to listen, whoever that might be. What a relief that Kutiman has taken all these cries into the ether and revealed that none exists without an echo—and, even better, now millions of people have enjoyed that agogo lesson, too.

I love that the opening track of Thru-You, “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” (the first video posted above) begins with a conversation between the very famous session drummer Pretty Purdie, some random guy playing bass in the top left frame and some other random guy playing guitar in the top right. (Where else would these two nobodies—I use the term relatively, and I hope gently—get to play with one of the founding fathers of funk?) But as you watch these nobodies become not just musicians, but human beings. Each flash of a teenager sawing listlessly away at a cello recital or a hookah-wielding student singing ghazals to his buddies is a glimpse into someone’s private life, a brief moment of autobiography that invites speculation and wonder. Who are these people? (Go to their YouTube pages and find out!)

Also, the songs are great. And, really, that’s the most appealing thing about Thru-You: not only is it impressive how artfully Kutiman has cobbled together all these disparate clips, but that the resulting music is so undeniably strong. There’s such harmony to the playing, too; in the words of Sasha Frere-Jones: “The effect is breathtaking—total strangers collaborating on what sound like live songs.”


Kutiman, “Just a Lady” (Thru You, 2009)

While I do think that the internet has unparalleled potential for community-building, proved indubitably at thru-you.com, what still unnerves me is the swift, consumptive violence with which it’s trafficked: in what seems the same instant something can be hyped, expended, and forgotten. So if you check out Thru-You, I’d recommend taking your time and enjoying the site with the patience and consideration it deserves.


Kutiman “collaborator” Leslie singing “Take Me For a Fool” (2007)

Kutiman and his collaborators, however unwitting, have together made something honest and communal and good, something which none of them could have created on their own. And it accomplishes what the best art should do, I think, not only in process, but in its end results as well: it makes me feel a bit more hopeful, and a lot less alone.

- Pasha Malla

  • Lisa D

    I’ve been listening to Kutiman for months now. I really love what you write about him I feel the same, totally happy and part of something when I watch the videos.

    Seen this?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAgyDhWk5tE

    • http://ryeberg.com/author/pasha-malla/ Pasha Malla

      Glad you liked the essay, Lisa — always nice to meet another Kutiman fan. I really hope he does another of these projects. Not sure about the Craftsman thing, which feels a bit Stomp/Blue Man Group for my taste. It’s also an ad for a product, which is sorta the opposite of everything I like about Thru-You…

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/nyla-matuk/ Nyla Matuk

    In his book Pragmatist Aesthetics, the philosopher Richard Shusterman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Shusterman#Popular_art)
    talks about rap music as a socially cohesive/pastiche art form, something quite different from the Romantic aesthetics of most high art, which relies on the idea of a lonely genius figure. A lot of the high-low distinction in discussions of art revolve around having a detached rather than a more social or visceral experience.

    What I find difficult though is the use of “ordinary people” in this kind of discussion, because it assumes a norm of some kind of exalted artist/writer genius. Yes, being a writer is lonely the way being a musician need not be, but it would be nice to not, in this postmodern, post-romantic age, continuously think of ourselves (speaking as a fellow writer) as lonely artist-souls that are removed from “ordinary people” because we make art. Even though the lonely part is certainly a fact of the writing life. You just can’t have people hanging around all the time if you want to hear yourself think, and get words on the page!! This is another great essay, Pasha.

    • http://ryeberg.com/author/pasha-malla/ Pasha Malla

      Well, no, I don’t think at all that artists are above anyone else. I just like it when art/writing/whatever speaks to an engagement with a broader community, and also speaks to the fact that the people making it are ordinary people, viz., imperfect and not exalted at all. That’s all I meant.

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/sean-dixon/ Sean Dixon

    This is the absolute best.

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/sean-dixon/ Sean Dixon

    Just amazing.

  • henry higgins

    Incredible!

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Pasha Malla is the author of "The Withdrawal Method" (stories) and "All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts" (poems, sort of) and "People Park" (a novel).