Rutherford Chang’s Reinterpretation of The Beatles White Album Is Weird, Thought-Provoking, And Brilliant

by | Feb 7, 2014 | MUSIC

Rutherford Chang – The White Album (self-released)

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show approaches, little doubt exists that excessive amounts of ink will be spilled, bandwidth will be taken up, and carbon dioxide will be expelled extolling the monumental nature of those few moments in 1964 [there’s even a local tribute show dedicated to it!–ed].

Rutherford Chang – The White Album (self-released)

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show approaches, little doubt exists that excessive amounts of ink will be spilled, bandwidth will be taken up, and carbon dioxide will be expelled extolling the monumental nature of those few moments in 1964 [there’s even a local tribute show dedicated to it!–ed]. Though unsurprising given the cannibalistic nature of popular culture, this glut of attention paid to a long-bygone event remains disappointing if for no other reason than its paramount placement of something painfully obvious to even the most casual observer of this sort of thing. The idea that the Beatles were influential and produced a body of work that resonated widely is a concept nearly as evident as water’s wetness. This observation isn’t made to disparage the Beatles’ output exactly, though the band often wrote music with a power they themselves were unable to effectively convey (compare Wilson Pickett’s take on “Hey Jude” to the original as an illustration). They were the white-capped waves that were able to transmute some of music’s more aggressive riptides (from Chuck Berry to Karlheinz Stockhausen) into a more easily appreciable and less menacing form. The extent to which their music has been rendered safe by the passing of time is difficult to dispute and the degree to which it remains a lightning rod for critical and popular attention and analysis speaks volumes about certain commentators’ penchants for restatement of the obvious, but few works that have used the Beatles as a starting point have attempted to approach their output with the sort of full-bore experimental spirit that keeps such things relevant and interesting.

Conceptual artist Rutherford Chang attracted attention early last year for his exhibit “We Buy White Albums,” in which he displayed his collection of nearly a thousand first pressings of the Beatles self-titled album (the “White Album” in casual parlance) in the form of a mock-record store. Each album displayed different signs of wear, both the sort that comes from decades of use or neglect and the more personalized type that comes from the mass-production of an item that could be seen as a sort of blank slate. The installation served as a reflection on material culture and the manner in which certain objects can devolve from vaunted cultural touchstone to disregarded detritus (and implicitly, to then undo that descent through an elevation into the world of high art). Chang’s focus wasn’t solely on the albums’ visual components, however, and in the months following the run of “We Buy White Albums,” he crafted an audio complement to the show by overlaying a hundred copies of the Beatles record on top of one another and releasing the result.

Chang’s reconstruction of the Beatles might at first sound like the sort of thing that would be interesting on an intellectual level but as disappointing or gimmicky judged on its own merits, as so much conceptual art can be. The albums themselves save the day, however. Each record’s side begins in familiar territory, with songs like “Back In The U.S.S.R” or “Revolution” clearly audible, though with enough distortion and mutation to convey upon them something of a hallucinogenic quality. The hundred albums quickly slip out of phase with each other, however, rendering the source material all but unrecognizable, a dense morass that blurs the lines between tonality and atonality. Each of the source albums bears sonic scar tissue conveyed upon it by the decades – with clicks, pops, warps, and sundry other unintentional sounds imparted upon the records by either too much or not enough attention paid to them all acting in tandem. Imperfection compounds imperfection until only a haze of sound remains, a barely penetrable ether from which brief hints of melody emerge, suggesting structure and familiarity but never fully fleshing out either.

Though in a handful of interviews, Chang’s explanations of his interest in the changing physical properties of the albums have been fairly straightforward, his choice of source material and methodology has perhaps been more telling than his own accounts. When utilizing as source material the work of a band who defined an era for many listeners, the subsequent results will invariably be bound up with associations and implications. Though Chang doesn’t seem disingenuous when detailing his work, it seems as if there’s more to it than he suggests. Not simply a reflection on the changing and decaying forms of physical objects, the album also implies nostalgia distorted by practical physicality, retrospective valorization of a bygone era that’s become obscured by history’s mists, a crystalline declaration of intent (the cover of the Beatles album was designed by conceptual artist Richard Chambers as a minimalist counterpoint to the baroque grandiosity of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just as the music contained therein reflected a band attempting a conscious attempt to reflect an exceptionally diverse array of genres) telescoping outwards into a beautifully imprecise abstratction.

Between the opacity of Chang’s declarations of intent and the mass of implications that such source material cannot escape, it can be difficult to look past the nature of the project and truly appreciate the breathtaking beauty he is able to distill from decay. The constellations of sound might prove frustrating for any listener approaching the reimagining with some expectations of a semblance to the original (or of structure in general), but the album offers a sustained warm tonal rush that speaks for itself, regardless of its origin.

Though the Beatles were competent enough songwriters, it’s the widespread perception of the band as experimenters in form that has helped to sustain their legacy (it’s worth noting that many of their contemporaries who eschewed genre dabbling but were able to craft songs that were every bit as good as those of the Beatles, if not better – the Kinks, for instance – never attained the same nigh-universal level of reverence). Ironically, this has steered much of the analysis of the Beatles’ output into examinations of either how great they were or why they were great (ignoring whatever contrarians that would dismiss them altogether), a fairly conservative and reactionary stance that both dismisses relevant criticism and banishes their output to the realms of dusty museum pieces. Whether intentionally or not, Rutherford Chang’s recontextualization of one of the band’s least-understood releases breathes some life into the work, not arguing against its influence, but also refusing to enshrine it in unquestioned sanctity. While disorienting and strange, Chang’s work feels vivacious and experimental. Though it could have been undertaken using many artists’ work, it ultimately comes off as a more effective and captivating tribute to the Beatles than any of the fawning praise they’ve accumulated over the past half-century.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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