Artistic citizenship in the age of Trump

Public-facing note taking for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott

This week I’m reading about the social and ethical responsibilities of artists generally, and musicians and music educators in particular. That topic is especially relevant at the moment.  

Before we get to the moral philosophy aspect, let’s talk about this performance. Why is it so good? Movies and TV have run “Hallelujah” into the ground, but for good reason. The song blends joy and pain together as well as any song ever has.It’s right there in the first verse: “the minor fall, and the major lift.” It’s the same reason we love “Amazing Grace,” and the blues.

You can hear Kate McKinnon’s Leonard Cohen tribute as the concession speech Hillary Clinton would have made in a perfect world. This verse in particular gave me chills:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

You can also hear it as an expression of Kate McKinnon herself, a queer woman mourning the world of growing inclusiveness that she thought she was moving into, the one we all thought we were moving into. And you can hear Leonard Cohen’s bitter irony, too. SNL had Trump as its host just last year, and they’re as much to blame for normalizing him as anyone.

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Originality in Digital Music

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.

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