Kutiman’s Gambit or: Somehow Connecting an International Community with Fairly Inaccessible Music

Kutiman, whose real name is Ophir Kutiel, is an Israeli musician, producer, and video artist whose career has focused on enthusiastically exploring new music and mashing ideas together in novel and often very danceable ways. Off Grid: Psychedelic Jazz from the Interweb (2016) is Kutiman’s most recent video album, part love letter to two of his earliest inspirations—avant-garde jazz and psychedelia—and part celebration of the global music community that thrives online. Off Grid is an evolution of Kutiman’s previous online-only video albums, including Thru You (2009), My Favorite Band (2011), and Thru You Too (2014). Kutiman’s big hit, of course, is Thru You, another YouTube collage that won him a spot on Time magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2009 and the notice of artists across the globe.

Off Grid takes 96 unrelated YouTube videos and edits segments together to create an album of ten tracks, seamlessly connected. The end result will be right up the alley of Bitch’s Brew-era Miles Davis fans or Frank Zappa zealots, but the album’s unique genesis gives the casual listener something to hang their hat on. Indeed, Kutiman allows the viewer to click on pop-up annotations that link to the YouTube pages of the featured artists, a move that gives a human face (or faces) to music that doesn’t exactly scream accessibility. Kutiman has also upped his game in regards to visual production for Off Grid. There are a variety of psychedelic effects and washes that give the video a thoroughly retro feel (despite the absence of the iconic liquid light!) that is juxtaposed with the legions of YouTube clips.

Interestingly, not every ingredient in Kutiman’s musical gumbo is from a jazz recording [insert your own “it’s all jazz to me, baby” joke]. Featured performers run the gamut from amateur to pro (and the occasional critter) and cover a variety of styles, from Carnatic music to surf rock. Some recordings are tutorials or demos for instruments from all across the world, like the Nigerian okpokolo or a vintage Italian synthesizer. Some videos are field recordings or found sounds—not quite your traditional performance video.

It's not the notes you're playing. It's the notes you're *not* playing!
It’s not the notes you’re playing. It’s the notes you’re *not* playing!

There is definitely some postmodern quirkiness afoot, but Kutiman does not seem interested in one-upping any of his colleagues’ musical representations of the 21st century schizoid man. In fact, the themes of community and shared vision run deep throughout this work. The individual musicians are manipulated to appear and sound like they are playing in concert, not creating a discordant mess out of incommensurable musical tastes. In this sense, Kutiman’s work resembles the optimism and humor of other active mashup artists (or pop collagists, as they are also known) like Girl Talk and Jib Kidder. Kidder is perhaps the best comparison as he also plumbs the depths of YouTube for bricolage fodder.

Furthermore, the international acclaim enjoyed by Kutiman’s work—as well as its demonstrated accessibility—gives credence to the utopian vision of a global music community all grooving together. This seems to be what critics hone in on when discussing Kutiman’s music and it is a recurring topic in think pieces regarding the fate of 21st century music. Also, similar collaborative online audio/video projects have been released on the web to much acclaim, perhaps the most notable being Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir in which a choir is assembled by mixing together thousands of videos submitted by individual vocalists singing their part (here is a video of Eric TED-talking it).

Let’s talk a bit more in depth about the presentation and preservation of Off Grid.

Off Grid exists in essentially three forms on the internet: as a video on Kutiman’s YouTube channel, as the featured work on Kutiman’s website, and as a video embedded in far too many places across the web to account for.

While watching Kutiman’s finished product on his YouTube channel, the viewer has the opportunity to click on annotations that lead to the YouTube pages for the individual source videos. These annotations appear directly in Kutiman’s video (not in the description like in his previous works) and open a new window when clicked. This creates an interesting user experience that facilitates exploration and discovery. However, this feature takes a different form when users view Off Grid from Kutiman’s web site: instead of live annotations, there is a Credits button that opens a stylish collage of 96 screenshots—arranged by individual movements of Off Grid—that lead to the source videos. The Credits feature opens new windows, but it does not pause Off Grid while you explore other videos. Also, Kutiman’s website does not feature the comments section, related videos or likes/dislikes that the YouTube page offers.

A segment from the collage of annotations at www.kutiman.com.
A segment from the collage of annotations at www.kutiman.com.

Also, Off Grid is the only work featured on Kutiman’s homepage, as the other works are held on his YouTube channel and various outlets across the web. His homepage seems to be a place where he shows off his newest creation for a bit, not its eternal repository. As the artist said in an interview with Billboard, “It’s all going to be on the internet. It’s from the Internet, and that’s where it belongs. You can link, you can dig in it and see the other musicians, read comments or something.” If that quote isn’t a good indicator of the artist’s intent, I don’t know what is. This leads me to believe that, despite some unique functionality only found on Kutiman’s website, the YouTube page for Off Grid—along with YouTube pages for the individual annotations—is the most important thing to preserve. Of course, I do not imagine that I will really have to pick between the two; I am stating my priorities more to demonstrate the significance of the work.

The spread of Off Grid throughout the “interweb” is a trickier thing to address. I think that providing context is of the utmost importance, as a future researcher will want to know how Kutiman’s work was received. It will be necessary to collect a representative batch of reviews, blogs, and even social media posts regarding Off Grid. Since these items will be gathered for the sake of context, screenshots will likely fit the bill—there is no real need to preserve their functionality.

So while it may be argued that Thru You is Kutiman’s biggest hit (let’s face it, Off Grid’s nearly 40 minute run time, lack of straightforward vocals, and preoccupation with anti-commercial jazz styles do it no favors when it comes to going viral), I would argue that Off Grid is a more sophisticated example of the online-only music album. In particular, its on-the-fly annotations show how Kutiman has refined his work to better support user interactions and recognize YouTube as his primary platform. Furthermore, Off Grid is a work that will help future new media scholars, musicologists, pop culture historians and more understand the different types of online music collaborations that arose in the early 21st century. We need to proactively document these types of projects and their reception because they will help us understand how artists navigated these tumultuous times—music labels crumbling, streaming services profiting (but ripping artists off?), pirates aplenty, mashup artists giving the finger to copyright maximalists, indie (and established) artists crowdsourcing to support themselves, and so on.


“Hello!” and Some Thoughts on Preserving Creative Context

Hello everyone! I’m Pedro, a MLS student in my last semester on the Curation of Digital Assets track. I currently work at UMD Special Collections in Performing Arts as a project archivist. Before entering the iSchool I received a MA in musicology from UMD, studying music and the moving image (primarily in film and video games), and technology in popular music. My interest in this class stems primarily from my desire to learn how to manage the new types of artistic works created by digital media (an obvious answer, I suppose!) and my interest in the confluence of technology and creativity. Digital works fascinate me because each piece can be a unique challenge to an archivist in regards to understanding how it should be “framed.”

Of course, these types of boutique preservation jobs start to look just a tad indulgent when the backlog gets growing, and even the most dedicated custom jobs can’t always get things perfect. Fino-Radin had to make sacrifices when using open-source tools to preserve Legendary Account, such as the use of PNG screenshots since the tool created unstable PDF/As. These “good enough” solutions can get under the skin of folks in this field, so thankfully there are some other strategies out there to help. I like Paul Messier’s idea of preservation systems that provide general guidelines to (hopefully) deal with most of the preservation issues, allowing you more time to spend on the things that don’t fit the mold; however, I have no experience working with these systems so I can’t vouch for their usefulness. All my preservation work thus far has been the relatively straightforward process of transferring analog audio materials to digital formats.

Embedded curators can also help make a difference by working with individual artists and creative communities, showing them how best to preserve their works while simultaneously gaining a deeper appreciation of the works and their cultural context. I believe wholeheartedly in the notion of “archivist as community facilitator” and find these preemptive preservation strategies very appealing. Last semester I got a bit of experience with this in LBSC731 Special Collections when I created a collection development policy for a (imaginary) chiptunes repository. An issue with my policy was that I placed too much attention on the realization of a chiptune work (aka the actual sound) and not the programming. This meant that I ignored the technocratic aspects of early chiptune culture, the workmanship and one-upmanship that went into coding. Thankfully a member of that community looked over my first draft and corrected my glaring oversight! This was my crash course on preserving a realization (the thing presented to the viewer) vs. preserving the instructions for realization (the code, types of software used, etc.).