Saturday, February 10, 2007

Jonathan Lethem's Article in Harper's Magazine

Jonathan Lethem, author of the very fine novel, Fortress of Solitude, has a fascinating piece in this month's Harper's, called Ecstacy of Influence. In it, he explores the nature and morality of appropriation of artist's work by other artists.
I think we are all inherently appalled by the idea of plagiarism, in any form. Yet, as Lethem says, there are many acts of plagiarism that are, in fact, works of art themselves, and that (in his words) ultimately "make the world larger."
As Lethem points out, many art movements of the 20th and 21st centuries embraced plagiarism in one form or another. Surrealism, Dada and pop art all borrowed freely from the real world, in ways that could easily be interpreted as stealing.
Writers like William Burroughs (and, up in the ivory tower) Pound and Elliott championed the lifting of quotes from other sources to make double points, contextual and symbolic.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of appropriation in both classical and popular music. As Lethem says in his article, blues and jazz are part of an "open source" culture, in which new ideas develop directly out of old.
Pop music is, by its very nature, plagiaristic. There is undoubtedly a totally original chord sequence out there, but it is rare. "Sweet Jane" is an amazing song, one of the greatest songs ever written, in my opinion. Yet it's basic chord structure can be found in hundreds of other songs. And that does not detract in any way from the beauty of "Sweet Jane." If anything, it magnifies it.
In the early '70's, I was living in Albany, New York, working in a record store. I became acquainted with a group of SUNY Albany music students, and one day I went with them to a music lab on the campus. Someone there was painstakingly splicing audio tape together, and when he played it back, I heard a wonderful collage of drones, sound effects, voices and, buried deep in the mix (although it wasn't called that at the time) a snippet of Tommy James' "Mony, Mony." I had never heard anything like that before, but it instantly made sense to me. The idea that you could put together a bunch of already existing sounds, including a piece of a pop song that was, certainly at that time, something barely worth listening to, to create a totally new piece of music, was exhilarating as hell. It was simultaneously high art and pop culture, composition and commentary.
A year later, after I had moved to New York City and started a rock band called Jack Ruby with one of those Albany music students, my principle contribution to the group's first magnus opus, "Bored Stiff," was the line "I couldn't hit it sideways," which I lifted whole from the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray." I didn't (and don't) see that as plagiarism at all, because I felt that by singing that line, I was sending a message to people who would hear the song: those who recognized the origins of the line got Jack Ruby (and Jack Ruby got them), and those who didn't weren't worth our time.
Today, technology has made it possible to create entire songs (whole albums, actually) out of samples and splices of other music. (Listen the The Avalanches, posted below.) There is no question in my mind that the composers and musicians employing this methodology are expanding the definition of art.
Lethem's article explores all this, and many other things. It's thought provoking and provocative, entertaining and educational.
(My only objection is to his unnecessary epilogue, which is a Rick Moody-esque list of footnotes in which he proudly demonstrates that much of the article was written by lifting sentences and paragraphs from other writers.)
The Avalanches - Frontier Psychiatry
Jack Ruby - Bored Stiff (1974)
(Please note: I appropriated the "ivory tower" reference from Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row.")

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