When Charles Ives was busy composing his second symphony during the turn of the 20th century, the copyright term limit was a mere 42 years. Although it may not have mattered much to Ives, the composer’s quotations of “Yankee Doodle” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conspicuously collaged into his symphony, was perfectly legal. Regardless, Ives’s propensity towards incorporating hymn tunes and vernacular music, from marching band to minstrel ditties and Stephen Foster songs, seems to foreshadow postmodernism. While Ives appropriated from high and lowbrow culture alike, his sole reason for doing so was to create an emotional impact, and irony was nowhere to be found.
The practice of quoting folk tunes continued—think Copland‘s Appalachian Spring. Stravinsky even orchestrated America’s national anthem (for which he was arrested, the official charge was “tampering with public property,” I guess a little dissonance proved to be too much). But soon, things would drastically change.
It’s not the least bit surprising that John Cage befriended Marcel Duchamp. Like his chess buddy, Cage grew into the role of provocateur, daggering question marks at musical convention. Through Cage and advancements in recording technologies, music witnessed a new form of thievery, motivated by conceptual strategies and ambitions to expand musical possibilities. Orchestration or re-orchestration of source material was irrelevant. Now a facsimile of the source, in the form of recorded sound, could act as the definitive surrogate of the original. Cage could now compose with sounds he did not have to create. Imaginary Landscape No. 4 composed in 1951 consisted of whatever happened to be tuned-in on twelve radios. Plagiarism had been emancipated from the confines of manuscript paper.
Exactly ten years after Imaginary Landscape No. 4, composer James Tenney created Collage #1 (“Blue Suede”), a tape piece that spliced and diced Elvis Presley‘s rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes.” While antics like this might strike a listener’s funny bone, Tenney didn’t think of his work as a parody, but rather a celebration of Presley, as well as an effort to assimilate a sexual energy that was otherwise lacking in the music of the times. By no means was Tenney the only composer using razorblades and a splicing block, but Collage #1, with its strategic transformations and crucial recontextualization of the common household pop tune, laid out a rudimentary roadmap for the future digital sampling craze.
It was bound to happen at some point… I mean, unless you’re a disciple of microtonal theory, there are only 12 notes to choose from and recordings have lengthened our collective memories. So be careful if that series of pitches you just jotted down sounds kind of familiar. George Harrison—yup, one of the Beatles—learned this the hard way when he was found guilty of subconsciously plagiarizing the Chiffons‘ 1962 song “He’s So Fine” in his song “My Sweet Lord.” Luckily, a lot of us in the new music community aren’t financially worth the lawsuit. But it does raise the question, how many “borrowed” notes constitute plagiarism? Where should the line be drawn? At the same time the gavel finally came down on Harrison in 1976, Walter Murphy’s disco-ized “A Fifth of Beethoven,” was thumping bastardized Beethoven to dance floors across the country. By October, disco’s little guilty pleasure became the nations #1 single, proving there’s no accounting for taste in the public domain. But doesn’t it seem a little lopsided when “covering” a Beethoven symphony is condoned while using a sequence of 3-note and 5-note phrases in the context of an entirely “original” song can slap you with court damages of $1,599,987—there goes that Duchamp you’ve been saving up for.
Around the late 1970s and early ’80s, simple pastiche fell to the wayside and a more politically-motivated brand of musicians began to raise their voices deep within the artistic underground, where culture jamming was born. Guerilla artists like the Billboard Liberation Front began altering media advertisements in order to subvert corporate messages—this deliberate distortion of mainstream verbiage was the movement’s mantra. The audible practice of culture jamming surfaced in tandem, piloted by the Berkeley-based collective Negativland. The us-vs.-them aesthetic behind culture jamming involves taking the enemy’s logos, marketing physiologies, or adspeak and virally inserting counter-ideas, ultimately recontextualizing the original message, and turning it on its head. The term itself was coined by Negativland in the aptly Orwellian year of 1984, the upward arc of the Reagan era when the seeds of global corporatism were being sowed.
As the movement grew, unsuspecting music fans began to hear from groups like the Tape-Beatles, the Evolution Control Committee, and other musicians who felt that the detritus of sound floating around the cultural mainstream should be as much theirs as anyone else’s. The effort to deregulate the sounds and images that began bombarding society at a breakneck pace was eventually picked up by collectives-cum-political activist organizations such as the Barbie Liberation Organization, which replaced the voice boxes in pull-the-string talking Barbie dolls and G. I. Joe action figures, returning them to the shelves to be resold; Dyke Action Machine, which used the ad imagery made famous by Benetton, Calvin Klein, and the Gap to promote affirming depictions of lesbians; and Paul Harvey Oswald, which gleefully distribute their biting political video collages over the Internet. Collective efforts like the Droplift CD spurred composers to take action against increasingly prohibitive interpretations of copyright laws. The strategies cultivated by nearly two decades of culture jamming eventually proliferated into mainstream graphic design and into the digital realm, giving rise to a new army of media hackers whose hacktivism, although mischievous, lands them on the considerably less destructive side of software warfare.
Increasingly among our most accomplished appropriators, the source of thieveries began to resemble aesthetic signposts, sometimes offering the discriminating listener a new insight into the original source material via an entirely new composition or simply a new context. Oftentimes the source material wasn’t immediately recognizable, if at all discernable. Recognizability wasn’t really the point. Harvesting sound—recorded or notated—from a particular source could be a structural tool. In the same way a composer might apply rigid systems to generate things like pitch, timbre, duration, or dynamics, stealing from a focused collection of preexisting sources insured a molecular cohesiveness. This approach would come to full fruition with the oncoming explosion of digital music, but even in infancy, this perspective is important to keep in mind as composers began working more conceptually.
DJ culture, also ushered into the mainstream in the late ’70s and early ’80s, played a huge role in shaping the ways in which composers would appropriate in the future. Although Cage had legitimized the use of turntables as musical instruments way back in 1939, the idea finally caught on. Armed with two turntables and a microphone, DJs became the almighty curators of the dance floor, creating clever juxtapositions on the fly, layering one song on top of another, and remixing them in the studio to create entirely new versions.
The introduction of samplers in the early ’80s ushered in a new era of digital possibilities—and yes, more lawsuits. Higher profile proceedings, like James Newton versus the Beastie Boys and U2‘s management and record label versus Negativland (listen to “The Letter U and The Numeral 2” here), supported the assumption that the party with the most money usually wins the battle. As expected, James Newton’s case was dismissed and Negativland nearly went bankrupt. That tiny gap between DJ tactic and copyright infringement was now off limits. Even if sampling spoke to the essence of postmodernism, fear threw a wet blanket on the operation—artists were afraid of getting sued.
At a time when portable CD players were beginning to replace the old cassette Walkmans—the “Weird Al” Yankovic‘s “Like a Surgeon” era—a style of stealing began to emerge with less of a political bite than past culture jammers, and the focus shifted towards purer artistic concerns, and on the flip side, humor. Pamela Z, for example, created her text-sound piece Pop Titles ‘You’ in 1986, a deadpan reading of pop song titles beginning with the word “you.” Although obvious appropriation, this was a rather subdued form of plagiarism. Plus, it was parody—an even grayer area of copyright law, if you can believe it.
Other artists were about to push the line further and explore at their own risk. Canadian composer John Oswald had been producing his so-called “Mystery Tapes” since the mid-70s, which cut-up and transformed music by Dolly Parton, Stravinsky, and countless others. The appearance of Oswald’s Plunderphonic CD in 1989 was the most extreme example of sampling to date, ushering in a new epoch of sample-based piracy. Oswald’s trailblazing technique balanced artistry and compositional chops with a slight edge of humor. The infamous Plunderphonic cover art featured a near-naked Michael Jackson sporting a white woman’s body—a tad bit insidious, perhaps, but Oswald’s “Dab,” a warp-speed work-over of Jackson’s hit “Bad,” was pure revelry, inadvertently forecasting the onset of the glitch movement.
A decade after the switch to CDs, vinyl purists would be delivered a messiah, or at least a guy with the largest collection of Christmas albums known to man. Christian Marclay rose through the ranks of the underground improv scene, noted for his feats of turntablism. For a guy who once used a jigsaw and glue to piecemeal multiple records into Frankensteined entities, sampling turned cerebral and was transformed to resemble conceptual art. Whether displaying a pillow crocheted from audiotape bearing every recorded Beatle song or replacing the audio of Antonioni‘s film Blow Up with de Palma‘s homage Blow Out, Marclay reminded us that sampling doesn’t have to be audible—it can be visual, it can be neither, or both. His sample-based warhorse Video Quartet amassed a symphony of sounds and their accompanying film images into an evocative hyper-montage, projected across four screens, the likes of which Hollywood had never imagined. The piece only hints at the possibilities afforded by a recombinative approach to sound and film, but if you’re going to work this way, you better take out a second mortgage to pay for those mechanical licensing fees you’ll be racking up from record companies and film studios.
Many composers opted to stick with the good ol’ fashion pen and paper approach. Marti Epstein‘s spacious piano piece Waterbowls juxtaposed passages from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 30 with Epstein’s own Feldman-esque sonorities. Michael Daugherty dived into kitschy-clever thefts like Dead Elvis, which remixes the ancient Dies irae with ’50s rock—oh, and the bassoon player is required to swivel, gyrate, and dress the part of Presley. John Biggs cut-and-pasted together the ultimate concert-opener-as-name-that-tune indulgence which he aptly titled Pastiche. For the most part, concert hall composers played it safer than their computer music counterparts by ripping off long-dead and buried composers rather than, say, Led Zeppelin.
With old-school sampling already careening toward passé, composers in the ’90s embraced and misused technology in order to find new ways to steal. The trend to politicize plagiarism subsided. There seemed to be a digestion period, or a sorting out of the past as a younger generation began plundering, and ultimately an ethical exorcism: this new cohort of composers decided to come out of the closet, so to speak, with an unabashed conviction that appropriation was not a sin.
In an act of blatant plagiaristic pride the Illinois-based label Illegal Art began a series of releases—that you could actually buy in record stores or on the web for $5—featuring various artists reworking the music of Beck. It’s conceivable the Beck-factor played a big role in generating whatever profits were made by Deconstructing Beck, but even thorough listening fails to reveal Beck’s obvious aural presence—like when you get so close to a painting you can’t see it. So far no complaints have been lodged against the project. The follow-ups Extracted Celluloid and Commercial Ad Hoc showcased a wide-range of fin de siecle approaches and techniques to appropriation. Using programs like SoundHack, SuperCollider, or other freeware, composers could pilfer any media they wanted and instantly garble things beyond the threshold of recognition. However, some composers opted for more outmoded technologies: Wet Gate only uses film projectors to create their work, Wobbly prefers CD players, samplers, and mixers, and the San Francisco-based collective DISC dedicated itself to ridding the planet of the growing overabundance of commercially released CDs by mutilating them inside microwave ovens, and altering the surface with razorblades, markers, and lubricants, finally allowing the damaged CDs to skip freely inside multiple CD players.
Along with the political bent of culture jamming being taken for granted—or rendered a non-issue—the emphasis on conceptualizing also appeared to be diminishing. It seemed too highfalutin, and tides of composers turned to lowbrow culture for inspiration. With albums like Lowest Common Dominator, People Like Us (a.k.a. Vicki Bennett) and England’s Kleptones label kept a steady flow of as-is appropriation coming from across the pond. But in a decade of anything-goes, a wayward faction can buck the herd, and lead part of the flock someplace different. Although not really plagiarists as such, Matmos reiterated the notion that the source of your sound material is paramount. They created compelling concept albums of rigorous electronic music, assembled from sound sources the duo found meaningful. A prime example is their 2001 release A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, which dissected the sounds of plastic surgery (likely tracable to the fact that both band members hail from surgeon households).
It’s clear this new generation of thieves greatly benefited from the breakthroughs forged by the artists whose backs they’re now standing on. Beyond any hand they’ve had in broadening and refining the craft, part of the legacy they have left their artform is a breezy attitude towards appropriation. Ripping-off another composer doesn’t have to include a residual postmodern smack. You don’t need any reason or justification. For them, it’s acceptable to plagiarize just because you feel like it, period.