The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, September 16, 2004

More on Sampling 

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I said I was going to come up with some more thoughts on sampling in the wake of that recent court ruling, and here they come. Yesterday, on the train into Oxford, I took the opportunity to catch up on some of the articles and documents sitting on my harddrive (all titled 'Read This' or similar) that I've downloaded from various journal sites and so on. One of them was by Ben Earle, called 'Taste, Power, and Trying to Understand Op.36: British Attempts to Popularize Schoenberg', and was published in Music and Letters, lxxxiv (2003), pp.608-643. This is a really excellent article that I need to read again, and that I think I will refer to many times yet since it touches on several of my academic and musical concerns - namely the avant garde, its reception, the role of institutions like the BBC in creating reception conditions, how we listen, what criticism should look like and do, etc etc. Like I say, a really thorough piece. Anyway, in the midst of all this is a quotation from Raymond Geuss that particularly struck me. Referring to Adorno's championing of Schoenberg, he writes, "[t]o appreciate the critical force of Schönberg one has to know the musical tradition and its place in wider social history and hear his music as part of that history .. In some sense the history of western music is already in our ears, in their accumulated habits and expectations of hearing. If this wasn't the case, not only would we fail to see Schönberg's music as critical, we would fail to be able to make sense of it at all." The italics are mine, and they point to the phrase that most appeals to me in general application.

It seems to me that after - or possible even alongside - literature, music is the artistic medium in which such a statement could most strongly be made, and is so central to its understanding. Even putting aside the more abstract theoretical perspective of Barthes, most literature is quotation. Literature is highly contextual, highly referential, and some appreciation of this is crucial to its interpretation (by which I don't mean its 'correct' interpretation - I doubt there is such a thing - but simply the act of interpretation made by the reader when reading). What reception theory would call 'prejudice' is essential to any reading of a work, since the work operates with and against those expectations a reader brings to it, expectations formed from their own experience of other works, similar or dissimilar. So, having read Jane Austen, we approach Charlotte Brontë with a particular 'horizon of expectations' as Hans Robert Jauss would put it. Having read Austen, Brontë and George Eliot, we bring a set of more complex expectations to Woolf: and great deal of the power of Mrs Dalloway, or To the Lighthouse is in how the work interacts with that horizon of expectation. Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsay gain so much of their strength and impact when one relates them to the female characters of the 19th century, whose lineage they inherit. They gain a whole different impact when one reads them alongside Buffy or Nikita.

OK, I'm losing the thread here a little bit. But to reference another favourite author, how many of the jokes in PG Wodehouse depend on literary and linguistic convention (as this article from the Guardian archives observes)? The whole set-up depends on having the whole history of western literature in one's ears - what sense is there in the line "The butler was looking nervous, like Macbeth interviewing Lady Macbeth after one of her visits to the spare room" if you've never heard of The Scottish Play?

Thus literature - and likewise music. The best bits of Haydn are when he squeezes the quirky and awkward into the expected conventions; the best bits of Beethoven when he pushes those conventions to breaking point. The best of Schoenberg is hearing him grapple with establishing wholly new conventions while trying to quash the hydra of old ones. So with Stockhausen, Adams, Reich, Cage, Ligeti, Timbaland, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and any one else you care to name. Music works because it sets up expectations, from which you get tension, movement, development, release, and all those other components that help create something people can relate to and enjoy. And the only way that you can set up any sense of expectation is if you have a store of reference points. Quotations, allusions, analogies. That horizon of expectations has to come from somewhere.

So, quoting material (or, to put it another way, using the same thing again) is essential. Someone had to write the first perfect cadence, certainly, but it only achieved any significance as the principal musical punctuation mark because other people also used it. If they hadn't, music would have lost an important structural device that has helped composers and listeners to find that tension and release I'm talking about.

Of course, everybody understands this, in literature as well as music. Where would we be without 'To be or not to be'? Reusing material is not just a way of making a statement, but in music, where there is no universal vocabulary to refer to every time one sits down to write, it is the only way of making a statement. A musical gesture that no one has heard before (and how hard would that be to write?) would still have a powerful identity simply because of its rarity - it would stick out like a sore thumb, and even a sore thumb means something. What is so intriguing about sampling, for me, is that the reuse has become so much more detailed. For centuries western art music has been constructed around a high degree of precision in terms of rhythms, pitches and so on - and it quite easy to copy these to a high degree of precision, just by copying the notation. Before sampling however precise timbre was a) unnotatable, and b) uncopyable. Now at least the latter of these no longer applies. (With instructions citing source material and process methods, the former is conveyable within the studio, although not really in live performance, so it's not notation in the same way. And anyhow, even with the instructions, you still need the source sound itself.) It is interesting that it is at this point that lawyers have got worried. Because for the centuries before sampling, precise timbre was probably the least of a composer's worries; even if he could have, or even cared, I don't think it would ever have occurred to Beethoven to claim rights over the sound of an orchestra playing his Fifth Symphony. Maybe that opening riff, its notation expressed on paper, but not the timbre. Now, what record company lawyers are most interested in - and what has become, by this measure, the most valuable, important part of a musical recording - is the sound. Listening to the Funkadelic snippet that NWA have got themselves into trouble over (it's available on the Downhill Battle site, along with the NWA clip that features it), it's more noise than anything. There are some regular attacks and a rough collection of pitches, certainly, but any notation of this clip would be nonsense. It's just a sound, completely unnotatable, pure audio. Since the recording studio, this is how music is - sound and timbre have taken over from harmony and melody as the defining parameters of music (why would anyone buy a remastered record if they didn’t think sound was more important than melodies or harmonies?). And since this is how music is, sound - in whatever means it is transferable - must be admitted to the historical lexicon in order for music to continue to mean anything at all. If not, when we listen to the Schoenberg of the 2020s, we won't have the history of music in our ears - only those bits of it the lawyers don't care about.

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