Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘remix’

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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24 SEPTEMBER, 2013

If Dogs Run Free: Bob Dylan’s 1970 Classic, Adapted by Illustrator Scott Campbell

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“If dogs run free, then why not we / Across the swooping plain?”

As a lover of canine-centric literature and art, an aficionado of lesser-known children’s books by luminaries of grown-up culture — including gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike — and a previous admirer of Bob Dylan’s music adapted in picturebook form, I was thrilled for the release of If Dogs Run Free (public library) — an utterly delightful adaptation of the beloved 1970 Dylan song from the album New Morning by celebrated illustrator Scott Campbell.

Pair If Dogs Run Free with this visual rendition of “Forever Young,” then complement with dog-doting children’s books by John Lithgow and Jane Goodall.

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27 AUGUST, 2013

To Be or Not To Be: Hamlet as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novel

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Ophelia as an emancipated science-lover and Hamlet as an emo thirty-something.

Parodies of Shakespeare — such as the recent Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars — may enrage purists as a perversion of the literary canon’s greatest works, but given the Bard’s very existence, or at the very least “his” authorship, is now being pulled into question, it pays to take such parodic homages in good humor rather than outrage. That’s precisely the disarming effect of To Be or Not To Be (public library) by Ryan North, author of the popular webcomic Dinosaur Comics — a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, in which you can experience the Shakespeare classic through the perspective of various characters and alter the course of their fates. It offers a total of 110 alternative death scenes, illustrated by some of today’s most exciting graphic artists, including Brain Pickings favorite Kate Beaton. Self-published and funded on Kickstarter in 2012, the novel set out to raise $20,000 and instead netted $580,905, instantly becoming the most-funded publishing project in the platform’s history by a wide margin.

Though the premise might at first sound silly, underpinning it is a profound existential insight: The real question isn’t whether “to be or not to be,” but how to be, and that the answer to it is very much a choice — a choice that frames the entire quality of our existence. At least that’s how I chose to read it.

While many of the plot lines deviate from the Bard’s vision in radical ways — including dinosaurs, robots, and one sort-of-feminist trail in which Ophelia sheds the skin of docile victim to emerge as a smart, self-sufficient woman in charge of her own fate, an “awesome lady in her late 20s, with a calm, competent, and resourceful demeanour” and a penchant for science — there is solace for traditionalists. The iconic Yorick skull, which over the centuries has become the visual synonym for the play, marks the choices that lead to Shakespeare’s original plot.

North also points out that Shakespeare was himself a proponent of remix culture as a creative engine, generously borrowing from existing literature when writing his plays — Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was based on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet” — so the Bard likely wouldn’t have objected to a playful remix of Hamlet.

For a layer of added bonus, To Be or Not To Be benefits the Canadian Cancer Society. Complement it with The Graphic Canon vol. 3 — modern artists’ visual syntheses of literary classics.

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