Headphone candy merchant

Sonic architect Idiom Creak is the most intriguing act from Davis since DJ Shadow

Idiom Creak mastermind Michael Rosen, aka Ehmie, contemplating how to mix some bizness.

Idiom Creak mastermind Michael Rosen, aka Ehmie, contemplating how to mix some bizness.

Is music dead?

You hear that idea expressed often, typically by people whose only access to new tunes comes via the usual corporate foisting mechanisms—radio, TV, the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. It’s an easy conclusion to jump to, given the most obvious evidence.

Hidden treasures abound everywhere. Some still explore melody and harmony; others try to find an edge by fooling around with dynamics.

But the most interesting sounds seem to be coming from artists who work with the textural dimension of music. By appropriating everything from bits of recorded tracks to found noise, then stitching them together, these sonic weavers create new tapestries from the various threads they capture on their digital samplers.

One of these artists is working right under our noses. Michael Rosen, an economics major at UC Davis, goes by the name of Ehmie. He released a CD last year, Jet-Powered, Monkey-Navigated, under another pseudonym, Idiom Creak, on his own label, Samplistic. The 11 tracks on the disc, an easy contender for finalist in the best CD of 2001 sweepstakes, contain an intriguing thicket of aural delights that manage to combine the hip-hop-based larceny of fellow Davis sound manipulator DJ Shadow with the organic world-is-my-smorgasbord pastiche-mongering of such acts as Deep Forest, the post-Eno-isms of Myst/Riven/Exile composer Robyn Miller, and the dark atmospherics of soundtrack composer Angelo Badalamenti.

As Rosen puts it, “Every sound that is in the world is, you know, part of my palette.”

The Petaluma native recorded the material on Jet-Powered from 1997-2000, in an out-building behind his father’s place in Sonoma County. The CD represents the first fruits of a quest that began when Rosen got inspired by such beat-laced landmarks as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay.

“When I started, I didn’t have any equipment or anything,” Rosen admits, “so I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I would mix together some tape decks, and mess around with splicing tape and making tape loops. So I think that I started in a really experimental way—not on the same track as hip-hop producers at the time.

“And even though I’ve changed technologically,” he adds, “that experimental level is still the most fun for me.”

Rosen sometimes works with a compadre, Damian Cohn, in Scatter-Shot Theory. That duo entered a contest to remix a track, “Mixed Bizness,” from Beck’s 1999 album, Midnite Vultures. The entry won first prize, and was included on an EP. Rosen, a big admirer of Beck’s artistry, considers the remix one of his proudest accomplishments.

Such cut-and-paste artists as Rosen are occasionally criticized by certain people, who insist that honest recordings can only be created by musicians who play “real” instruments, and that even a note or short phrase nicked off a record constitutes theft of intellectual property. Hogwash, Rosen opines; a sampler is an instrument, too, and there are plenty of examples outside of a musical context that validate the art of synthesis.

“A lot of people ‘sample’ in other ways,” he explains. “You’ve got people who are doing their doctorates in psychology, and they’re probably thinking along the same lines—they’re like, this psychologist did this piece of work, and this psychologist did this piece of work. They know what other people have done, and they use that in combination with experiments that they do.

“And whatever their inspiration is,” he adds, “they’ll move it in a totally new direction.”

Which, it can be argued, seems precisely where Idiom Creak is headed.