Multimediality

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Approaching arts – and human experience in general – from the perspective of multimediality can be fruitful in opening different ways of understanding these experiences. We perceive the world first through our bodily senses and then construct various understandings and experiences of this sensory data through complex cognitive processes. While much of these experiences are non-conceptual I will here discuss mostly the ways in which music is conceptualised by using terminology from other artistic media. I. e we understand – or communicate our understandings of – music using words originally, or more often, used to describe other artistic media or realms of human experience.

Multimediality in music begins with one of the oldest ways of music-making; singing.  Although, as discussed before, singing may actually have preceded language and been a sort of “protolanguage”, singing as we usually think of it includes text, lyrics.

Performance of music is always multimedial.
Performance of music is always multimedial.

Intermediality and intertextuality

Multimediality cannot really be discussed without also addressing some neighbouring terms. Intertextuality became hip in the academic discussions of arts since at least in 1980s. It’s a helpful tool in analysing and understanding the ways in which meanings are created in multifaceted ways by various techniques such as quotation or some sort of reference. As discussed before, these techniques have been central to black American music-making since the times of slavery to the contemporary hip-hop.

Intertextuality tends to fall short when applied to performing arts. While there are certain benefits in reducing everything to “texts”, two dimensional layers of meaning, this comes with a cost when studying music as a performative phenomenon, e.g. through Christopher Small’s “musicking”. Multimedality is a more helpful concept in helping us study and understand how different artistic media are used, and can be used, to reflect and create rich human experiences by drawing from the tools and strengths of the different media in our disposal.

Multimediality in music

Multimediality in music is an old idea as music has always been a part of some “extramusical” performance or context such as a ritual. In fact “pure” music is one of those 19th century Romantic ideas still to some extent holding our experience of music captive. But more about that another time.

The gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner‘s opera remain perhaps the most iconic examples of effort to bring all the art forms together. Whereas Wagner’s operatic works might stand as the ultimate artistic expression of modernity, the 21st century post-modern artists produce more fragmented works.

Whereas black American music has got from the cotton fields to White House (see below), western Classical music is now performed by native orchestras and singers all over the world – here also conducted by a woman, something which in Wagner’s time was quite unthinkable. Multimediality here includes also video projections and TV production.

Earlier I discussed how Jacob Collier presents his multifaceted talent in his YouTube videos and how Janelle Monáe implies multiple – or perhaps fragmented – identities in her performances of the song Tightrope with means of music production, the “music itself” (e.g. melody, harmony, groove), lyrics, video, live performance, etc. The Dutch group Tin Men and the Telephone is also a very interesting example of musical art that draws from multiple media in a very interactive way on and off stage.

Janelle Monáe’s performance in the White House by Barak Obama’s invitation has various multimedial layers. As discussed earlier, her performance style is rich in references to other black American artists, perhaps most notably in the James Brown steps in her dance moves. In this performance the “Funkiest horn section of Metropolis” becomes that of White House, opening up a myriad of interpretations.

Here’s Jacob Collier embracing the social medium of music making in a contemporary digital manner enabling music-making together across temporal and spacial boundaries.

Tin Men and the Telephone do various things with different media from “musicalising” recorded speech and other sounds to typing with the piano keyboard and collaboration with their audience through a special app.

Music in literature – Toni Morrrison’s Jazz

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

When I first tried to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, in the age of around 15 or soI  expected it to be “about jazz”. I didn’t understand much about it and quickly gave up.

Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover

Recently I picked up the book again and was better able to appreciate the ways in which Morrison took jazz as a metaphor and method and used its compositional and performative techniques to tell the story of her book.

Like a jazz performance the book has a main theme, a story it wants to tell. However, the main characters are also given “solo spots” to elaborate on their personal stories giving depth to the main story and enabling the reader to approach – perhaps even experience – the story from the individual perspectives of the characters; much like in jazz performance the “tune” is approached differently by each of the soloists.

Jazz in Morrison’s book is also a metaphor for the black American struggle and experience. As briefly discussed before, jazz has come a long way from an unappreciated folk music symbolising the worst of human kind – even among some black Americans – to be heralded as the “American Classical music”. Whereas Amiri Baraka in his Blues People elaborated on the idea of “music as the history of black Americans”, Morrison gives the bones of this history the flesh of her characters.

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People elaborates on the idea of music as the history of black Americans.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for another yet white male, one whose rhetoric and first deeds clearly show how the struggle for human rights is far from over. Morrison’s story takes place in a period prior to the Civil Rights era when many – as some of the characters in the book – still had vivid personal memories of the Jim Crow treatment of blacks.

Music and visual arts

The painting on top of this article is the Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch from 1500.  As sound is difficult to picture music in visual arts is mainly pictured through instruments and musical acts such as dancing and singing. Bosch’s painting is a classic one portraying music as a sinful – or at least not respectable – activity through placing some instruments of the time together with people busy with Earthly orgies.

The pianist Bill Evans wrote liner notes for the 1959 Miles Davis quintet album Kind of Blue, I’ve also discussed earlier. In his text Evans makes an analogy between the Japanese calligraphy shodō and jazz improvisation. He stresses the temporal nature of both media; just as the stroke of a brush leaves its mark on the paper and cannot be undone or altered, a musical sound cannot be taken back. Further challenge in jazz improvisation is the group setting in which it most often happens; there are in fact many “brushes” making strokes simultaneously to the “canvas” of temporal framework set, in this case, by Miles Davis.

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Copyright – Part I

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I’ve always found it peculiar that the copyright laws applied to music are the same ones – with slight adaptations – applied to tangible creations of the human spirit, most importantly literary works. Of course this shouldn’t be surprising as these laws date back to the invention of press and the control of this powerful means of disseminating written word.

Motivations for creating legislation to protect intellectual property have mostly been economical. The Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 in England granted the king the control over printed works. The Statute of Anne of 1709 is considered the first copyright law granting the authors some specific rights to their works.

As the copyright laws have later been extended to cover works in other than strictly literary media, such as music, film and visual arts, some interesting ontological questions have come up, a few of which I’d like to take up here.

Copyright in the age of mechanical reproduction

Around 1900 technological reproduction had reached a standard at which it had not merely begun to take the totality of traditional artworks as its province, imposing the most profound changes on the impact of such works; it had even gained a place for itself among artistic modes of procedure,

Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936)

Benjamin wrote the above at a moment when, the still relatively novel art form of, cinematography was approaching its golden era having just moved from silent films to the “talkies” (see here for more about silent film).  In music a similar  moment could be said to have been reached half a century later when the emerging hip hop musical practices “changed the game” and started a whole new development, or at least gave it a boost.

As discussed above the whole idea of, and need for, copyright arose from the necessity to control the implications of the “mechanical reproduction” of art Benjamin writes about. But as often happens with objects, technologies, and just about everything people invent, others think of uses for them no one could imagine at the emergence of these novelties.

One of the rights copyright legislation grants to the author is a control of, and compensation for, derivative works based on his/her original work. The emergence of hip hop and rap in the late 70s and early 80s challenged this legal – as well as artistic – relation between the “original” and “derivative” work.

The way this new music challenged, not only the legal norms, but the norms of Western music in general transforming in the musical context the whole notion of “traditional artwork” Benjamin refers to above, deserves a larger discussion than possible right now. In his thesis about hip hop and Afrofuturism Chuck Galli explains how hip hop got started in South Bronx partly as a result of urban planning isolating a group of mainly Blacks and Latinos without means of relocating themselves and leaving them with few socio-economical opportunities. Making ends meet also artistically in lack of musical instruments record players – or turntables – were turned into instruments using records as musical material. The DJs began looping some of the grooviest parts of the records they got their hands on to give their audiences something to dance on. While the DJ was sampling the grooves off of his records an MC would pick up the mic and improvise – later dubbed as “freestyle” – rhythmical verbalisations on the grooves to further engage the audience with the moment. Later these creations were also compiled into remixes recorded onto C-casettes and distributed.

Stevie Wonder’s still relevant Living For The City from 1973 describes the reality many Blacks faced during the period.

As discussed before,  African Americans have a history of reinventing their musical culture as it gets appropriated by the mainstream culture. Hip hop continues this tradition but turns on another gear. The DJ’s adaptation of the turntable from a tool of reproduction to an instrument of creative musical production, not only turns around the role of this piece of technology, but also challenges our very definition of music as the audible result of certain creative practices and processes.

In the late 1980s James Brown released his musical response to the “copycats” who had been sampling his music for a long time. For more about this multifaceted statement see here. Here‘s an interesting discussion about sampling with some legal experts and Mr. SHOCKLEE from Public Enemy.

It’s therefore not surprising that the copyright legislation, dealing with tangible representations of music e.g.  in written/printed and recorded forms, has had difficulties dealing with this form of artistic (re)production challenging the notions of originality and authorship of a musical work. This difficulty in many ways culminated in the 1991 case  Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Brothers Records, Inc. in which the judge ruled in favour of the plaintiff and changed the way hip hop has been made since by stating that every sample of another artist’s recorded work has to be licensed.

Whiter shades of the Grey Album

The DJ takes a sample to create out of it both a unique sound and a unique emotion. Having one’s music sampled, far from being an insult, can easily be interpreted as a compliment since, the logic goes, an artist’s work was so good that there is no point in trying to imitate it – just use the actual piece. One’s work is thus taken whole and placed into a new work and, most importantly, manipulated through various DJ techniques (altering the tempo or pitch, scratching the sample, etc.) and through the juxtaposition of the sampled bit with other samples… hip-hop takes data and synthesizes it into a new “whole” which provokes emotion not only from the primary experience of hearing the sounds, but from understanding where the sounds come from and what impacts such an understanding may have.

Chuck Galli, Hip-Hop Futurism: Remixing Afrofuturism andthe Hermeneutics of Identity

Cover of the Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse
Cover of the Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse

The Grand Upright ruling was directly against the very essence of hip hop as a musical practise, as Galli above describes it. From the early days of the art form hip hop artists embraced sampling in all forms and also encouraged their fellow artists to use their samples by releasing them separately. This is also what Jay-Z did by releasing an a cappella version of his Black Album, which indeed was subsequently remixed by many DJs.

In late 2003 DJ Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, set upon himself a challenge of mixing the Beatles’ album The Beatles, also known as the White Album, with Jay-Z’s above mentioned The Black Album.  The resulting mashup album was aptly named The Grey Album and came out in 2004. Burton’s intent was to do a limited release of his experiment but it became something bigger.

The initial limited release of The Grey Album received a lot of attention within the hip hop community and soon also attracted the attention of EMI, the record label owning Beatles’ copyrights, who pursued to cease further distribution of the album based on violations on its copyrights.

The still living Beatles members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr had no objection for DJ Danger Mouse’s “uncleared” use of their music but it took it as a tribute and Jay-Z was also cool with it well understanding this cultural practise.

The Grey Video

A group of music industry activists took an issue with EMI’s actions and organised a Grey Tuesday event on which the album was distributed online for free on so many websites that EMI couldn’t possibly pursue them all. The Grey Tuesday event can also be seen in a broader context of digital rights campaigning, but that’s another discussion all together.

I will leave this at here for now and come back later with another example of a more recent copyright case that also raises questions about the nature of music as an artistic and commercial practice.

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Musical (un)talent

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I’ve previously touched the topic of musical talent in my discussion about the young Jacob Collier. I recently came across a sort of opposite case in terms of musical talent. H. Jon Benjamin is an American voice actor and comedian who’s got into the music world from the “wrong end”, so to say. He has a record deal and brought out his first album before he actually learned to play [Junkee].

As always I’d urge you to listen for yourself before reading on to make up your own mind about Benjamin’s undertaking.

First, let me say that I haven’t heard the whole record, just the clips available online, which I’ve included here as well. Frankly, I’m not sure if I could endure listening to the whole album 😉 But I do think these clips give a pretty good idea of the nature of Benjamin’s project.

Benjamin’s Jazz Daredevil raises many questions and thoughts of the nature of jazz as a musical genre but in a more general level also about what the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has called “cultural capital”. More specifically, it challenges the notions of skills and talent required to perform music we call jazz and raises questions as to where lies the value of artistic enterprises in general and in jazz in particular.

Music as language

I’d like to here approach these questions through the common comparison between music and language. I’ll leave a more thorough discussion of this comparison for later and pick out a few themes from the music-as-language discourse that apply to the present discussion.

As discussed here before, jazz can – at least be attempted to – be defined by naming some essential characteristics such as specific rhythmic (swing) and melodic (blues) “vocabulary”, if you will. To be able to play jazz, then, would entail a command of these vocabularies in a way that others familiar with this musical language understand “what you’re saying”.

The comments in the clip above by some of the musicians involved in Benjamin’s project suggest that they didn’t feel like they were exactly “speaking the same language” musically. In the clip it’s also suggested that Benjamin’s album is what jazz sounds like to the uninitiated. Some online commentators [NPR] also share this view.

Cultural capital

The narrator of the clip has a view in between the above two hearing Benjamin’s efforts as “fresh” approach to jazz. This, in my view, speaks of one of the biggest problems with some avant-garde art, it’s view of artistic novelty as cultural capital; trying to do something “new”, something nobody has done before as the main value of their art.

The underlying ideal of this aspiration to constantly reinvent the western musical tradition comes from one of the backbones of modernism, progressivism; the idea that the human condition is on a linear, constantly improving path (for the history of this line of thinking see here [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]).

In musical avant-garde this first took the forms of expanding the conventional parameters of music, mainly harmony, in musical impressionism and eventually attempting to do away with them entirely in expressionism. The latter also began experimenting with instrumentation such as the Italian musical Futurism of the early 20th century.

The group Performa discussing and performing parts of Luigi Rulloso’s Art of Noises.

While Benjamin undoubtedly was not particularly inspired by the pioneers of “Art of Noises”, the musical programme of the Futurists did include avoiding conventional musical training in favour of auto-didactic learning. However, both share the aim of creating something “new” and unconventional by setting themselves consciously apart from the “mainstream”.

loopool reading Russolo’s manifesto and providing some context to it 100 years after.

Unorthodox musicians are of course not a new phenomenon in jazz. Already in 1950s Ornette Coleman stirred the scene with his plastic saxophone and was told “You can’t play that” (Charlie Haden in the BBC documentary). However, Coleman found other musicians who shared his musical vision – or they found him – such as Charlie Haden and went on to “rewrite the language of jazz” with his playing that was rhythmically and harmonically “out of the box”.

Blues Connotation is one of Coleman’s classics revealing his rootedness in the Black American musical tradition and showing how he springs from it.

A quick listening experiment, however, reveals – even to the uninitiated, I believe – how Coleman is in fact very well at home in the musical language of jazz – or black music in general – and chooses to make his own version of it. Benjamin, on the other hand, seems to have a very rudimentary idea of how to “speak the jazz language”. Some of his rhythms and melodic shapes suggest that he’s not completely at loss in his musical environment, but in absence of any technical command of his instrument of choice or any knowledge of the “grammar” of the language he’s trying to convers in, his playing does sound quite as random as it actually is.

To say that this is how jazz sounds like to people who don’t know it says more about how people listen to music than about anything else. You don’t need to know a language to be able to tell when someone’s faking it. You just need to listen a bit more carefully and compare to something you know to be the “real thing”. In Benjamin’s case it’s actually quite easy if you listen to the exchanges – or dialogue, if you will – between the saxophonist and Benjamin.

In terms of cultural capital, I think the value of Benjamin’s project lies elsewhere than in its musical merits. As one of the online commentators mentioned this could be an “Andy Kauffman/Borat kind of ‘meta-gag’”. Benjamin himself is not admitting it, but then again that would spoil the gag, wouldn’t it?

It’ll be, however, interesting to see what comes of this if Benjamin actually pursues with his musical career as he says in the interview. Although jazz is no longer in the centre of Black American culture like it was in Coleman’s early days – or it’s even considered “dead” by some – high jacking it for such a “meta-gag” could be seen as controversial in perhaps a broader sense than Benjamin thought of. Him actually learning the language and then finding his way to speak it would bridge that gap. But whether that’s his end game with this project we’ll have to wait and see what his “untapped un-talent” brings us.

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