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Posts Tagged ‘music’

04 FEBRUARY, 2014

Compiling as a Creative Act: What Duke Ellington’s Remixing Reveals about Plagiarism and Innovation

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Is genius a mosaic of “magpielike borrowings”?

It has been said that everything is a remix. Even Mark Twain maintained that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” But while it may be a matter of degree rather than kind, surely there must be a difference between unabashed plagiarism and the inevitable derivativeness of acknowledging that everything builds on what came before.

In the altogether fantastic Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013Terry Teachout reveals that for the beloved composer, who was already a man of curious paradoxes, this creative duality was as palpable as the line between plagiarism and originality was blurred. Ellington, it turns out, made a regular habit of “borrowing” melodic fragments composed by the soloists in his famed orchestra, then transforming them into hit songs — without credit, creative or financial, to the originators. Teachout writes:

Not only was Ellington inspired by the sounds and styles of his musicians, but he plucked bits and pieces from their solos and wove them into his compositions. Some of his most popular songs were spun out of melodic fragments that he gleaned from his close listening on the bandstand each night. “He could hear a guy play something and take a pencil and scribble a little thing,” the pianist Jimmy Rowles said. “The next night there would be an arrangement of that thing the guy played. And nobody knew where it came from.” This symbiotic relationship was important to Ellington’s success as a popular songwriter, since his prodigal gifts did not include the lucrative ability to casually toss off easily hummable tunes. He had to work at it, and sometimes he needed a little help. “More than once,” Rex Stewart recalled, “a lick which started out as a rhythmic background for a solo or a response to another lick eventually became a hit record, once Duke’s fertile imagination took over and provided the proper framework.” He took it for granted that such joint creations were his sole property, but if payment was unavoidable, he tried when possible to dole out modest flat fees rather than share with his musicians the publishing rights to (and royalties from) the pieces that he based on their “licks.” It was as much a matter of vanity as money, for Ellington preferred for the public to think that he did it all by himself.

Ellington’s soloists took his “magpielike borrowings” with varying degrees of emotion. Teachout cites one, who found them almost amusing:

Oh, he’d steal like mad, no questions about it. He’d steal that from his own self.

Another observed them with matter-of-fact fascination that borders on resignation:

All of us used to sell the songs to him for $25. Some of the fellas, in later years, they sued him. But I didn’t do it. No, I believed in if I sold a person something and he paid for it, I didn’t believe in going back, you know, and saying I didn’t mean it that way. So I let it go. It was fun then. You know, I got a lot of experience doing things like that. And it was a pleasure, you know, to have the band to play your song. To have someone playing your song. That’s why we did it.

But some of Ellington’s musicians were outraged by the practice, feeling both creatively betrayed and financially cheated when Ellington transformed material he had bought from them for next to nothing into a hit song that made him a fortune. Teachout writes of the trombonist Lawrence Brown, one of Ellington’s most acclaimed soloists:

Brown saw the practice as a form of musical kleptomania and the Ellington band as a “factory” for the manufacture of collective compositions to which the leader signed his name alone. “Every man in there was a part of the music, the band, and everything that happened, and every successful move that the band made,” he said — and not just to interviewers, but to Ellington himself. “I don’t consider you a composer,” the trombonist told his boss early in their relationship. “You are a compiler.”

Indeed, this image of Ellington as a compiler was a recurring impression, but one of ambiguous interpretation — was it a creative genius that transformed forgettable bits into timeless masterpieces, or an act of betrayal and artistic vanity at the expense of integrity? Trumpeter Clark Terry, one of the stars in Ellington’s band, described Duke as “a compiler of deeds and ideas, with a great facility to make something out of what would possibly have been nothing.” But that’s not necessarily an un-creative thing — in fact, it’s rather the opposite. Teachout cites music critic Alex Ross, who writes in the indispensable The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century:

Ellington carved out his own brand of eminence, redefining composition as a collective art.

In this light, the words of music writer and historian Stanley Dance in the eulogy he delivered for Ellington ring with another layer of poignancy: Dance called him “the greatest innovator in his field, and yet paradoxically a conservative, one who built new things on the best of the old.” It was, no doubt, a compliment on the mastery with which Ellington built on the legacy of jazz, not a dig on his unabashed creative borrowing that bled into plagiarism. And therein lies another eternal human paradox that Ellington embodied: Is it possible to be both a plagiarist and an innovator? Ellington lived the answer with remarkable aplomb.

But the real question, of course, isn’t whether creativity is combinatorial and based on the assemblage of existing materials — it is. What Ellington did was simply follow the fundamental impetus of the creative spirit to combine and recombine old ideas into new ones. How he did it, however, was a failure of creative integrity. Attribution matters, however high up the genius food chain one may be.

In this excerpt from his conversation with Debbie Millman on Design Matters — the full interview is spectacular and very much worth a listen — Teachout discusses Ellington’s prolific borrowing, the conundrum about creativity it presents, how it challenges the “sole genius” myth of art, and how it resembles the process of movie-making:

Why [this] matters so much to us is precisely because Ellington is a great composer [but] our idea of what a great composer is is conditioned by classical music, in which somebody is sitting in a studio and they are writing the piece out from beginning to end and it’s not a mosaic in which they utilize other people’s materials.

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington is itself, for some wonderful symmetry in this context of compiling as a creative act, what Teachout calls “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis.” It is also more than a biography — it’s a masterwork of insight into the convoluted psychology of a conflicted creative genius who forever changed the course of music and culture.

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27 JANUARY, 2014

John Lennon’s Semi-Sensical Poetry and Prose, Illustrated with His Charming Drawings

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Subtle critique of culture’s hypocrisies, wrapped in bewitching gibberish.

There is something singularly heartening about famous creators with secret talents, about discovering such little-known delights as William Faulkner’s Jazz Age art, Richard Feynman’s drawings, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, Rube Goldberg’s political art, Liberace’s culinary zest, Hans Christian Andersen’s sketches, and Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons. Among them, unbeknownst to many, was beloved Beatle John Lennon.

In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works (public library), released to commemorate Lennon’s 70th birthday with introductions by Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, collects his offbeat poetry and prose along with his charming drawings.

Lennon’s whimsical, semi-sensical writings fall somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein. He has a particular penchant for unusual wordplay, inventing nonsensical twists on familiar phrases — “a goodbites sleep,” “one upon a tom,” “all of a surgeon” — inevitably leaving the reader to wonder whether there is a deeper meaning, perhaps a postmodernist or surrealist message, or it’s simply linguistic gibberish for the sake of diversion. Paul McCartney writes in the introduction:

There are bound to be thickheads who will wonder why some of it doesn’t make sense, and others who will search for hidden meanings.

“What’s a Brummer?”

“There’s more to ‘dubb owld boot’ than meets the eye.”

None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough.

Still, underneath the amusing and often perplexing writing lies a subtle undertone of cultural commentary on society’s hypocrisies. Take, for instance, the beginning of “Nicely Nicely Clive”:

To Clive Barrow it was just an ordinary day nothing unusual or strange about it, everything quite navel, nothing outstanley just another day but to Roger it was somthing special, a day amongst days … a red lettuce day … because Roger was getting married and as he dressed that morning he thought about the gay batchelor soups he’d had with all his pals. And Clive said nothing.

To Roger everything was different, wasn’t this the day his Mother had told him about, in his best suit and all that, grimming and shakeing hands, people tying boots and ricebudda on his car. To have and to harm … till death duty part … he knew it all off by hertz.

Lennon’s intentional substitute of “harm” for “hold” paints a portrait of the dark side of marriage and all the pain that can live under the hood of this cultural institution masquerading as pure bliss (which Susan Sontag so grimly termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings”), and his use of the word “duty” calls out the misguided mechanism by which dysfunctional marriages continue “to have and to harm” (perhaps, as Sontag observed, because such arrangements are “based on the principle of inertia.”)

Or take this short poem, titled “Good Dog Nigel”:

Arf, Arf, he goes, a merry sight,
Our little hairy friend,
Arf, Arf, upon the lampost bright
Arfing round the bend.
Nice dog! Goo boy,
Waggie tail and beg,
Clever Nigel, jump for joy

Because we’re putting you to sleep at three of the clock, Nigel.

Much of it, however, as McCartney points out, is simply fun — which is more than enough.

THE MOLDY MOLDY MAN

I’m a moldy moldy man
I’m moldy thru and thru
I’m a moldy moldy man
You would not think it true.
I’m moldy till my eyeballs
I’m moldy til my toe
I will not dance I shyballs
I’m such a humble Joe.

In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works is weird and wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with Yoko Ono’s equally delightful poems, drawings, and instructions for life.

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22 JANUARY, 2014

Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno’s Prompts for Overcoming Creative Block, Inspired by John Cage

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“If a thing can be said, it can be said simply.”

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences,” ambient music pioneer Brian Eno wrote in his diary. It is precisely this ethos that explains Eno’s medium-blind, experience-centric creative impulse underpinning the visual arts career that he undertook in the 1960s, which developed in tandem with his growth as a musician. That is precisely what Christopher Scoates, director of the University Art Museum at California State University, explores with unprecedented depth and dimension in Brian Eno: Visual Music (public library) — a magnificent monograph spanning more than four decades of Eno’s music projects and museum and gallery installations, contextualized amidst a wealth of exhibition notes, sketchbook pages, and other never-before-revealed archival materials.

Brian Eno lecturing at the MoMA, 1990.

In a 2005 interview for the British Arts Council, Eno came to compare his work to that of John Cage:

John Cage … made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I don’t reject interference; I choose to interfere and guide. . . . The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn’t filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don’t interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I’ll ditch it and do something else. This is a fundamental difference between Cage and me. If you consider yourself to be an experimental musician, you’ll have to accept that some of your experiments will fail. Though the failed works might be interesting too, they are not works that you would choose to share with other people or publish.

Indeed, one of Eno’s most interesting projects is a mid-1970s collaboration with the German composer Peter Schmidt, who had just finished a set of 64 drawings based on the I Ching — the same ancient Chinese text that so inspired Cage. Eno and Schmidt created a series of art instructions — an underappreciated art genre unto itself — titled Oblique Strategies. The project consisted of a set of 115 white cards with simple black text in a deck subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. Though a conceptual art project, the cards were essentially a practical tool for generating ideas, breaking through creative block, and breaking free of stale thought patterns.

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno even employed the cards while producing David Bowie’s iconic 1977 album Heroes, using Oblique Strategies on the song “Sense of Doubt.”

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno first confronted this interweaving of music and visual art in his formal arts education, amidst the groundswell of the avant-garde and the Fluxus movement with its bold proclamation that “anything can be art and anyone can do it.” He empathically embraced this inclusive model of creativity in defiance to the specializations and constraints of the traditional art world, asserting:

Art schools manage to balance themselves on the fence between telling you what to do step by step, and leaving you free to do what you want. Their orientation is basically towards the production of specialists, and towards the provision of ambitions, of goals, and identities. The assumption of the correct identity — painter, sculptor — fattens you up for the market. The identity becomes a straightjacket; it becomes progressively more dangerous to step outside of it.

In the foreword, legendary British artist, theorist, and cybernetics pioneer Roy Ascott, who was once Eno’s teacher, attempts to map where Eno belongs in the ecosystem of art:

Any attempt to locate Brian Eno’s work within an historical framework calls for a triple triangulation, whose trig points in the English tradition would seem to be Turner/Elgar/Blake; in Europe, Matisse/Satie/ Bergson, and in the United States Rothko/La Monte Young/Rorty. This triple triangulation will quickly be seen as insufficient, however, since those based on Asian and Middle Eastern cultures will also be required. Soon it would become apparent that a precise or consistent location cannot be determined, except by the abandonment of triangulation in favor of a dynamic network model. Here we would need to adopt second-order cybernetics, the recognition that attempting to measure cultural location is relative, viewer dependent, unstable, shifting, and open-ended. This conclusion reminds me that Brian was the first of my students to understand that cybernetics is philosophy, and that philosophy is cybernetics.

However, this approach to an understanding of Eno’s art would in itself fail to recognize his aesthetic of surrender and meditation, in which respect he seems to adopt a kind of Duchampian indifference, flowing from a process of removal of the Self from reflection, toward a quiet celebration of uneventfulness.

But Eno’s greatest accomplishment — and what makes his visual art so singular yet so widely resonant and important — is arguably his exploration of identity. Amidst a cultural landscape where the creative self is necessarily divided, Eno has consistently conquered a wide array of creative and intellectual fields while at the same time mastering the art of integration. Ascott puts it beautifully:

We cannot grasp the ambient identity of Eno’s artwork without also recognizing the ambient identity of the artist himself. This demands knowing not only where to place him in the spectrum of roles across philosophy, visual arts, performance, music, social and cultural commentary, and activism, but in terms of personae, or as we say now, avatars. . . . Throughout his career, not only has Eno explored identity, he has provided the context, employing light, sound, space, and color, in which each participant can playfully and passionately share in the breaching of the boundaries of the Self.

'77 Million Paintings,' Sydney Opera House, 2009

Brian Eno: Visual Music is beautiful and compelling in its entirety. Complement it with the psychology of getting unstuck and some of today’s most celebrated writers, artists, and designers on how to break through your creative block.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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