Making the Old New Again

Appropriation. It’s not new. We have always done it. We used to do it with pen and manuscript paper and our memories. Before that we did it with ears, voices, and perhaps even genetic memory. Now we do it with keyboard and mouse and the computer’s memory. As praise, parody, study, mockery, comparison, portraiture, or open-ended commentary, we take aural snapshots of what we hear and print them, enlarge them, cut and paste them, and shuffle them into an ever-growing and evolving collective body of work.


Pamela Z
Pamela Z, performing her multi-media work Voci.
Photo by Lori Eanes

Over the past 20 or so years, as new technology has made sonic appropriation and re-appropriation an increasingly easy and perhaps even irresistible path to take, the idea of sampling and recycling recorded music, bits of broadcast media, overheard conversation, and sounds generated by the new technology itself has shifted from being controversial to being an accepted—almost expected mode of working. It spans from “High Art” to “Low Art.” From the outer edges of the academic, avant-garde electronic music world and the underground, revolutionary youth culture, it has steadily seeped toward the center—enveloping the middle-of-the-road, mainstream culture so that no one any longer remembers the boundaries.

Art bandits like John Oswald, Negativland, and Wobbly still engage in a kind of audio activism elevating Plunderphonia, or Audio Piracy to a fine art while serving the deliberate cause of challenging traditional concepts of ownership. But, at this point, so many composers are using appropriated samples for purely aesthetic reasons and so many pop artists are using samples of previously released music to create the basic rhythm tracks for new songs, that questions of ownership, “fair use,” and copyright have become increasingly murky.

We take our new sampling technology (the capabilities of which John Cage accurately predicted in his 1937 Credo) completely for granted. It seems only natural to make work that seamlessly incorporates existing sounds into new compositions when the tools for doing so are so readily available. These tools are so basic to my compositional process that I can’t imagine what kind of work I would be doing were it not for my ability to sample my own voice, the voices of others, and the sounds I hear around me in my daily life. These sounds are as much the basic materials for the work of many modern composers as the twelve tones of the scale were for western composers in the past. For more “old school” composers, this still might seem like a very foreign and perhaps inappropriate way to work. And they are free to carry on the tradition of good old-fashioned appropriation by means of borrowing or quoting phrases and motifs and notating them for new orchestras, chamber ensembles, or soloists to play. Some people say that there is really nothing new. Our challenge is to make interesting choices in selecting and re-arranging what is already here. ‘S all good. ‘S all appropriate.