In the first week of August, an article in the New York Times caught my eye, the feature about Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, who was about to perform at the All Points West festival in Jersey City and whose newest album, Feed the Animals, features approximately 300 samples in a kaleidoscopic collage of recontextualization. As the Times said, “Not bad for an artist whose music may be illegal.”
Gillis asserts that the loops and fragments that he works with are covered by copyright law’s “fair use” principle, an argument used to counter claims of copyright infringement under certain circumstances. Inappropriately described as a DJ by the Times, Gillis is turntable-free, and his samples are short. He creates entirely new constructions that sound very different from any of the original materials, so in a sense there is no market competition that might affect sales. Gillis contends he should be covered under fair use.
As I have noted in this column more than once, the concepts of DJs and other 21st-century artists who use musical appropriation are not exclusive to the modern age. Gillis’ work in de- (and re-) contextualizing musical fragments may take place at a scale and with a precision that only the digital age could provide, but just imagine if instead of blending snippets of Spencer Davis, The Jackson 5, The Band, Brian Wilson, and innumerable rap artists I couldn’t identify if my life depended on it, he made a mashup of Berg’s setting of Bach’s “Ich hab Genug”, Britten’s setting of the Rondo from Abdelazar by Purcell, and Brahms’ setting of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat Major, topped by a liberal serving of “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”.
It seemed like issues of intellectual property were very much in the air that same week, as just four days later the New Yorker published James Surowiecki’s essay “The Permission Problem” on its Financial Page, just a day or two after the Times also published “Rip-Off Artist,” an essay from self-described anti-folk artist Jeffrey Lewis. Key quote: “All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we’ve seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something ‘new.’ The ancient Greeks seemed to know this, expressed in their belief that the Muses of creativity were the daughters of Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory.”
All this led me back to the website of illegalart.net, which markets and promotes both the theory of the obsolescence of copyright and the artists whose works capitalize on that theory. Lots of food for thought in those hills, to mash up a couple of metaphors. What do you think?
Meanwhile, the electronic musical tribes are converging on Bay Area this weekend for the annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell yout I’m a founding member of the Festival’s planning committee and still sit on its advisory board. In fact, this year I’ll be performing (after an eight year hiatus) with Pauline Oliveros, a great personal thrill for me. But even if I wasn’t any of those things, I would still recommend the fest heartily to anyone within striking distance. It continues from now until September 7. Full information here.