The approximate reading time of this post is 15 minutes, not counting any audio media. It covers how musicians borrow and adopt instruments or sounds from different individuals, from parts of the world, from different genres, and from different socio-economic identities, blurring the sense of what is “authentic” along the way.
As you learn about the different ways musical ideas migrate across the globe and across different time periods, think about how some of these might no longer be possible or will only continue in very different ways based on how our world has changed as a result of Covid-19 in the just the past few months.
Part I: Examples of migrating sounds
As consumers and audience members, it’s easy for us to take musical sounds for granted—it seems like those sounds emerge out of nowhere, just for us, in that moment when we listen. But sounds come from somewhere—even “new” or “original” musical ideas grow out of or build upon musical ideas that have come before. Musical ideas travel across time, geography, and genre, and the range of things we consume as listeners affects our expectations of how music “should” sound.
Let’s start with some pop music, by way of a piece of classical music. Although Igor Stravinsky composed his ballet The Firebird in 1909, you’ve actually been listening to snippets of it most of your life.
Turtles all the way down
Modern pop music borrows a sound from pop music of the 1980s, and pop music of the 1980s was borrowing from classical music of the early 20th century. But as you know by now, Stravinsky isn’t the beginning of classical music, not by a long shot. The orchestra he used included winds, string, brass, and percussion—and in our discussion on instruments and voice types you noticed that not all of those instruments were used in the earliest symphonies. They all got there somehow.
Let’s take a closer look at percussion instruments as a case study. They add color, rhythm, volume, and power to the sound of an orchestra, and they’re now considered a standard part of that ensemble. But in the Classical era (when the ensemble we call an orchestra first emerged), the ensemble emphasized string instruments, along with a handful of woodwinds, but brass was quite rare and percussion was almost never heard—it wasn’t yet part of the “normal” sounds that European listeners expected from their music.
However, musicians from other parts of the world at that time were making much more use of percussion. In the Ottoman Empire, the Janissary bands that heralded the arrival of the Emperor used percussion and nasal-sounding wind instruments that were unfamiliar, frightening, and powerful-sounding for Europeans.
People living in Europe became familiar with these sounds during the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars (1526-1791), when Turkish armies made use of psychological warfare by having their Janissary bands perform outside the walls of a city under siege, psyching up their own troops and intimidating the citizens trapped inside. For European musicians like Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, these sounds were inspiring—a fresh set of orchestral colors to use and exploit.
In this slow movement from a symphony by Haydn, the percussion makes a grand, heavy entrance at around 1:37, a total contrast to the preceding piano, delicate, sweet sound of the strings and woodwinds (Symphony No. 100 “Military”, II. Allegretto, 1793).
What does it mean to “remix”?
One 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! However, in classical music not every work is wholly original or pretends to be—an enormous swath of musical output is of the kind we can call a pastiche, a parody, or a remix.
One of my favorite remixed ear-worms comes in MC Solaar’s 1997 “Paradisiaque”:
It samples Diana Ross’s 1976 “Love Hangover,” and listening to 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 off the introduction from Ross’ hit).
Let’s define “remixing” as when a musician is inspired to do something new with a musical idea that’s already been created. By this definition, 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, etc.) is the defining feature of nearly all classical music—musical form is just repetition, contrast, and variation. The most common form used by musicians from the 1750s to today, sonata form, relies on “remixing” for the entirety of its development section.
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 song, “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 something new.
The armed man
That’s the case with what may be the most-borrowed song you’ve probably 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).
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. 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 that ends up sounding very little like the original:
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: effectively remixing a familiar story in a new medium. Schubert’s Lied, Der Erlkonig, is a good example of this. 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 re-imagining.
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.
Part II: Modern implications
Perfectionism, “authenticity,” and listener expectations
The thing about all these processes of borrowing, remixing, or using sounds from other regions of the world, other pieces, or other styles is that it shapes the new sense of what’s “normal”—music keeps evolving and sounds keep migrating. The “remixed” version becomes the new barometer of “normal” to be played with or built upon—the Stravinsky orchestra hit becomes the “normal” sound of pop music, with no connection to its classical origins; the percussion of the European orchestra becomes the “normal” instrumentation, with no connection to the Middle East. In particular, the way people make and consume music in the 21st century raises some interesting questions in terms of what is “real”—a topic touched upon in our most recent in-class discussion. The idea of “realness” or “authenticity” comes up when we think about the process of remixing or borrowing more abstract ideas (like style or accents) from other musicians, too.
The ascendancy and primacy of recorded music in the 20th century has changed how music is heard as well as how it is made. Improvements in microphones, mixers, and the advent of digital recording processes and editing software have all made it much easier to produce music that sounds excellent: rich, clear, enticing, and beautiful. Compare these two recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826): the first was recorded by the Léner String Quartet in 1924—In addition to the omnipresent hiss of the recording technology itself, the sound is tinny, thin, and far-away, with very little audible dynamic or timbral contrast:
On the other hand, a live performance by the American String Quartet in 2013 is clear, conveys all the nuances and subtleties of the players, and has an overall rich or round sound quality:
The 1924 recording is more likely to be authentic—it took place closer to Beethoven’s lifetime, so the chances that one of the members of the string quartet knew someone who knew Beethoven aren’t impossible. That doesn’t mean it’s a better performance or that a listener would choose it over the 2013 recording.
The ubiquity of recorded music has two major effects on how we consume music and what we expect from it as listeners:
- Music should sound perfect; and
- Music should sound perfect all the time.
These expectations feed into how music gets made. When a classical musician makes an album (except for recordings of live performances), the goal is a product that is worth listening to multiple times, one without glaring flaws. The process is defined by obsessing over details: it is a painstaking marathon of recording every sound over and over again, sometimes playing the same 15 seconds of music (called a “take”) dozens of times to make sure that all aspects of the performance match with what the musician intended (timing, vibrato, intonation, coordination, tone quality). Then, the musician(s) will select the best takes, and the sound engineer will digitally stitch all these patchwork pieces of the performance together so that every single sound is as “perfect” as it can be.
For example, when I recorded a chamber music album in 2016, we took 55 takes of one 9-minute piece of music over the course of a single afternoon—this is quite a small number for a classical recording! A few weeks later, I listened all the takes and told the engineer that I wanted the first 3 notes from take 4, followed by two measures from take 15, then two beats from take 1, etc. all the way through the piece. All the takes are my playing, but I essentially created a Frankenstein performance of it, choosing the mini-performances in which I best executed my intentions. (The album is available here).
Perfectionism is all over the pop music industry, as well. In the past when physical CDs were the primary form of music distribution, the process of releasing music took much longer than it does now. After writing music, recording it in the studio, mixing, and editing, it would take around 6 weeks for the audio to be encoded onto CDs, CD jackets and booklets to be printed, and the product to be physically shipped to record stores. During this time, there would be a press tour to amp up excitement for the release, followed by a release party and scheduled date that consumers could purchase the album in stores. Audiences had to be patient, and artists couldn’t go back an alter their work once the marketing timeline had begun. However, most artists today rely much more heavily (or even exclusively) on digital releases of their work: uploading music to SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Pandora, Spotify, or YouTube. This means that the lead time between finishing a recording and making it available to the public can be reduced to a few hours rather than weeks. It also means that artists don’t necessarily have to adhere to firm deadlines and can instead continue to alter their music as long as they like–if they push back the drop date by a few hours, a couple days, or a year, there isn’t an expensive pre-scheduled marketing campaign or tour that is thrown out of whack. An article by Joe Coscarelli in The New York Times (August 5, 2016) outlines the ways in which established and new artists use the Internet to release their music (and have the flexibility to continue to tweak their tracks to meet their perfectionist creative standards). He discusses primarily Frank Ocean but also Kanye West, Beyoncé, and independent artists: Coscarelli, the Sudden Digital Drop – The New York Times
So what does this perfectionism do to the live music experience? On the classical side, there is a general expectation that the live performance will be as flawless as the studio version. It’s an impossibly high standard! Some audiophiles (people who love recorded sound) find live performances frustrating because the sound is imperfect: musicians make mistakes in live performances, people in the audience cough or shuffle their papers, or the sound in the hall might not be as pure as it is on their home speaker system.
Because most audience members come into contact with pieces of music first through recordings (perfect recordings!), their ears are primed to expect that every time they hear a given piece it will sound just as perfect as their favorite recording. In turn, performers try to give the audience what they want: a flawless performance that matches a great recording. The problem with a flawless performance is that in order to play flawlessly, you must practice flawlessly–over and over and over again, until every sound comes out exactly the same way every single time and matches audience’s expectations. Performers are far less likely today to try something new or unprecedented on stage (or in an audition) than they were in the 19th century or first half of the 20th century.
The expectation that a live performance will match the crisp, coordinated, and sumptuous sound of a recorded album affects how many non-classical musicians perform, as well. Since the 1960s, the use of pre-recorded backing tracks for all or some of the sounds that comprise a “live” performance has become nearly ubiquitous (including vocals, backing vocals, instrumental tracks). There are many possible permutations of this, described here and here. To some degree this makes sense, since performers can’t dance and sing well simultaneously (think about what happens to your voice when you try to talk while jogging or doing jumping jacks). Sometimes “live” performances are completely fake, as with this list of examples from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyoncé, Eminem, Nirvana, Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Jay-Z. And “Lip Sync Battle” was so popular on Jimmy Fallon that it’s now a well-rated spin-off show hosted by LL Cool J—it’s as if we love the energy and illusion of performance but not necessarily the music making.
Smoke and mirrors: What’s “authentic”?
Despite all the editing that goes on behind the scenes, when we talk about authenticity in music sometimes we’re referring to the heartfelt “self-expression” a singer exhibits—but what if the sentiments being expressed are really someone else’s creation, a manipulation of our expectations as listeners? So much happens behind the scenes in pop music that comprises an artist’s public identity or image: making them sound the way they do by writing lyrics and producing tracks, making them look the way they do through fashion and styling, making them have a particular persona through interview coaching, scheduling appearances at certain events, creating beefs with other artists, or selling photographs to tabloids. An “artist” is oftentimes actually an army of several dozen people working together, perhaps with input from focus groups, to create a coherent marketing product (that happens to include music).
For example, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Pink, Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, The Weeknd, Fifth Harmony, Maroon 5, Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears are all pop artists who present distinctly different personas and musical identities to the public, but much of their music is all written by the same handful of song writers: Max Martin and Dr. Luke (whose work was featured in the video at the beginning of this post), often working together, or Karl Martin Sandberg. Max Martin’s writing credit discography ranges from Bon Jovi to Ariana Grande; Dr. Luke’s is similarly prolific, including Three 6 Mafia and Weezer. Other ubiquitous songwriters who have created the musical identities of headlining artists over the last 30 years include Babyface, Pharrell Williams, RedOne, Rick Rubin, and Sia.
The idea of authenticity is often front-and-center in hip-hop: staying true to oneself, not selling out, or remaining true to one’s home, origins, and community.
“Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?” —Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady” (2000)
“I rap and I’m real / I’m one of the few here.” —Jay-Z, “Real As It Gets” (2009)
“First things first, I’m the realest.” —Iggy Azalea, “Fancy” (2014)
But, Iggy Azalea is liar. She has never been in “da murder business,” and she adopts an accent that implies a different country, ethnic group, and socio-economic class than the reality of her life. Much of the frustration with Azalea’s posturing is that it’s an example of cultural appropriation: she wears the accent like a coat, taking it off whenever she wants, and doing so without having to bear any of the burden of the lived experiences that create that traditionally black sonic identity. When she takes it off, she gets to return to the relative privilege of being a white Australian woman.
But it’s also possible to view Azalea’s behavior as fundamentally the same as how other musicians approach music making and remixing—sound migration. Musicians use different sounds in different settings to fit audience expectations, and those expectations transcend the limitations of geography, time, and genre. Is the true measure authentic identity in hip-hop—or any of these genres—not to convey one’s lived reality, but simply to entertain?
The more abstract or broad the definition of “remix” becomes, and the more we are aware of how sounds “migrate” from one place/time/genre to another, 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” and 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.
“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.