The Machine Speaks; Dave Tompkins Visits | Bleader

The Machine Speaks; Dave Tompkins Visits

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Dave Tompkins's How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop is one of the most fascinating music books that I've read in recent memory. On one level it's a history of the vocoder from its invention in the 1930s as a data-compression device for telephone systems (a purpose it still serves today in cell phones), through its service in the U.S. military for data encryption, and finally into the strange third act of its existence, when it was adopted by electro and hip-hop artists looking to turn their voices into something more futuristic and robotic.

But more than just discussing the wheres, whens, and whats, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is about the vocoder's progression from tool of war to signifier of extreme funkitude—an almost spiritual journey—and along the way the device starts to seem like a character in a Pynchon novel, constantly pulling eccentrics into its orbit and leaving them even more eccentric in its wake. The vocoder has a way of breeding obsession, warping the worldviews of people who get deeply involved with it—including the engineers who worked on it for the Pentagon, the supernaturally stoned electro weirdos who used it to issue weather reports from the fifth dimension, and of course Tompkins himself. He's one of the vocoder's most devoted acolytes, and his book ought to make a bunch more converts to this particular house of electroacoustic worship.

Tompkins is in town for a couple of days to promote How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Details are after the jump.

At 7 PM tonight he'll be reading from the book at the Wicker Park headquarters of Stop Smiling magazine, 1371 N. Milwaukee. Afterward he'll be spinning vocoder jams at the Charleston, 2076 N. Hoyne, with DJs Courtland Green and Dante Carfagna. Yesterday Tompkins played me parts of a vocoder mix he recently put together, so I can say with confidence that anyone who's into electro-rap, bass music, weird sci-fi shit, and/or ELO should probably try to make it out for his set.

Tomorrow he'll be signing books and playing music at Dusty Groove, 1120 N. Ashland. All of the events are free, and he'll be selling copies of the book for $25, a ten buck discount.

I interviewed Tompkins yesterday. I'll have a Q&A from our meeting posted soon.

In the meantime, you might want to get acquainted with the Jonzun Crew's massive vocoder freakout "Pack Jam":

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