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All together now

His YouTube mashups have become a hit

By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 10, 2009
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Like so many of us, Ophir Kutiel enjoys cruising YouTube, land of a million amateur film clips. Unlike the rest of us, the 27-year-old Israeli musician and producer - who goes by the name Kutiman - has found in his virtual wanderings the raw materials for a groundbreaking project called ThruYou: seven original songs made by mixing dozens upon dozens of music clips that have been uploaded to YouTube.

Now Kutiman is a digital-age rarity: an instant Internet darling who actually deserves the buzz.

It all started late last year, when Kutiman stumbled on a short film of a drummer explaining how to play a 16th-note shuffle. (The drummer is American session player Bernard Purdie, but Kutiman, ensconced in his Tel Aviv bedroom, didn't have a clue.) On a lark, he downloaded the clip and played along on guitar. Then he added some bass. Then Kutiman had an even better idea.

"Maybe," Kutiman recalls thinking, "I can find someone else on YouTube to play with him."

Kutiman spent the next two months scouring the site for sounds and images that he could cobble together into audiovisual mashups. The first task was finding musical clips - a child practicing trumpet, a man playing theremin in a music store, a church organist, a Game Boy virtuoso - that were in the same key. Kutiman used no pitch-shifting or digital sound manipulation on the tracks, just a masterful and newfangled fusion of editing, orchestration, and sound mixing. But Kutiman's criteria extended beyond the obvious sonic and visual considerations.

"I was looking for - I don't know if the term is right - good people," he says. "In a funny way it felt personal for me. I actually felt like I am working with these people, watching them for hours and hours, and so I was looking for people I wanted to collaborate with."

"The Mother of All Funk Chords," the first cut in the series, begins with Purdie's drum groove and builds bit by bit, in ingeniously laid-out frames on the screen, almost like a conversation: a couple of electric guitarists and a conga player join in, followed by a horn section (tuba, saxophones, trumpets, tuba - all separate user-generated videos), a middle-age guy blowing harmonica and singing the blues in his living room, an instructional clip from playbassnow.com, a pom-pom-waving cheer team from the Miracle Ministries Education Center in the Phillipines, and the list of contributors goes on. Twenty-two YouTube clips were used to create "The Mother of All Funk Chords" - more than 100 for the entire project, which spans jazz, R&B, rock, reggae, and hip-hop - and Kutiman embedded links to each individual clip at thru-you.com.

In early March, Kutiman posted his seven songs on the Web and told around 20 of his friends about it. A week later, ThruYou had been viewed a million times.

To Kutiman, the massive response mirrors the galvanizing everyman sensibility that user-generated sites like YouTube foster. "I think people are caught by the same thing that caught my attention: seeing people sitting in their small flat with a webcam, filming a song, hoping for something to happen."

Leslie Harris, a single mother in Washington, D.C., who works as an administrative assistant at the World Bank, is one of them. One night in late 2007, after a bad phone call with a former lover, she vented in song: freestyling an original a cappella tune she dubbed "Take Me for a Fool" and uploading it immediately to her YouTube channel, Songdreamer. On March 4, more than a year later, her comments box was uncharacteristically full - with messages telling her to hightail it over to ThruYou, where her grainy clip is the centerpiece of Kutiman's haunting electro-pop song "Just a Lady."

"I was stunned. I mean, there are a lot of people on YouTube and a lot of them sing. I couldn't believe he chose me," says Harris, whose clip has gone from 198 views to 25,000 and who has received numerous solicitations from musicians who want to collaborate with her. A fan who took pity on Harris's poor-quality webcam has offered to send her a MacBook. She is something of a star in Israel.

ThruYou has also made waves in the increasingly murky world of copyright, and Kutiman has become a cause celebre for those who argue that current laws make little sense in the Internet age - most prominently legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, who will be joining the Harvard Law School faculty this fall.

"Once you see ThruYou you can't help but see why the existing copyright rules make no sense," Lessig says. "There would be no possible way to license the permission necessary to show this work, there should be little doubt that it's creative and original, and there's no doubt it does no one any harm."

The only one who seems to be suffering is Kutiman, who says that the ThruYou experience has been so powerful and gratifying it's left him at a loss in his own career. He released a well-received solo electro-funk album in 2007 and is currently producing a record for Israeli singer-songwriter Karolina. The next logical step would be to record another of his own albums. But Kutiman isn't so sure.

"For me personally, it's hard to imagine creating music like I used to. I'm sure it will pass, but right now it looks a little bit boring to play music without visuals," he says, already wistful for his YouTube collaborators, "without searching for someone."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com