Records I Can’t Sample[audio:http://ethanhein.com/music/Ethan_Hein_Records_I_Cant_Sample.mp3]
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,Â 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.