God don’t ever give me nothing I can’t handle, so please don’t ever give me records I can’t sample

The title is a lyric by Kanye West on Common’s track “They Say.” A hundred percent of my musical energy right now is coming from and going into sample-based music. To wit:

Records I Can’t Sample

[audio:http://ethanhein.com/music/Ethan_Hein_Records_I_Cant_Sample.mp3]

Me vs Michael Jackson vs Herbie Hancock vs Missy Elliot vs Kanye West vs Fab Five Freddy

mp3 download, ipod format download

Synth strings played on video game controller MIDI.

Just about every music purchase I made in the past year was to get high-quality samples. I use my CD collection as a valuable hard-copy backup of a vast, well-recorded sample library. For just about any song except the major masterpieces, I’d much rather listen to the hook repeated endlessly over a hip-hop beat than the song itself. Reason and Recycle are only too happy to oblige me. Being able to effortlessly homebrew my own dance music has given me some insight into how good it must feel to make your own cheese or wine or shoes or sushi or computer programs.

I’m writing a book, and one of its subjects is the evolutionary theorist Susan Blackmore. She’s one of the most articulate exponents of the theory of memes, self-replicating units of human behavior that use our minds to spread themselves, the way our genes use our bodies to spread themselves. By this theory, songs use musicians to breed and use fans to disseminate, the way dandelions use the ground and the wind. My own musical experience bears the meme theory out strongly. I’ve never had an original idea. I’ve written dozens of songs, and all of them have been collages. My bebop heads are collages of Duke Ellington licks over Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus chord changes. My rock writing takes its entire left hand from Jerry Garcia and the right hand from David Byrne. My approach to computer music draws more broadly, but centers recognizably around M.I.A., Missy Elliot and Run-DMC. My best tunes are the ones that hybridize the richest diversity of sources, or the ones that most closely clone another successful idea, my own or someone else’s.

When I was an angry, confused teenager, I let myself be convinced that ideas are property, that it’s possible to steal them and thereby harm their owner. I listened to strongly opinionated musicians and critics hold up originality as the main criterion of artistic worth. Then I got out into the world and did a lot of playing and interpreting and composing of my own, and at the end of the day I’ve come to feel that to assert ownership of a song is like trying to assert ownership over a person or an animal or a place. You can have a close relationship with a song, you can be present at its birth and you can give it nurture,  but once it grows up, you can’t control it. Why would you want to?

Rick Prelinger wrote a manifesto called On The Virtues Of Pre-Existing Materials. He’s talking about books, but his argument applies just as well to music. It’s so good that it’s worth quoting at length:

Why add to the population of orphaned works?

We live in a tremendously media-rich society. Every year Americans throw away more text, sound and image than most other nations create. We’re the world capital of ephemera, and much of it has no active parent.

Don’t presume that new work improves on old. The ephemera we produce tend to manifest ideas that fix themselves over and over again in different media. What this suggests to me is that we might be more open to letting old works speak, that our task might not be so much to make new works but to build new platforms for old works to speak from. This might mean that we weave using others’ threads, that we take positions as arrangers rather than as sculptors.

The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful. So much of what we make rests on work that’s come before. Let’s admit this and revel in it. Though it might make some people nervous, it actually cushions us in a genetic continuity of expression, and what could be more reassuring?

The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers. We add meaning to culture by remixing it. Putting something in a new context helps you see it with new eyes; it’s like bringing your partner home to the parents for the first time, or letting a dog loose to run in the waves.

Some writers, like John Updike and not like Jonathan Lethem, fear the emerging mashed-up book. They hope their texts won’t be scrambled or altered, that they’ll always retain the same identity and continuity, and follow the same course. But rivers, like information, route themselves around obstacles, and the bends in rivers are where adventures happen. We’ll find new ways to experience and value old works as a consequence of mixing them into newer ones.

We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too. It may be vain to hope that our works survive into the future and will be seen and listened to, but still we hope so. If we want to encourage those not yet born to think historically, we need to begin by thinking historically ourselves. This inevitably pushes us into the territory of preexisting materials.

Quilting is an early form of sampling. A patchwork quilt combines preexisting fabric from many sources. Quilting relies on what geeks call interoperability – the ability of elements to fit into a matrix and function together. That’s what makes the Internet work – machines and networks can talk with one another and freely exchange bits.

Update: Wayne Marshall quotes me in his post about Beatles Rock Band. He has this mashup of Shaggy and the Beatles that I hadn’t seen before and is a good one.

9 thoughts on “God don’t ever give me nothing I can’t handle, so please don’t ever give me records I can’t sample

  1. You are arguing that musicians have been unable to form a truly original idea since the first note was struck – are you not? Once a sound has been created, you believe it to be finished. You fail to see that music is more than licks, hooks, and beats – things that satiate your appetite and definition, but not the rest of the World. Music is a feeling, like you have said, and this feeling is to what degree one can rate it’s originality. For example, the Blues is a form that has been perhaps more overworked and copied than any other western genre, and in my opinion lacks the ability to break from what has been done before it than any other musical style. There are however, Blues artists creating original pieces of art, because they understand music as an art form. At it’s base existence, music conveys a feeling – and although someone may even sing a song that has been sung a hundred times before it, if they convey a new feeling, it is to some degree original. Take a lick / progression that has been used a dozen different times in a dozen different arrangements. True, the lick itself is not by construction “original”, but the emotion and meaning it conveys in the arrangement and as a greater tool in the song defines it as such. Your definition of originality is so constrictive it is impossible to discuss this topic without redefining “originality”. If a person was put in a depravation chamber their entire life without hearing any form of music or noise beyond that of speech (or perhaps, you would try to make the argument that voice tonality could jeopardize the musical ‘virginity’ of this subject, lets say he/she is incapable of speech) and they were then given an instrument, is what they would create original? By your definition of “never played”, to them, it would be. But most likely, it would be randomly generated noise and then under your secondary definition of needing to “sound good”, would not be deemed as original. If you set the parameters of originality to such a restrictive allowance, then no, there is no real “original” virgin compositions. But music still exists, does it not? And people still create things that are called “new” and “radical” because it takes what has been DONE and rethinks it completely. That may be built on the foundation of the past, but has grown into something completely new, unique, and let me put it this way- is the “new” original.

    • There’s a difference between “to some degree” original and completely original. If I sing “Yesterday” by the Beatles, it’ll sound somewhat different from the way Paul McCartney sings it. There’ll certainly be a piece of me in my interpretation of the song, and that’ll give my version a touch of originality. But I can’t then be said to have written an original song. If I use a standard blues lick or chord progression, I’ll impart my own flavor there too, but that’s not being original either. I might be able to copyright my work and get it legally recognized as original, and maybe convince critics of its originality too, but I’ll know where the idea came from.

      I have tried to do some work that was a radical rethinking of everything I know about music: very intense free improvisation, heavy digital processing and editing, crazy scales, irregular rhythms. All of that music was extremely original. But by departing so completely from the foundation of what other people enjoy and find familiar, I made a bunch of stuff that’s of no use or interest to anyone except myself. I’m glad to have done all that work as part of my journey of self-discovery, but it’s not very good art, it’s too navel-gazing and self-absorbed. The best music I’ve made has been squarely within traditions – trying to sound like Björk or Coltrane or Jerry Garcia. Ironically, I’ve noticed that I always sound most like myself when I imitate my heroes.

      Most of what gets considered “new” or “radical” only seems that way because we lack a complete picture of the context and influences. So, for instance, I’ve been producing this guy’s rock album, which includes playing all of the lead guitar, bass and keyboard parts. He thinks I’m a genius because I play these crunchy, dissonant clusters and tritones. It’s all jazz cliches that I learned from Thelonious Monk etc, but because this dude isn’t used to hearing them in a rock setting, he thinks it’s original. I deserve credit for having an open mind, not for inventing new stuff from whole cloth.

      I have a specific agenda defining originality the way I do, which is that I’d like to see a change in copyright law to make it easier to create the kind of sample-based that I like. Right now, if I use even a tiny fragment of someone else’s recording on my work, they have a legal right to demand 100% of the publishing etc. This seems absurd to me, since so much music is so derivative of other music. For example: Gilbert O’Sullivan successfully sued Biz Markie for using a sample of his piano playing without permission. But Gilbert O’Sullivan was playing a generic pop chord progression that’s been used in thousands of other songs. It seems absurd to me that the law protects Gilbert O’Sullivan’s borrowing, but not Biz Markie’s.

  2. You have to be joking. You claim originality is dead or otherwise unattainable – then list Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus as objects of inspiration. If you truly mix these artists into your work, (and aren’t just name dropping some of the greatest jazz players of the last century) you have to aware of their abilities, both musically and creatively that lead to their ORIGINAL compositions. If Jazz is nothing else, it is original – it is noise, it is free. It can have structure, or not. It can be notes, or harsh reed-squeals that register nowhere on any known range of musical definition. I recognize the fact that you probably just take the licks that are actually written down on the sheet paper in front of them and their band – the chorus etc. – stealing only the sound of the big-band, but to choose to ignore the artists’ work in it’s entirety does not make it go away – it just shows that you really are a “mixer” of both music and fact.
    True, much of music is based off of scales and measures already written and played. It is true that there are a limited number of chords, scales, percussion combinations, etc. But this again, assumes you ONLY pay attention to Western music. Listen to Gamelan, the tradition Palacial music of Java, or any East-Islander / Asia continent. Take their scales, progressions, and dare I say it – their instruments – and then tell me that originality in music has reached a dead-end. Your article (which, by the way, is painfully filled with the writings of someone else, who, is just as ill-informed as you are) and subsequent comments prove that not only do you not pay close enough attention to the history of music you deem so important, but fear the attempt of something original. You are defining certain music and its styles as “worthwhile” then claiming that this pool has all but dried up – which is unfair to the bigger picture. You cannot say that only “this” qualifies as music, and the fact that “this” has bled out of originality, all music has lost originality. Your narrow mind hurts mine.

    • Nope, not joking. Listen to Ellington play solo piano, then listen to Monk – sometimes they’re hard to tell apart, that’s how closely Monk imitates Ellington. That close, reverent imitation is exactly what makes Monk so great. You can’t help but imitate other artists; Monk just had the good taste to imitate Duke (and Willie “The Lion” Smith and Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and the organist in his church growing up etc etc etc.) Jazz artists’ improvisation is even more focused on a shared pool of licks and patterns than their composing is. That doesn’t take away from their creativity; to me, it enriches it. Jazz is social music, it’s part of an evolving tradition, it’s about connection with other musicians and with the audience. That connection is only possible because of an extensive shared vocabulary. I’ve sat through a lot of modern classical music that was way more original than the music I like, and everybody just looked bored and alienated.

      How is imitating gamelan music any more original than imitating the western canon? It’s just swapping one memepool for another. Which is a good thing! One of my favorite contemporary jazz artists out there is Susie Ibarra, who draws on gamelan music heavily along with her jazz and funk influences.

      Originality is much easier than music that’s connected to a tradition. You can produce 100% original music by randomly generating MIDI sequences, or drawing the names of notes out of a hat. I’ve actually tried making music this way. Sometimes it works great. But I’ve noticed that the randomized stuff that works the best tends to bear the closest resemblance to existing patterns of chords and scales that are more familiar. The completely jagged far-out stuff doesn’t produce a lot of emotional heat.

  3. The reason making original music caused you anxiety is because it is diffucult. Those artists, who give in and resort to suckling from the “memepool”, will never be considered elite craftsmen in their respective trades. The fact is simple that an artist, making something considered good and truly original, deserves higher praise and respect than he who compiles others ideas. Using another’s idea as a crutch to fill in place of genuine talent should not be held with such high regard.

    • I’ve mostly found that making bad music is more difficult than good music. Good music tends to be relatively effortless, it literally self-assembles in my head, or comes out fully formed in moments of inspired improvisation. Bad music is the stuff I really sweat and strain over. And the bad stuff has caused me way more anxiety – writing it, performing it, teaching it (and lord knows I’ve had to plenty of that in my music-making life.)

      Whoever you consider to be the most elite craftsperson in their trade, I promise you that they’re “suckling from the memepool.” The Beatles literally copied sections of classical pieces into their own songs (or sometimes played them backwards.) Coltrane took pieces of melody from books of saxophone exercises. Miles Davis took ideas from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker – his tune “Donna Lee” sounds so much like Parker that for decades, everyone thought Parker wrote it. Charles Mingus explicitly took ideas from Monk and Ellington.

      You use “good” and “original” as synonyms, but they aren’t. Sometimes they go together, sometimes they don’t. I invite you to name one halfway decent piece of music that isn’t comprised of pieces of other music.

  4. If there are so few original ideas that are continually “remixed” than critics, who tout originality as a measure of an artists worth, are correct. To create an, original, unique….”unmixed” idea is the ultimate acheivement. How sad do you have to be to just give up and admit that you have no real original ideas?

    • Critics who fetishize originality aren’t doing their jobs. The question shouldn’t be, is it original? The question should be, is it good? Duke Ellington is regarded as the best jazz composer of the last hundred years, and a great many of “his” ideas were borrowed from tradition, from his sidemen, from Billy Strayhorn, and from his own earlier work. There are plenty of musicians who are way more original than him whose work you wouldn’t want to hear twice. The best critics are the ones that trace the ancestry of ideas, that help you see where the sources of inspiration were, what connections exist to other music. Most of the time, when a critic says, “This is original,” they just don’t know what the sources of the idea are.

      I disagree that it’s sad to admit you have no original ideas. My own experience has been exactly the opposite. When I was driven to be original, music-making caused me a lot of anxiety. Now that I know that I’m just acting as a receptor for memes floating in the memepool, my music is sounding a lot better, and is giving me a lot more pleasure. I’ve seen the same thing happen with folks I work with, the ones who are most concerned with originality are the ones who experience the most stress from the process. It feels good to accept the world as it is, and to allow yourself to see the beauty of it.

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