Sampling, participatory culture, and semiotic democracy

A draft of my final paper for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott – thoughts welcome as I revise it.

Our world is saturated with recorded music. It is effortlessly accessible, and, at times, inescapable. This environment poses new challenges to anyone who aspires to create or perform music. When we come face to face with the ocean of recordings, it is natural to feel helpless. Does recorded music thus inevitably limit most people to passive appreciation? Or can recordings themselves become the impetus for new kinds of active participation and expression? And if so, how do we balance the right of copyright holders to control the use of their work with our right to make new creative use of that work?

Ableton Live

In this paper, I use a framework developed by Turino (2016, 2008) to distinguish between “presentational” and “participatory” music. I inquire into the nature of musical participation, and what (if anything) distinguishes interpretation from creation. I then give an overview of sampling as an artistic practice, paying particular attention to the challenges to this practice posed by copyright law and the status of recorded music as a commercial product. Finally, I ask what our ethical obligations are as musicians toward the copyright regime. Must we always operate within the law even if it conflicts with our creative needs, or should we engage in civil disobedience?

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Why is “Let It Go” such a big deal?

Anna posed this question, and I think it’s an excellent one: What is up with “Let It Go” and little girls? Why is this song such a blockbuster among the pre-K set? How did it jump the gap from presentational to participatory music? Is it the movie, or the song itself? In case you never interact with pop culture or little kids, this is the tune in question:

I posted the question on Facebook, and my friends have so many good responses that I’m going to just paste them all in more or less verbatim below.

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Anna and I caught one of the best performances we’ve seen in years the other night by Tune-Yards.

My friend Andrew, who was at the show, said this afterwards: “I can’t decide whether hearing the president say ‘This is not class warfare, it’s math’ or the fact that this band could become popular makes me feel more optimistic about the possibilities of life in America.”

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Glenn Gould predicts remix culture

Classical music recordings are usually straightforward snapshots of live performances. Sometimes recordings are spliced together from multiple takes or overdubbed, but this practice is considered by classical musicians to be highly shameful. Glenn Gould had a very different attitude toward the studio. He loved working there, and viewed it as a more valuable creative outlet than the concert stage. At age thirty-one, he stopped performing live altogether to focus on recording and writing. He was outspokenly in favor of tape editing and other “artificial” studio techniques.

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Good old Grateful Dead

See also a post about the Dead and electronic music.

Whenever I play guitar, it comes out sounding like Jerry Garcia. I can’t help it. From the ages of fifteen to twenty, my guitar-learning years, there was no musician I cared more about in the world than Jerry. Contrary to popular stereotype, I didn’t care about him because of drugs. I listened to the Grateful Dead for years before ever trying drugs of any kind. I just really liked the music.

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Is clock time oppressive or liberating? Yes.

We take clocks so much for granted that it’s easy to forget how radical and recent a development they are. It wasn’t so long ago that clocks had to be painstakingly assembled by hand one at a time. Accurate timekeeping on the order of fractions of a second is a heroic engineering undertaking if you’re trying to do it by mechanical means. Our great-grandparents would have been astounded at how cheap and ubiquitous timekeeping devices have become. In my apartment alone, I can get accurate time measurements from two computers, the cable box, two cell phones, a drum machine, a metronome, an ipod, a thermometer with a built in clock, and a digital camera. Probably the least reliable timekeeping device in here is our analog clock.

Before the explosion of cheap electronics, most people had no external way to keep time so accurately. Before the industrial revolution, there wasn’t much need to. The only reason you would have needed precise timekeeping was for music and dancing. Continue reading