Online Discussion #4 is available for comments February 27-March 6. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
For most Online Discussions, I choose a topic I want to cover, but some discussions are suggested by students—this one is an example of the latter.
Last semester, a student told me that pop music was more creative and better than classical music because it had remixes. And not just that it had remixes but that it invented them. This conversation took place late in the semester, and I realized, for the first time in several years of teaching, that I’d been presenting classical music as if every work was original—inspired by the past and fitting within an inherited framework, to be sure, but original. I had been blinded by my effort to portray a coherent narrative of musical history, representative pieces of each time period, and hugely influential works. And this meant that I had omitted an enormous swath of musical output: the pastiche, the parody, or the remix.
One of my favorite remixed ear-worms comes in MC Solaar’s 1997 “Paradisiaque”:
It samples Diana Ross’s 1976 “Love Hangover,” and it feels like MC Solaar was inspired to re-imagine the first song in a new way (more specifically, MC Solaar’s work adds a new vocal layer on top of and bass line under an edited, sped-up version snipped of the introduction from Ross’ hit)
By this definition (a musician is inspired to do something new with a musical idea that’s already been created), classical musicians remix all the time! Taking a melody and dressing it up in new musical clothes (new instrumentation, new harmony, new texture, new added countermelody) is the defining feature of nearly all classical music. As we’ll see in class, the most common form used by musicians from the 1750s to today, sonata form, relies on “remixing” for the entirety of its development section.
Time travel and musicking
Remixes are also a call-back to Online Discussion #3—listening to remixed, sampled, or reworked pieces like this can be an even richer experience (i.e., one that has more layers and nuance) if you are familiar with the original version; it’s like you’re experiencing two pieces at once!
This is what happens to my sister’s mom, a sweet 70-something-year-old lady who becomes both confused and disappointed when this song comes on the radio (Mary J. Blige and Method Man, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need”, 1995—and version is itself a remix of Method Man’s 1994″All I Need”!)…
…because she starts experiencing this one in her head (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” 1968):
Sampling, remixing, or covers often arise out of admiration: enjoying another’s work in such a way that it inspires you to do something new with it. Or the sampled work is really catchy and the musician can’t get it out of their head when they sit down to compose or create.
The armed man
That’s the case with what may be the most-borrowed song you’ve never heard of, a pop song of the Renaissance era, L’homme armé (The armed man):
The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared.
Composers used this little ditty as the basis of dozens of other works, notably masses (the prayers of the Catholic Church). The melody would be sung in one of the voice parts, with new harmonies composed to sit on top of or underneath it. There are 40 surviving works from the 15th and 16th centuries that use L’homme armé as their starting point and then remix the original melody. Here is one from Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474):
Sometimes non-musicians didn’t even know they were listening to a popular song woven into their prayers, and this became a source of contention in the Catholic Church and was abolished during the Counter-Reformation (1545-63). We’ll revisit this issue of what’s considered “appropriate” in religious settings in class later in the semester.
The birth of polyphony
Using an existing melody (often something popular, like a children’s song or drinking song) as the basis of a new piece of music was common outside of religious music, too. This was one of the avenues via which composers in the Renaissance experimented and discovered the art of writing pleasing polyphony: starting with an established melody that already works musically and adding something to it. A motet, for example, was a genre of song that often featured a borrowed melody with new melodies added on top (polyphony), usually with the new melodies sung in a different language!
Aucun vont / Amor qui cor / Kyrie (Anonymous) is an example of a motet in 3 languages: French (highest), Latin (middle), and Greek (lowest). Each one is about different levels of love: the French line is about those who are unfaithful in relationships; the middle line says that those who love ephemeral, worldly things have less room for God in their hearts; and the lowest line sings “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy)—devotional love. It’s a re-imagining of a common idea (the Kyrie, which we’ve heard an example of in class), dressed up in a totally new musical context.
Another kind of “remix” is the kind found in concert showpieces: opportunities for a performer to show off brilliant technique by adding variations to an existing melody. It was quite common in the 19th century for a traveling composer-performer to adapt the melodies of whatever opera was hot at the time into of a set of fantasy-variations on it. Audiences loved to hear melodies they already knew from the opera (much like we often love a good sample in hip-hop today), and they enjoyed being impressed with the performer’s virtuosity.
Composing a set of variations could also be a way for a composer to elevate a boring piece of music or flex their compositional chops. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (1823) begin with an innocuous tune (composed by Anton Diabelli) and take it on a remarkable, virtuosic journey:
A composer might also write a set of variations on their own music—remixing themselves, in effect. Kanye is not the first musician to be inspired by his own work! For example, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741) were written, as the story goes, to be played to lull an insomniac aristocrat to sleep, and they begin with a simple melody (an aria) written by Bach:
Finally, there’s a more abstract kind of remix that crops up all the time in the classical music world in the form of rehashing a trope or general idea which another artist has already explored. We’ve already seen Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty (Online Discussion #2), which presented a new take on the well-known fairy tale: it effectively remixes the story in a new medium. Other works reinterpret a familiar character by placing them in a new context: Orpheus from Greek mythology and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust were and continue to be two extremely common topics of musical inspiration and reimagining.
Most abstractly, composers create symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and other genres that have been done thousands of times before, reusing forms and gestures—the framework they use to present their musical ideas isn’t original, but their surface-level musical ideas (melody, harmony, texture, instrumentation) can be: they remix the form. In doing so, they’re checking off all the boxes that broadly define “remix”: 1) being inspired by or admiring previous artists’ work, 2) creating a situation in which the listener can simultaneously experience past works that share some musical DNA, and 3) the work is a response or continuation of an ongoing discussion between artists.
The more abstract or broad the definition of “remix” becomes, the less room there is for anything to be considered original at all. If, as James Baldwin (1965) argues, “history is literally present in all that we do,” that we are “unconsciously controlled” by history and the framework and systems we inherit, then we are not free to do absolutely anything we choose. We are not free to create out of the blue—everything is a reaction to something that has come before, whether we act in admiration or in rejection or even in ignorance, we have still reacted to what we inherit.
One student last semester wrote a blog post about his effort to grapple with the fact that sampling means a musician’s work isn’t 100% original. Originality as a synonym for creativity is often something that we say we value. But I would argue that we devalue creativity by lumping it together with originality—we are not creative because we are original, but rather we are creative despite the fact that we are unoriginal. It is the constraints of unoriginality that allow for creativity at all.
Questions to get the conversation started:
Don’t feel like you need to answer all of these questions, and there’s no need to restate the question in your comment. Think of your responses to these questions as interesting things you would say out loud—be clear, be concise, and leave room for others to respond. The most effective comments are brief, contain specific examples, and would feel reasonable to say in a stimulating conversation to another person directly.
- Do you find any of the “remixes” presented in this discussion to be more “original” than the others? Why?
- Why do you think people often value or appreciate the idea of “originality”? How do you define “originality” (particularly in light of the broadened definition of “remix” used in this discussion)? Does originality exist?
- Thinking back to Online Discussion #3, what kind of “unstuck” experiences have you had while listening to a remix, sample, or cover?