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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Participatory music vs presentational music

In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take a different view.

Turino divides music into four big categories:

  1. Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
  2. Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
  3. High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
  4. Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song since 1980.

Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:

Aymara ceremony

Shona witch doctor

Contra dancers in New Hampshire

This last group might strike you as the odd one out. Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a jazz concert.

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Samples and community

The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.

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Harmonica guide

I started learning harmonica in high school. It was the first instrument I learned voluntarily, not counting my ineffectual middle school attempt at classical cello. As a teenager, my obsession with the Grateful Dead was at its high water mark. The Dead’s first frontman, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, was a more than respectable blues harmonica player. Through the Dead, I got exposed to all the blues and country greats. I forget exactly how and why I started playing harmonica myself, but it’s probably because it was inexpensive and looked easy. I started with Country And Blues Harmonica For The Musically Hopeless by Jon Gindick, which I enthusiastically recommend.

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The Grateful Dead and electronica

In keeping with my posts thinking of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix as electronic musicians, I thought I’d round out the techno-hippie trifecta with the Dead. Their fans might lean to the crunchy granola side, and they did some of their most endearing work in unplugged mode, but for the most part the Dead were a cutting-edge high-tech operation. By the time I was going to see them in the 1990s, they were heavily into MIDI guitar and electronic drums. They released an entire album of their synth-heavy improvisation called Infrared Roses, with cover art by Jerry himself.

Infrared Roses

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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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Sampling keyboards

One of the greatest weirdnesses of electronic music is the sampling keyboard. You press a key and any sound recording you want pops out, at whatever pitch. The recent passing of John Hughes made me think of the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris samples his coughing and puking on an E-mu Emulator II, and plays them back to the tune of the Blue Danube waltz. The exact same technology is used on the soundtrack by Yello for their song “Oh Yeah.”

Vocalist Dieter Meier recorded the words “oh oh, chicka chicka” and “oh yeah” at a relatively normal pitch into the sampler, and keyboardist Boris Blank played them back lower and slowed down. There are also some cool sampled Tarzan yells and Lord Of The Rings synthesized men’s chorus. This track could have been recorded last week.

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