Sample—For Display Only

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.

One thought on “Sample—For Display Only

  1. Mr. Bacon

    I’m glad to read many similar thoughts to my own in an interesting NMB post. Since taking a class on fair use in the music world (and really, before that), I came to realize how the legal system (especially in America) is always so horribly behind mainstream culture. (Gay marriage is still illegal in most states. The death penalty is still legal in many states. The list goes on.) At least in terms of copyright, this is probably largely the result of “case law,” which only gets built slowly, over time, and, maybe, less the fault of insane, fundamentalist Supreme Court judges who would be better off behind bars than in a post appointed by the president. Maybe Girltalk is the first one to break through to the next generation of musicians who can sample electronically in just the same manner, as you write, as Brahms and Bach and everyone else did acoustically. I see absolutely no difference in what Girltalk does and what any Baroque or Classical composer did (and what many of these composers’ instituational incarnates continue to do now, acoustically). But the world’s collective consciousness still won’t equate the two – we still haven’t accepted the digital as “the real.” And it’s not. But it’s a perfect simulacrum of the real–meaning it resembles the real so accurately as to take its place–and therefore, as far as we can tell, it is the real. That could be why the courts can’t change the laws just yet – it is so seemingly real, whereas a reorchestration is somehow so different (but really not). I agree that Girltalk is recontextualizing the hits he mashes up to the point of fair use, or de minimis, or however you want to classify it, but I’m pretty sure if he was taken to court, it’d be copyright infringement for sure. The point at which the legal system’s assault on this particular component of our creativity will stop is when it and the record labels realize that allowing this type of creativity is more profitable than the court settlements that prohibit it. Maybe that’s finally happening right now–I wouldn’t be surprised if Girltalk is getting courted by a couple big labels, or will be soon.

    This quote from the NYTimes opinion piece sounds quite familiar: “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.”
    It resembles Fredric Jameson’s extensive writing on originality and “death of the subject” from the 1980s. He apparently agreed with the Greeks. But now, over 20 years after he wrote about these topics, I wonder what he thinks, though I hear he still buys the same music that Adorno was praising in the early to mid 20th century. Still, every piece I’ve read by Jameson has amazed me with its foresight and analogies. But the realization that Girltalk really is original, that the digital age has spawned an original form of originality in itself, is something that the courts haven’t grasped yet, and Jameson couldn’t in the 1980s. What the current discussions of originality today are missing is that a) originality has changed–we can’t discuss it today with the old definition, and b) it’s pointless to discuss originality at all today, because it either doesn’t exist, if you buy into Jameson, or it has changed so much in the last few decades that we need a new word for it. Furthermore, maybe Jameson is right–subjects are dead–how can anyone today begin to claim that she’s 100% original with no outside influence?

    I personally stick to the word “innovation,” and wholeheartedly believe in the obsolescence of the greedy, money-driven copyright industry–and that’s why I spent most of the day remixing the final movement of Mozart’s 40th.

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