For Jordan Mandel, this was his final message at Western.
Mandel recently released The Music is the Message, a 13-track album representing the culmination of his Popular Music and Culture master’s degree. Recorded under the name Spoke and Mirror, the album marries an original digital music score with the words of Marshall McLuhan, the late Canadian media theorist famous for his “the medium is the message” message.
“The music is the same as my master’s thesis, but the album version is a bit less academic,” Mandel said. “It’s a way of illustrating McLuhan on his own terms. He wrote a lot about literacy, and the limits of what literacy can accomplish (and the irony is that he was writing about that). So, it is nice to be able to use a different medium than just writing about it for my thesis.
“It’s kind of a neat question from the academic side: Is this worth a 100-page master’s thesis? As for me, it is far more rewarding than the paper would have been – not only for McLuhan’s work, but for a lot of what he was talking about.”
The album grew out of a single track put together for a class project more than a year ago. From there, Mandel eventually would compose a four-track EP, Forward Through the Rearview Mirror, released in summer 2011. It was billed as the first talk-rock release featuring samples of McLuhan speeches.
The tracks were an inventive soundscape of electronica combined with remixed spoken word. Listen today, and they are still remarkably entertaining, if not exactly catchy, tunes.
Music professor Jay Hodgson, Mandel’s advisor and producer, encouraged him to push for a full work beyond the initial EP. Music is a repackage version of his master’s thesis.
For Hodgson, the biggest challenge of a non-traditional work such as Music is getting more conservative elements to open up to new ways of learning, researching and engaging with ideas as well as other ways of using those ideas to further knowledge.
“It’s very McLuhan,” he said. “There is a serious bias toward print. Someone like myself, who does these creative projects and is working on unorthodox formats for theses in order to accommodate unorthodox learners, the biggest difficulty I find people have is understanding how to engage with something that doesn’t have a precedent.
“Of course, every single thing done at university – everything that is traditional – was at one point in time unorthodox and radical. I let the work justify itself to be honest.”
The four original tracks – Marsha Marsha Marshall, Buzz Saw, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Cathode Ray – join nine others Mandel composed by drawing on McLuhan material from the CBC, as well as McLuhan’s own archive.
“Jordan doesn’t just take recordings of McLuhan talking and set them to music. He actually takes what is being said, and the theories McLuhan was advancing, and he elucidates it in the music in really interesting ways,” Hodgson said.
Since he started the project nearly a year and a half ago, Mandel graduated with his masters, got married, settled in London and even got a dog. And while Mandel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from York University, admits he doesn’t think he and McLuhan “are going to go much further musically,” this isn’t the end. He is exploring ways of performing the album live.
“That is quite a task because it was never recorded live in the first place,” he said. “That is what I always loved about music – performing live. I just haven’t been able to do it in recent years.”
In the end, Mandel and Hodgson hopes the album – much like McLuhan – offers a nugget of something valuable for every listener.
“I hope listeners will hear it more as a musical inquiry into McLuhan’s ideas than just a musical celebration and setting of McLuhan,” Hodgson said.
“It’s an experiment in what people get out of it. Some people seem to get something very cerebral from it – these ideas. I am not so convinced everyone is going to get that from it. To a lot of people, it is kind of how DJs will use random speech clips; in that, it almost doesn’t matter what he is saying. That’s the neat part.”
The album can be purchased at iTunes, HMV or amazon.ca, as well as spokeandmirror.com. Digital download and CD versions are available.