Sunday, May 04, 2008

Virtuosos, Rock Stars and Remix Culture

We often hear the truism that "remix culture is not new", and we all know generally that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, for example, involve the "remix" of tales in the Creative Commons of their own times, modified for enhanced story-telling and then-contemporary editorial standards.

In music, too, we know that folk music almost by definition is an evolution of remixes and that in classical music borrowing of melodies and ideas is as old as the form itself.

This week, though, the very entertaining radio show Exploring Music featured an entire week of
discussion of the transcription and borrowing in classical music, called "New Wine in Old Bottles". I heard a good bit of several episodes (sadly, not available on a podcast), but one of the featured topics sent me back to the books, because it
reminded me of how vital remix culture was in the era before recording technology. Remixes back then required transcriptions and new performances of the pieces created, to make new pieces. Transcription/remix culture provides a set of parallels that might help us understand that what we are doing is not some odd form of new piracy, but instead a licensed continuation of a tradition that made sense and great music.

Take this fellow Franz Liszt. A piano virtuoso capable of theatrical pyrotechnics,
he was in some ways a pre-20th Century "rock star". He made his living and his reputation by his amazing skill at the piano--and like a more modern celebrity,
lived a life filled with casual relationships with the beautiful and interesting, intense and intriguing religious enthusiasms, and serious debates among his peers about whether anyone so popular could in fact be a great composer.

Liszt's instrument was the piano. However, when he was a young man, he was entirely taken by the work of his era's greatest violinist, Paganini. One could argue that Paganini was among any era's greatest violinists--like Liszt, he had a technical mastery that was three parts genius and one part circus--as if everything that every carnival midway sideshow barker ever said was true.

Liszt at 20 heard Paganini, then 50, perform. He was so swept away that he began to convert Pagainin's violin studies into piano pieces. His remix (technically a transcription) of Paganini's "A minor caprice (Nr. 24)" for piano both caused him controversy in his time and gives us a sense of his piano genius in our time. Liszt demonstrated that, like Paganini had on the violin, he could do acrobatics on the piano that nobody else in his time could do. The piece is simply lovely--and its dexterity and adventure completely accessible even to those of us raised on guitar solos and killer beats.

In Liszt's day, transcriptions of works from the "Creative Commons" of that time was not only done, but often expected. Even after Liszt's time, numerous composers were swayed by the same piece to do transcriptions--including Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

Lest we come to believe that this is all entirely ancient history, I might also point out that Andrew Lloyd Webber's own variations on the Paganini piece reached number 2 in the UK pop charts in the 1970s.

Lately, I see some webloggers write about "remix culture" as if it were a new and unwelcome stepchild utilized only by various undesirables.

But we don't have to rely on generalities to see how "remix culture" predates us--and how it advanced and helped make classical music. We can cite chapter and verse--and the Liszt is one palpable and easy example.

I am indebted to Exploring Music for providing a week of transcriptions from one composer to another, and one form to another. Some, like Aaron Copland's use of the Shaker song "Simple Gifts" in his amazing "Appalachian Spring", were well known--but a number were charming new stories I had not heard before this week.

We all tend to make remixes more than we tend to discuss high-flown concepts--
but my simple premise is that we should never forget that we are part of a conversation about permissive licensing and its virtue in advancing the cause of music. Only one person can be a Liszt or a Rachmaninoff. But each of us in our humble way can work, through voluntary licensing, to create a "creator-safe" zone
for using samples and 'pellas to share culture. Our modes may be hip-hop or electronica or rock (or ambient), but the point is the same--we advance a sharing economy, and the creative weight of history is with us, not against us.


jp said...

Excellent post G..the more I become involved with CC, the more I understand the culture of open sharing and building, not only music, but all information.

I also readily understand why the forces of corporate culture resist it so strongly. And unfortunately a lot of musicians and writers are unwitting shills for these forces.

spinmeister said...

great post indeed, just one question:

Isn't the Creative Commons really a form of copyright? i.e. it's about "some rights reserved" And that is a rather new legal construct and most certainly not the environment that Shakespeare operated in - or the Grimm brothers or Franz the rockstar :-)

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say, that they operated in the "public domain", which also still exists?

Gurdonark said...


by Liszt's time, the concept of monarch-generated exclusive rights of authorship or publication had been recognized in this country or that. I am anything but an intellectual property historian, but I believe that copyright of literature existed in France a good while before a lot of transcriptions occurred. I have not done the research as to music. Liszt was in France when he heard Paganini, and hence I use France rather than a country of origin.

"isn't the Creative Commons really a form of copyright?".

I'm going to avoid giving legal advice here, as legal advice on the internet is always a bad idea.

I'm going to instead quote the site,
and its explanation of how
Creative Commons licenses are a way to liberally license copyrighted material:

"Too often the debate over creative control tends to the extremes. At one pole is a vision of total control — a world in which every last use of a work is regulated and in which “all rights reserved” (and then some) is the norm. At the other end is a vision of anarchy — a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation. Balance, compromise, and moderation — once the driving forces of a copyright system that valued innovation and protection equally — have become endangered species.

Creative Commons is working to revive them. We use private rights to create public goods: creative works set free for certain uses. Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them — to declare “some rights reserved.”
--from home page.

Gurdonark said...


I think that the key concept to me is the voluntary nature of liberal licensing. I don't oppose all copyright protection, though the current US copyright law needs some revisions (and an end to artifical extensions of term).
I favor CC because it lets
creators release into the ether things that others can use or share.

It's not surprising that some are threatenened by the liberal licensing of works, but ultimately one thrill of ownership is the thrill of the ability to give.

I am not sure what will be the ultimate way forward for music creators--but I am sure that the "old way" of corporate hegemony is over--and a "new way" of Creative Commons licensing has begun.

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