On Remix and Genealogy
Disclaimer: I’m not sure what today’s post is. It began as a merry exercise in linking to some cool stuff that I think is relevant but under-recognized. If you like music and anecdotal evidence, you’ll probably enjoy the first half of this post. If you’re more interested in Foucault, you might like the second half. No promises. If these are notes toward some other, different, later work, I don’t know what shape it will take. I would say that this is skeletal, but it’s more like a pile of peculiar bones.
1. At this point, we probably all already know and love the Everything is a Remix project by Kirby Ferguson. In case you haven’t seen it, part one is here, and here are parts 2, 3, and 4. Together, they constitute one of the smartest, clearest, freshest, and most intellectually and historically exhilarating cross-disciplinary examinations of culture in recent memory. Maybe ever. (It’s also, to my mind, a clarion call to educators and academics to break out of the strictures of the leaden word on the printed page and FINALLY explore the possibilities of including real-time audiovisual examples and citations within the medium which delivers their arguments. We need textual integration of images, audio, video, and hyperlinks, and though Ferguson’s methods and mastery exceed my own, I’m doing what I can on this tumblr.) While Ferguson hardly needs footnoting, I’d like to contribute some additional observations and examples of artistic “waypoints” which, in hindsight, seem to have contributed to the emergence of remix.
“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” - Edward Elgar
2. Last year, I posted some anecdotal examples of popular music borrowing tunes from classical music. At this point it seems appropriate to point out that composers have been quoting an retooling existing music for quite a long time. The Dies Irae melody, for instance, has been quoted and transformed (we might now say “remixed”) from its appearance in the 13th century to the present. But that’s not all!
Arensky (1894) remixed Tchaikovsky (1883),
Rachmaninoff remixed Paganini (like so many others),
Paganini (1829) remixed God Save the King (like Beethoven did (1803) and Ives did too (1891)),
Rachmaninoff (1903) remixed Chopin (1839),
Chopin (1824) remixed Rossini (1817),
Ernst (1838) remixed Rossini (1819);
Rimsky-Korsakov (1878) remixed Glinka (1827),
Glinka (1822-27) remixed Mozart (1791),
Sor (1821) remixed Mozart (1791),
Mozart (1774) remixed Fischer (1768);
Moscheles (1814) remixed Handel (1720),
Brahms (1861) remixed Handel (1717),
Brahms (1861) remixed Schumann (1854),
Schumann (1832) remixed Beethoven (1812),
Beethoven (1799) remixed Salieri (1799);
Henselt (1837) remixed Donizetti (1832),
Liszt (1862) remixed Bach (1714) (like so many others),
and on and on it goes.
3a. In his groundbreaking essay “Plunderphonia,” Chris Cutler identifies the watershed shift brought upon music by the advent of recorded sound: once sound could be recorded, any sound could become the raw material of music, including previously recorded sound. When Elgar said that “there is music in the air, music all around us,” he probably meant it in a metaphysical, ethereal sense. But this has become our literal everyday experience of music: it’s in our cars, in our elevators, in our shopping malls, in our waiting rooms, in our phones, and in plenty of other places as well (Cutler says that we are “immersed in this shoreless sea of available sound” (in Cox and Warner’s Audio Culture, p. 147)). Cutler thus argues that “old art music paradigms and new technology are simply not able to fit together” (140), since audio recording and remixing establishes a new middle ground between originality and plagiarism, which Cutler calls “plunderphonics” (after John Oswald’s seminal 1979-1988 remixing project (here’s a key track)). Cutler’s essay is stimulating history of the reuse of recorded sound in the Twentieth Century, and as such is highly recommended, but his perspective misses at least one important point.
3b. Cutler acknowledges throughout his essay that history shows a give-and-take borrowing between “high” and “low” art, and that expressions of plunderphonics depend upon cultural norms as well as technological possibilities. However, he nevertheless argues that there exists a “special affinity between low art and plundering,” that plundering was “endemic to it—in the ‘folk’ practices of copying and covering for instance (few people played original compositions), on in the use of public domain forms and genres as vessels for expressive variation (the blues form, jazz interpretations, sets of standard chord progressions and so on)” (147). He argues in the space between those two quotations that art music was hesitant to experiment with plunderphonics because of some supposed sacrosanctity of originality in high art. What is he talking about here? The few examples of variations as “remix” in the classical catalog above were selected from over a thousand examples of theme-and-variations compositions in the International Music Score Library Project’s ever-expanding database. In what sense, then, can it be plausibly argued that art music has - at any point in time - avoided plundering? Brahms, Beethoven, Bach - all the biggies - clearly relished the opportunity to demonstrate their virtuosity by bending an existing melodic shape into countless magnificent contortions. It was fundamental to the strengthening and exercise of creativity, and it still is.
4a. That said, several particular examples demand a special kind of attention. Consider Edvard Grieg’s second-piano accompaniments to four of Mozart’s piano sonatas (the first page of one is reproduced above). Are Grieg’s accompaniments to this and other Mozart piano works the first-ever instance of the phenomenon of “sampling” in music? Importantly, Grieg’s accompaniments are not reductions (wherein an orchestral score is transformed into a piano score with no material added), nor are they arrangements (where a small score, as for a solo piano, is expanded into an orchestral score by assigning instruments without elaborating any melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic material), nor are they variations. Instead, Grieg takes the Mozart piano sonata in its entirety, without changing any of Mozart’s original music, and only adds extra music of his own invention atop it. Had audio recording technology existed at the time (coincidentally, Grieg composed these accompaniments in 1877, only months before Edison invented the phonograph), Grieg might have played a new part along with an existing Mozart recording. Have a listen to an excerpt.
4b. Consider also Vaterländische Künstlerverein. In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a music publisher, wrote a brief waltz (hear it here; the sheet music of his theme is shown above) and invited dozens of Austrian composers to write variations on his theme, to be published as collection called Vaterländische Künstlerverein. To my knowledge, such an invitationally collaborative remixing project was unprecedented in music history, and a number of prominent or soon-to-be prominent composers contributed single variations, including Schubert, Liszt, Czerny, and Hummel. Of course, the project is remembered because Ludwig van Beethoven, already an international superstar, decided to write 33 variations instead of the requested one. The Diabelli Variations remain one of the most legendary sets of variations ever written, beating collaborative projects like In C Remixed and Reich Remixed to the punch by almost two centuries.
4c. But the forerunner to both of these remarkable waypoints in the prehistory of the remix comes from the middle ages. For hundreds of years, all new liturgical music and a substantial quantity of popular music was derived from the basic melodic and harmonic material in existing plainchants. This was a process called “troping,” and it referred to the addition of new words atop existing melodies (called melismas; they were long vocal flourishes on a single Latin syllable in the chant) and the addition of new melismas within existing chants. Most importantly, as polyphonic (multi-voiced) music developed both in sacred and secular contexts, it generally emerged in the writing of a new melody to accompany an existing chant line, sung or played at a slower rate beneath it. This lower line was called the “tenor,” from the Latin “tenere,” meaning “to hold,” and atop it composers of motets (and other forms) added duplum and triplum lines with secular lyrics. Thus, from the 9th through the 13th Centuries, chant formed the basis of most polyphonic music in Europe. From a modern perspective, then, it would seem that the entire culture of the middle ages was based on remix. And it was not the first! Open up the Psalms in the Bible and you’ll notice that many of those worship songs were written to the melodies of existing tunes. (For instance, in the above image we see that David wrote three different Psalms to a now-lost melody called “Lilies.”)
5a. What about in arts besides music? Do we find early examples of remix there? Of course. Consider the film Singin’ in the Rain, which was both a satire of the birth of the Hollywood musical and, in hindsight, often considered the greatest Hollywood musical. Appropriately enough, it recycled nearly every one of its songs from other musicals. And this occurred at least half a decade before Bruce Conner picked up where Joseph Cornell left off to create the found footage film, the first instance of filmmaking based entirely on recontextualizing existing footage. Or so it would seem. The image above duplicates the Library of Congress catalog entry for a 1903 film called Davey Jones’ Locker, which was created by superimposing two existing films. Though I shy away from proclaiming with any certainty that Davey Jones’ Locker was the first movie created by remixing existing strips of film, it certain predates Conner and his antecedents (which are many, encompassing modes as diametrically different as the music video (example) and the documentary (example)).
5b. What about the visual arts? Naturally. Dada was remix, collage, assemblage, photomontage, as shown here, influencing the practices of Pop Art and most other following art forms. But long before that, most religious artwork was based on repeated iconographic elements. For instance, the iconography of the Last Supper appears again and again across centuries of painting: Judas is sometimes seen with a black halo or with no halo, in the act of reaching for a dish on the table, receiving bread or some other kind of identifying gesture from Jesus, holding the sack of the thirty pieces of silver, or isolated on the opposite side of the table from all the other Apostles. Sometimes, Judas is positioned near or even interacting with a cat, which would have been understood as a symbol of evil or at least infidelity (in contrast to the faithful dog). Based on the passage from John 13, “One of his disciples - the one whom Jesus loved - was reclining next to him,” John is often seen laying his head in Jesus’s lap. After the Last Supper, as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible records that the apostle Peter struck the high priest’s servant Malchus, cutting off his right ear. To foreshadow this event, Peter is often depicted as holding a knife or with a knife on the table in front of him. Sometimes he sits at Christ’s right hand to emphasize his role as the first head of the Christian church. Since the Last Supper took place on the occasion of the Passover Feast, the table before Jesus often features lamb as the main course. The symbolism - aligning the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb with Jesus’ impending death on the cross as the Lamb of God and the final atoning sacrifice of the sins of the whole world - runs throughout scripture. The ever-present bread and chalice of wine represent his body and his blood. See examples above. What are all these repetitions of iconographic elements if not remix?
5c. In literature? Certainly the instances of quotation are too numerous to meaningfully summarize, so I’ll just hyperlink you to a site which illustrates the extent to which Shakespeare was remix.
6. For Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and an advocate of copyright reform and remix culture in general, the issue of remix in the arts should be approached the same way one approaches quotation in literature. Citation doesn’t infringe copyright because it is understood that an essential aspect of the act of writing involves quoting and responding to the works of others. We have seen above that in music and the visual arts, the same holds true. Given this, how should we respond to the actions of litigious copyright holders who seek damages for minor instances of sampling? Lawrence Lessig recalls in his book Remix that John Philip Sousa famously voiced his opposition to the phonographs and player pianos of his day because he worried that their growing ubiquity would supplant amateur music-making. Sousa did not fear, Lessig argues, that mechanically-reproduced sound would destroy music through piracy, but that it would destroy music by making common people no longer want to play or sing music themselves. Lessig describes Sousa’s position as one which fundamentally encouraged remix culture, since it validated the tradition of normal reproducing and re-imagining their favorite music on their own as essential to the health and future of the musical arts. Even if Sousa also fought vociferously in Congress to extend the reach of copyright law, he didn’t want it to restrict the use of music by amateurs. For Lessig, this key point has been lost on later generations of corporations armed with copyright lawyers and lobbyists. Lessig warns, “As these businesses grow, they change not only business. They also change us. They change how we think about access to culture. They change what we take for granted” (43). Quite true. Lessig argues that creativity depends upon Read-Write culture (that is, cultural forms in which readers are also writers, in which audiences are also producers, in which listeners may also sing or play along), but that Read-Write culture does not threaten the viability of Read-Only culture. But many copyright holders interpret any infringement as a threat. What does this mean?
7. Michel Foucault writes, “The domination of certain men over others leads to the differentiation of values” (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, p. 85). If we accept this, and we accept his example that “class domination generates the idea of liberty” (85), we should not find it too difficult to identify another instance of this phenomenon: over-stringent copyright law generates the idea of the remix. In Foucauldian language, remix has emerged at the site of confrontation between intellectual-property corporations and a public who believes that ideas cannot be owned. Remix has leapt “from the wings to center stage” (84), but it is not strictly new; it has only emerged with the vivacity of newness out of the historically-specific conditions of struggle which gave it its name. Given this, Ferguson’s proclamation that “Everything is a Remix” is a risky one, because it supposes that our present historical paradigm can be applied unproblematically to all past moments, which is certainly not true. The notion of Remix, as well as the cultural forms it describes, emerged nonteleologically in history. We must understand that the idea of Remix itself came from the transformation and recombination of previous ideas. This means that while there are certain continuities in forms of creativity between the present and the past, “Remix” has not always existed; as such, everything is not a “remix.” But it wouldn’t be far wrong, from my perspective on things, to claim that certain basic properties of remix have existed long before this particular incarnation of them. So while the retroactive application of the label “remix” to the creativity of the past certainly does misunderstand the past, this rechristening nevertheless participates in a positive struggle in the present: the struggle for a public domain, the struggle against the plutocratic abuse of intellectual property and copyright law. Is it reasonable to allow the present to simplify and/or misunderstand the past for the sake of a progressive political stance? Perhaps; doesn’t it all depend on who ends up controlling the discourse of remix?
8. Darkened by this uncertainty, the shadow of Foucault hovers as doubting cloud over this essay, prompting me to continuously question whether or not I’m participating in a teleological framework by identifying notable waypoints in the history of creativity. Decades ago, giving the examples I have given above might have participated in a genealogical project, because they would have challenged the myth of sui generis creation by providing useful counter-examples. But now that remix might emerge as a dominant paradigm of creativity and history, should I be careful to guard against the possibility that shedding light on forms of proto-remix might participate in a new form of teleology? Replacing the lone-artist paradigm with a remix paradigm trades one essentialism for another, doesn’t it? Foucault writes, “Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively exists in the present, that it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a predetermined form on all its vicissitudes” (81). Let me address my own misgivings that Foucault might object to the content of this essay. First, the examples I give above are limited and should not be taken as an attempted to establish an “unbroken continuity.” I hope I have made it clear that many of the above examples are exceptional, and only now appear to be harbingers of remix. They were not always this, nor will they always be. Second, I am not attempting to read the present in terms of the past; rather the examples I give above dispel assumptions about the past through the lens of the present. Is this equally problematic from a Foucauldian perspective? I don’t know.
9a. I glean that Foucault understood history as a series of accidents (as well as “jolts,” “surprises,” “unsteady victories,” “minute deviations,” “complete reversals,” “errors,” and “false appraisals” (80-81)) which must be identified by the genealogist in order to oppose the hegemonic narrative/lie that history is a smooth essentialist curve populated by events neatly expressing that essence. I agree with Foucault’s position here. Foucault also wrote that genealogy “opposes itself to the search for ‘origins’” (77). I contend that the search for waypoints is not the same thing as a search for origins. I further argue that the search for waypoints contributes to an understanding of life and history as continuous motile becoming, whereas a search for origins only ever results in essentialisms and teleologies. On this point I also feel that Foucault and I are in agreement. He writes that behind things there is “not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence…” (78). Here I must disagree.
9b. Plainly, physics forms an ahistorical basis of all human activity, and much more besides. When physics created life by accident, that life continued to express the essence of the physics which formed it: collisions of forces resulting in change. In biology, these collisions came to be known as evolutionary struggles for niches and survival. (These struggles were not an essentially teleological part of life; rather, they arose as an emergent property, since those organisms which did not struggle or failed in their struggle simply died. Slowly, the environment happened to build survival into organisms.) Much later, what expressed itself as evolutionary struggle at a biological level began to express itself on a cultural level: when human civilization was formed, evolutionary struggle appeared, mediated and abstracted, as capitalism. While all the particulars may be accidental (for the accident is also a basic property of physics, biology, and human civilization), underneath everything physics continues to express itself. Physics created evolution, and evolution created capitalism. Foucault’s anti-essentialism refuses too much when it denies this.
10a. I will accept that this disagreement is minor, especially given Foucault’s broader projects to relate power, discourse, and the body in history. As an opponent of power, what would Foucault have said about the genealogical method had it been adopted into the dominant discourse? Would Foucault have begun to oppose genealogy in order to avoid becoming a servant of power? I cannot say to what use or abuse the search for waypoints in the history of remix-creativity will be put; I can only admit that I am fascinated by the search for waypoints. And given that everything that I post is rebloggable and that I put no restrictions on its reuse (besides the standard Creative Commons plea for attribution), my actions show that I have an ambivalent relationship with discourse and power on the internet.
10b. Since it seems that the negatives of the intersection of remix and genealogy are all debatable (maybe they’re negatives, maybe not), for now I suggest that we focus on the positives of restoring historical-specificity to the discourse. We must multiply examples of remix’s creative tendency across history, not simply for the sake of the multiplication of examples, but to prove that while remix is the name of a historically-specific struggle, it is not the name of a new kind of creativity. Longstanding tendencies both shape and adapt to technological and social transformations, re-emerging under new names, and morphing within a context to develop new particularities, overlaps, and generative fads. As now, so also before. Little fundamentally separates a remixer appropriating bits of recorded sound for use in a new composition, a hermit crab repurposing a gastropod shell for shelter, and gravitational forces gathering up the dust of an exploded star to create more stars and planets as well.
tl;dr: Abandon the claim that we live in an era unlike any other in history. Understand our historical specificity, but also embrace the fractal patterns of the universe which express themselves with equal elegance atomically, biologically, and culturally. Marvel not at how new things are, but how robustly durable they are.