Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly delights

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.

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 Morrison’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.

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 Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover 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 so, I 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.

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

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.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for yet another 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.

Copyright – Part I

Copyright dispute

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)

Early camera

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

Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse (2004)
Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse (2004)

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.

Song interpretation in 21st century pop music

Song interpretation in 21st century pop music
Song interpretation in 21st century pop music

After long last the first text of mine has been published and that got me to break the silence on the blog here. As a co-author of one of the articles in this collection I’m not going to the review the book here but to provide some insights into how the book came to be.

Song interpretation in 21st century popular music is a result of a week-long workshop on new methods to analyse popular music under the title ASPM International Postgraduate “Methods of Popular Music Analysis” Summer School. The workshop took place in Osnabrück, Germany in September 2011 and brought together a group of young scholars to explore and experiment on methodologies that would best suit analysing contemporary popular music. This endeavour was guided by a group of guest lecturers (see end of the post) – or “professors” as we called them. Each of them also contributed a chapter to the book.

The book aims at putting the (whole) song first instead of using fractions of songs to exemplify a theory or support an argument. The editorial choice of separating the contributions of the guest lecturers (“Listening alone”) from the group efforts of the workshop participants (“Listening together”), however, points to another one. While collaborations are not out of the ordinary in music studies, or humanities in general, single authorship still remains the norm. In this book the guest lecturers first introduce and apply their methodological toolbox of which the workshop participants then draw in their subsequent group efforts.

Group working has its challenges, especially when people who have never met and come from different cultural and scholarly backgrounds are thrown together and are expected to produce something in a short time. Some of the groups indeed had some difficulties on the way but I was very lucky to find myself in a group of like-minded young scholars in different points of their careers. Our group dynamics worked well and our interests and areas of expertise complemented each other.

The setup of the workshop was, in my opinion, a very successful one. The guest lecturers were each concentrating on sharing their expert knowledge about certain aspects of music or music-making (e.g. rhythm, harmony, music production) as well as their specific methodological tools. Each day of the workshop the groups were joined by one of the professors to help us fine-tune our ideas about the song we were analysing and point out things we missed.

Listening together Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope”

Next I would like to share with you something of my experience participating in the workshop and analysing a song in a group. The whole workshop had about 30 participants and they were divided to groups of 5-6 people based on their musical interests. Each group were then given a song in their preferred genre to analyse.

My group (see the end of the post for more) was “r&b” and we were assigned Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” (The ArchAndroid 2010) to analyse. Our group consisted of two American and four European scholars with specialities varying from music theory to literary studies. My own contributions came mainly from contextualising our study in terms of African American musical and cultural discourse, especially regarding interpretative strategies.

What we did first was to give everyone some time to get acquainted with the song – which for most of us was a new one – and get some first impressions based on our individual encounters with the song. At this point I’d recommend you to listen to the song before reading more about our findings. Below is the official video of the song but I’d recommend you to first listen to the song without watching the video to get your first impressions without the storyline of the video.

The first impression most of us had with the song was that it’s full of references to other African American musical genres and styles, most notably funk and James Brown’s funk specifically. Such stylistic references became the core of our analysis as we proceeded to find “meaning in/of” the song. In addition to formal and textual analysis we also studied productional aspects and their contributions to creating – or rather suggesting – meanings. Rather just analysing the music and lyrics we also studied the above video as well as some live performances of the song to “test” our interpretations. For instance the stylistic references to James Brown were “confirmed” by Monáe’s stage performance as she gets the James Brown signature cape laid over her shoulders. Also aspects of her fashion and dance moves support the argument that these references are intentional homage to the past artist – although by no means only that.

Within our group we also had lengthy discussions about meaning in/of music in general and questioned our own (and each others’) claims and arguments. There were some in the group who were less interested in find meanings in music but still interested in musical analysis. However, most of us thought that analysis should have a purpose and we came to agree that the song and its performances, as discussed above, can be viewed as suggesting many possible interpretations – ways of hearing the song.

In our article we present some interpretations and aim to show that these are open-ended ones, i.e. we don’t attempt to tell you “what this song means” but suggest some possible ways to interpret the song. “Tightrope” Signifies in the sense the black literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s has described as “start[ing] the chain of signifiers”; instead of pointing at a “signified” such as James Brown and his style of music and performance the song, and Monáe’s performance of it, draw from a broad scope of musical heritage – not only Black music but also e.g. film music and popular music in a broader sense – to make a personal statement about coping with fame (using tightrope as a metaphor for its pressures). The “message” of the song is, however, open to other interpretations as well and the official video presents one such proposing the “tightrope” as a metaphor for sanity or personal integrity. Simultaneously it’s also a cultural reference and a tribute to past musical heroes Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix who also stayed in the “Palace of the Dogs” where this video takes place.

The video also points to the storyline of the album the song comes from. ArchAndroid is the first album of a “Chase Suit” trilogy telling a story of an android sent back in time to free the society of tyranny. The storyline mirrors Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis (1927) to which the album cover also refers to. The theme and performance style draw also from the Afro futurism of the 1970s.

"Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid album cover" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
“Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid album cover” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
"Metropolisposter". Via Wikipedia
“Metropolisposter”. Via Wikipedia

In the article we point at many more significations e.g. in the song’s melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation and production to suggest “chains of signifiers” – or ways of hearing the song.

Much more could be said about our article and the workshop in general but I’ll leave it at here for now. However, I would like to take this opportunity to thank once more Frederike Arns, Mark Chilla, Esa Lilja, Theresa Maierhofer-Lischka and Matthew Valnes for the great work during the workshop as well as after it finalising the article. I wish you the best of luck in your careers! I’m also grateful to Ralf van Appen, André Doehring, Dietrich Helms and ASPM for organising this workshop and editing the book as well as the guest lecturers Allan F. Moore (also editor of the book), Simon Zagorski-Thomas, Anne Danielsen and Walter Everett for sharing their vast knowledge and inspiring us on our efforts.

Cheers, Mikko

Scroll to top