Stolen Goods

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Growing up during the seeming twilight of the avant-garde in the 1970s was tough. I’m not sure which was worse, the music that was posing as new at the time—disco, arena rock, fusion jazz—or the sycophantic nostalgia that it seemed to engender as a weird form of opposition (remember Sha Na Na?). The academic new music scene, which I was just starting to learn about, also seemed played out. Minimalism hadn’t yet eroded the primacy of serialism and the impetus to create original music was subverted by the sinking feeling that everything had been done before.

Perhaps because people felt there were no new ideas, the ’70s were the first decade where “doing an earlier decade” suddenly became hip. The ’50s revival of the ’70s subsequently spawned the ’60s revival (from all reports it was better the first time around), and in an inevitable weird twist of the historic progression, this mania led to eventual ’70s and ’80s revivals that are still with us though it’s hard to imagine there ever being a ’90s or Oughts revival since so much of what has been pop culture mainstream of late has been the redux. The ’70s were also the time when it suddenly became O.K. to make sequels of successful Hollywood films rather than invent new scripts, something we take for granted these days in the post-Friday the 13th Part Infinity era.

However, in what has to be one of the universe’s great ironies, it seemed that the fresh new idea that eventually came out of the tired soup was the post-modern concept of re-contextualizing the past. In music, this notion extends from George Rochberg and Jacob Druckman’s contradictory collages (which later spawned the neo-romanticism movement) to the Young Lion re-bop movement in jazz to the DJs scratching bits of old R&B singles for the musical integument of what became hip-hop. As the aesthetic of the remix became more engrained in our collective psyches and as our technologies improved, whole new genres of music emerged from the detritus of older ones. But, then again, is building something new out of something old such a new idea?

In his provocative book Motives for Allusion, Christopher Alan Reynolds posits that the “great masterpieces” of 19th-century music that are still being enshrined in your local concert hall were all commentaries upon each other with identifiable melodic and harmonic snippets borrowed left and right. Of course, the earliest “composed” music of the Western polyphonic tradition merely adds additional lines of counterpoint to pre-existing Gregorian chant, a fact of irrefutable precedence for hordes of rappers basing new songs on bass-lines pilfered from James Brown records.

But, I’ll go one further, ultimately no idea exists in a vacuum. And when it comes to music, there’s never been a new sound. Every time you create music on a piano, violin, koto, or kazoo you’re somehow engaging in an historical dialog with everyone else who has ever created for and played on those instruments. Avoid those trappings and build your own instruments and you’re then engaged in a dialog with everyone who has ever done that. Unless you create a brand new scale, and there’s a history of people who’ve done that too, chances are you’re using a scale that has a larger life that predates you. The millennia-old tradition of raga performance in the music of India not only prescribes scales, but also prescribes specific melodic fragments which while old become new again in each performance. So, isn’t using a pre-existing melody or harmonic progression or a recording thereof just a further extension of the very act of making music?

Nick Brooke creates 21st century music from turn-of-the-last-century Edison phonograph records, among other things. Molly Sheridan talked with him about his unusual compositional process and his philosophy behind it. But Brooke is one of many composers these days who have found their own compositional voice in the renewal of older voices. It is history that goes back a long time as Randy Nordschow reveals.

It is rare that governments and the industry at large are ahead of the curve when it comes to cultural trends, and recent legal rulings have made the creation of new music from appropriated sources problematic. It is a sensitive issue because while intellectual property needs to be protected, new intellectual properties can only be born in a nurturing environment and appropriation has become such an important element in a substantial body of new work. We asked five very different composers, Noah Creshevsky, Diane Thome, John Biggs, Jason Forrest, and Mathew Rosenblum—each of whom have appropriated pre-existing material in their music—to explain where they draw the ethical line. And Pamela Z, another composer known for her appropriations, asks you to consider this aesthetic movement as the new mainstream.

To appropriate the words of one of the bad advertising jingles of the time, we’ve come a long way since the 1970s. But it’s remarkable that one of the ways we escaped the quagmire of historic progression was ultimately to subvert it.