How Paul de Jong Found Reinvention in His Archive of Sound

De Jong has a collector’s spirit, and also a jokester’s.EXPAND
De Jong has a collector’s spirit, and also a jokester’s.
Courtesy Paul de Jong

Every day, Paul de Jong sketches. Whether it's pen to paper, bow to string, or trackpad to snippet of obsolete media, he spends most of his waking hours improvising his way toward epiphany. "I am an all-inclusive artist," he explains. "I make rules; I break them. I do whatever I want, but mostly I do whatever it takes to make an effective, beautiful work."

His best-known beautiful work was with musical duo the Books, which de Jong formed with Nick Zammuto in 1999 and dissolved in 2012. It took three years of gathering his ideas — and his massive archive of esoterica — for de Jong to release a solo debut, IF. Over a year later, he's embarked on his first full tour since the record arrived, which stops at National Sawdust on June 30. He'll perform improvised works from both IF and a Poetry Foundation commission that preceded the album, as well as some new pieces.

De Jong himself is humble and soft-spoken when discussing his innovations and cult status in the indie rock world, defining himself, essentially, as a collage artist. "[It] goes back as far as Dada and surrealism and musique concrète. It's nothing new that I'm doing," he says. "What distinguishes me from earlier stuff is that I've got these digital tools." Still, he retains an affinity for the analog, playing bass guitar and cello onstage, although IF sees him reorganizing these elements in a digital realm.

Though the digital impulse is more apparent on IF, it's nonetheless easy to draw a line from the Books' work to de Jong's latest release. Over four acclaimed albums, de Jong and Zammuto created their own genre. They were more than a band, or just a literary-sounding name; their music felt like a conversation or a bright-white flashpoint of inspirations. A huge part of their appeal was the clever way the duo took obscure audio relics and recontextualized them with nostalgic cello-and-guitar arrangements, to poignant effect: The string accompaniment made those pockets of staticky ephemera all the more potent.

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IF holds to all of that odd wonder, sampling, among other things, auctioneers and sped-up diatribes against snakes. The record reveals de Jong as having been not just the cellist but also the curator in the Books, hand-picking the most resonant snippets from his vast collection and tweaking them through an electronic palette. This is how he speaks to his listeners — not in his own voice, but via the loving, witty presentation of materials that might otherwise be lost.

Though de Jong has digitized the thousands of rare vinyl, cassette, VHS, and celluloid materials that constitute the found-sounds archive from which he draws material, he's kept all the physical media. An obsessed collector since his youth, he comes from a family he describes as "art addicts," who gifted him a four-speed record player and a box of seven-inches that included classical music, Beatles singles, and advertisements for medical products that his father, a doctor, had received as promotional material.

"That mix introduced me to the wonders of recorded sound. It changed my world real quick," he remembers. Thanks to public subsidies, the 1970s cultural landscape of his native Netherlands was welcoming to experimentation, particularly the blending of jazz and classical into new formats. De Jong created oddball productions of his own, including a series of irreverent stage pieces with the pianist Reinier van Houdt, who became a longtime collaborator. "We played classical music and new music in a quite extreme fashion, I think, often with an absurdist streak," van Houdt remembers.

Van Houdt now performs in like-minded avant-garde act Current 93 and helped de Jong arrange IF for a four-person ensemble, which they performed at Joe's Pub in January. "His music is beautiful but also has this edge to it — the feeling that the surface is deceiving. [That is what] holds a lasting fascination," van Houdt says. "His playing has that peculiar combination of austere and emotional, conceptual and funny. But what strikes me most is that Paul is one of those artists that is seduced by his material."

Hoping to offer that same sense of seduction to other artists, last summer de Jong opened his upstate archive, the Mall of Found, to artists in residence at nearby Hampshire College. "I realized that there is about ten thousand times more stuff than I'll ever use. And not only that — the way I handle this material will always be completely different from anything anybody else will do with it," de Jong says. "It's a great resource. There's great intellectual and artistic exchanges. It stimulates me."

Multimedia artist and women's history major E. Saffronia Downing was one of the first residents. Though her work is vastly different from de Jong's, she found plenty of material in the archive. "My work follows the thread of women's trauma across time, place, and experience," she says. "I went into the archive without a plan [and found VHS] titles that caught my interest: Protecting Your Newborn, Experiencing the Father's Embrace, Pornography: Addictive, Progressive, and Deadly."

Throughout her time there, she listened to de Jong play his cello in the next room, and he would often sit in on critiques and provide valuable feedback. Writer and filmmaker Glynnis Eldridge, who also made use of the archive, says that being there "felt like an extension of Paul, as though I was inside the creative part of his brain." This generous collector's spirit also runs through de Jong's work, which invites listeners to revel in the same profound discoveries he's made about human nature by way of outmoded media.

De Jong says that despite the lapse in time between the end of the Books and the release of IF, his second solo album won't take quite so long; he's already working on new material, some of which will make its way into his National Sawdust set. As for a reunion with Zammuto, de Jong says he hasn't really allowed himself to think about that possibility. "I won't exclude it," he says teasingly. "But there is a pile of sketches and ideas that I'm working out on my own, and that's going to take another record or two by myself before I'm ready to face that interesting demon."

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