I recently began my second semester of teaching Music Technology 101 at Montclair State University. In a perfect world, I’d follow Mike Medvinsky’s lead and dive straight into creative music-making on day one. However, there are logistical reasons to save that for day two. Instead, I started the class with a listening party, a kind of electronic popular music tasting menu. I kicked things off with “Umbrella” by Rihanna.
I chose this song because of its main drum loop, which is a factory sound that comes with GarageBand called Vintage Funk Kit 03–slow it down to 90 bpm and you’ll hear it. The first several class projects use GarageBand, and I like the students to feel like they’re being empowered to create real music in the class, not just performing academic exercises.
Frank Ocean is the R&B singer of the moment. Does he merit all they hype? There’s no doubt but that the man can sing. I first heard him in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s tremendous “No Church In The Wild,” which owes a lot of its intensity to Ocean’s vocals. He’s been releasing some good mixtapes too. Some of his sudden fame is also due to his implicit coming-out moment, a remarkable Tumblr post talking openly about his feelings for another man. In a world where Jay-Z’s voicing ambiguous support for gay marriage is headline news, Ocean’s open love letter is bold indeed.
The online Frank Ocean buzz reached such a pitch that I finally took the plunge on his first major-label release, Channel Orange. It’s the first full album of new music I’ve bought since The Archandroid by Janelle Monáe. Does it merit the hype? I don’t know yet. I think so. It’s strange and idiosyncratic. Some of it is boilerplate R&B, some of it is wildly experimental, Most falls somewhere in between. One song that jumps out at me is “Super Rich Kids,” featuring the utterly affectless rapping of Earl Sweatshirt.
This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.
Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.
Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.
Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?
I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.
Here’s an email conversation I’ve been having with my friend Greg Brown about Kanye West’s recent albums. Greg is a classical composer and performer with a much more avant-garde sensibility than mine. The exchange is lightly edited for clarity.
Greg: I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak and Twisted Fantasy. I’m really enjoying them. Far more than I thought I would. I think Auto-tune here is somehow protective for Kanye when he is expressing emotion in a genre where that is not really smiled on. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I think the dehumanizing of the human voice is somehow a foil for the expression of inner turmoil. It’s haunting.
Ethan: Yes! Absolutely. The Auto-tune gives Ye a way to be the sensitive, vulnerable singer, as opposed to the swaggering rapper. And I like the similar sonic palettes between 808s and Fantasy, except 808s is sparse and Fantasy is full. And the thing of using tuned 808 kick drums to play the basslines is so hip.
Greg: The hard part for me to wrap my head around is the fact that Auto-tune is a filter, a dehumanizer, and it manages to make Kanye both closer and more human.
Ethan: I have a broader philosophical idea brewing about the concepts of “dehumanizing” and “posthuman” and how they’re really kind of meaningless, at least as applied to music. How can things that humans create be dehumanizing? Everyone involved in the production of Kanye’s albums is human. Auto-tune is a novel way of sounding human, but it’s still human, just like the sound of reverb or EQ or compression.
Greg: Yes — I have similar issues with natural vs. unnatural in general. Humans are natural, therefore everything we do is also natural.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
DJ BC is my favorite mashup artist right now. He deserves the nod just for Snoop’s Nu Shooz:
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When I was a kid, I’d listen to music and wonder, why is this chord progression so much more satisfying than that one? Now I know the answer: secondary dominants, chords that temporarily change the key in a logical-sounding way. If you want to take your songwriting in a more sophisticated direction, you definitely want to get hip to secondary dominants.
Why does folk music collector Alan Lomax have a copyright interest in “Takeover” by Jay-Z?
I learned the answer from Creative License: The Law And Culture Of Digital Sampling by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola. It’s a companion book to the invaluable documentary Copyright Criminals. The story of Jay-Z and Alan Lomax isn’t quite as epic a copyright fail as the Biz Markie lawsuit or the story of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” but it’s still pretty absurd.
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.