Saturday, April 16, 2016

Alex Ross at the New Yorker on the recent Zeppelin suit over "Stairway"

The differences between the riffs in the songs, for those who have gone to hear them (not that I really "want" to hear the riff from Stairway for the 28,000th time in and of itself), the differences are more pronounced than the similarities.  Gut reaction, if we had a more coherent and competent music education in our public schools this kind of case couldn't even get to the point where a jury would ask to get involved.  If we had a more robust music education curriculum in the schools we could give kids a chance to learn what public domain means so that if they're going to crib the riffs and chord changes from existing songs they'll be given enough education courtesy of Uncle Sam to reduce the likelihood of copyright infringement cases.  Think of it as a public service to the courts of our nation.  Not that it will necessarily make a difference to the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, I just wonder whether or not copyright suits couldn't be invoked as a reason musicians could say we should have music education as a more robust part of the standard school curriculum. 

Anyway, on to Ross:


if “Stairway to Heaven” is plagiarized, so is a good portion of the classical canon. Bach, the master of them all, routinely helped himself to the music of colleagues and predecessors. To name one of countless examples, the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor takes off from AndrĂ© Raison’s Trio en Passacaille, in the same key. Of course, the modern concept of intellectual property did not exist during the Baroque; a musician such as Bach was considered not an individual genius but a craftsman working with material in circulation. This raises the question of whether the mammoth achievement of Bach and other canonical composers did not in some way depend on a culture of borrowing. Would Bach have been able to reach so high if he had not stood upon an edifice of extant music? [emphasis added]

The latter-day insistence on unambiguous originality in musical composition—or in literature, for that matter—betrays a small-mindedness about the nature of creativity. T. S. Eliot famously commented, in 1920, that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” and added that the “good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique.” In other words, a borrowed idea can become the kernel of a wholly original thought. This is what Bach does in the Passacaglia and Fugue; it’s what Shakespeare does throughout his plays. These days, though, we seem to want geniuses who play by the rules and give due credit to their colleagues; we want great art executed in the manner of a scholarly paper, with painstaking acknowledgments and footnotes. Small wonder that in the absence of such art, we keep falling back on the past.
As I've written before, one of the dilemmas of our era of the arts, a problem that was pretty directly broached by the old lefty Dwight Macdonald in "Masscult and Midcult" is that the old aristocratic patronage dynamic was better for artists than the corporate system we've been living with over the last half century or so.  Why?  Well, it was implied in Macdonald's argument but it could be directly stated, the aristocrat directly contracted with an artist over labor and articulated expectations.  The Esterhazy estate was paying Haydn for labor and services rendered, not based on mechanical royalties or licensing arrangements.  H. C. Robbins Landon pointed out decades ago that a lot of work Haydn did as a composer became popular via pirated editions. Haydn could literally afford to not care about that because he wasn't being paid piece-rate. 
But he was contracted as part of the military caste.  Come to think of it, Sor was in a military post.  It might be useful to remember how many artists had wealthy aristocratic or high church patrons, and how many had desk jobs in the military or in law (Matiegka, for instance) for how they paid the bills (or didn't!) while they pursued artistic activity.  Scott Timberg's attempts at wit withstanding, the arts have always been a leisure activity, especially for those who have been able to pursue the arts as a paid vocation.  For the rest of us who make art and don't necessarily get paid for it, that's "folk art" ... sort of. But we live in an era where popular culture is most emphatically not folk culture. 
Let's flip around an axiom about taxes.  You may have heard the proverb that it's your moral obligation as a citizen to pay your taxes but it's also in your best interest to pay as little tax as you can legally manage.  Let's apply that jocular axiom to intellectual property.  You shouldn't use musical riffs from people who are 1) alive enough to sue you for plagiarism 2) may be dead but have work that isn't in the public domain, BUT there's no artistically credible reason to not rip off the best riffs you can find from the public domain and do something new and interesting with them.
I've written this sentiment before but what I find troubling about our popular culture is less that all the pop songs so often seem to sound the same (the sameness of music in any given generation of a culture is hard to miss when you consider how many sonatas from the later 1700s bleed together), than that we now live in a culture in which the popular culture has virtually no public domain.  Even half a century ago there was a ton of stuff that was practically public domain that basically ISN'T after about the 1970s.  Had the current regime of copyright and licensing laws been in place there's a major chunk of Charles Ives that couldn't have been published ... well ... Ives could have afforded to pay the licensing fees because he sold insurance ... but ... I hope you get the idea.
We have a lot of people clinging to the idea of unambiguous originality as an artistic ideal in an era where technology has rendered the possibility of unambiguous originality in the arts pretty close to the point of zero.  This does not necessarily mean we live in an era of pastiche. Reappropriation is inherent in the history of music.  If Martin Luther tinkered with Gregorian chants and other songs to translate them into vernacular and adjust them to the vocabulary of his time; if J. S. Bach did that, in turn, for his time; then we live in an era where what some people might be tempted to call "pastiche" is probably not going to be "pastiche" because conscience appropriation of old ideas is any newer now than it was a thousand years ago, it could be because "pastiche" is what we're calling such appropriations in absence of a truly "mainstream" musical style or vocabulary or syntax that could be considered "universal" enough for those appropriations to be assimilated into.
Yet even this notion is a red herring when we remember how many styles and traditions existed in what we now call the Baroque era.  It can be easy, thanks to the taxonomies of critical/scholastic establishments, to do a retcon (let comics readers understand) in which eras of music are treated as more universal than they were. 
An aesthetic/ideological insistence on unambiguous originality (which I'd say most fans of the arts would grant to Alex Ross "is" an ideal we see being celebrated) isn't just small-minded about the nature of creativity, it must insist upon a lie about its nature. But this lie was something that could be danced around in earlier eras for as long as we lacked the technology to preserve and transmit examples of every sort of art from over the last thousand years. If we prize unambiguous originality now we live in an era in which it is more and more impossible to defend the idea that unambiguous originality is even theoretically possible, let alone a practical reality.
The gap between what we sell ourselves and what we do could be summed up in the way I've seen marketing done for cars.  It's a trope that some car manufacturer will have an advertisement with a rock soundtrack and stentorian voice-over where a guy says "We broke all the rules. We re-thought everything.  Introducing ... ."  Then the ad would introduce a car that looks, to this admittedly non-driving guy, like pretty much every other car on the road.  The rules that were broken were probably not the rules of aerodynamics or the functioning of the internal combustion engine.  Perhaps it's inevitable that a culture that prizes the idea that "one voice can change history" is a culture with a roughly century-long history of mass production. There seems to be an exponentially inverse ratio between the celebration of what "one voice" can do in the history of our society in popular culture and the actual likelihood that your one voice will say something that matters in the course of history.  Even if you manage to release a song that becomes the most overplayed song in the history of pop music in the last forty years you, too, could end up a defendant in a suit because it turns out what you played sounds curiously similar to what someone else played.

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