Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sampling

From NewMusicBox comes an informative article about the aesthetics and techniques of sampling. Ethan Hein seems to be saying that sampling is akin to the collage techniques artists like Picasso and Braque were using in the years just prior to the First World War. Here is an example by Picasso from 1913:


Here is Ethan Hein's philosophy on sampling:
Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention. DJs always want to play something that listeners don’t already know but that they will immediately like, and hip-hop producers have inherited this attitude. In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.
There are some challenging ideas in there that we might examine. First of all, that "discovery has the same creative status as invention". Is that generally true, or just a rule of thumb among sampling musicians? If no-one ever had a musical idea and recorded it, then sampling musicians would have nothing to sample. On the other hand, music is not created from nothingness, though sometimes some music almost feels like that. In my mind the fresher and more original the musical idea, the more interesting it might be. Of course, the charm, appeal and beauty of the musical idea is also important. But I think that Prof. Hein reveals one important aspect when he uses the phrase "something ... that they will immediately like". People tend not to immediately like things that are too unfamiliar so we might unflatteringly translate this remark into "people in the commercial pop world are always looking for ways to recycle the familiar."

If we look at the collage works by Picasso what we see is the transfiguration of the familiar by putting it in an entirely new context. Taking a clipping from an advertisement and floating it in a new perspective, surrounded by other kinds of images is to fundamentally transform the borrowed material. It sounds like Prof. Hein is saying that something similar is happening in sampling in pop music--that they are given "fresh meaning in new contexts." Perhaps I am just insensitive to pop music, but I wonder if this is true, or only true in a fairly trivial way.

One example he gives is Beyoncé's use of horn and drum samples from the Chi-Lites' song "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)" in her tune "Crazy in Love". Let's have a listen. First, the Chi-Lites:


And now Beyoncé:


Well, yeah. Just listen to the Chi-Lites horn lick starting at the 07 second mark and compare it to the Beyoncé track at the very beginning. Hommage? Ok. Theft? It's the same music! This seems to me to be an easier case to make than the "Blurred Lines" one that just cost Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke $7.5 million. I really wasn't aware that this kind of sampling was so ubiquitous and thorough. We aren't talking about a few notes or a drum fill: this is a whole musical idea. And I don't hear any fundamental transformation or fresh meaning or new context: I just hear the same music.

Now for my confession: I have had this theme from a Shostakovich allegretto (kind of a march/scherzo) stuck in my head for years. So I finally decided to exorcise it by taking one eight measure phrase and building a symphonic movement from it. Here is the Shostakovich original, the Symphony No. 8, second movement, allegretto. That movement is not on YouTube separately; in this recording it starts right at the 33 minute mark:


Here is that theme:


And here is what I did with it. I took that eight-measure idea and went in a completely different direction with it and it became part of my Symphony No. 3. I can't find a clip of it small enough to upload here so I will direct you to my post on it from October 27, 2014. The section begins at the 17:17 mark but I'm afraid that you can't jump in there, but will have to listen to the whole thing. The way I look at it is that I do variations on that theme--true, without departing from it too radically, but by layering different things on top of it.

So you tell me. This is certainly a grey area in aesthetics, but it is an undeniable fact of musical creation that we reference, quote, steal, sample and reinterpret the music of others. I have only done it twice--most extensively in this symphony, but I also quoted from four Beatles' songs in my setting of Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis" which mentions the "Beatles' first LP" which I quoted from. Actually, one of the reasons I chose that poem was because it gave me the occasion to quote those songs! But these are the only times I have made obvious reference to other pieces of music. Of course all the music we compose is imbued with the music of the past.

But one phrase from the article by Prof. Hein sticks in my mind. He says, "In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was." I think this is somewhat hypocritical. Yes, the world is saturated with recordings. And many of them are deeply repetitive and unoriginal--old wine in sparkly new bottles. But doesn't this imply that the creation of genuinely new music is even more valuable, not less? I think that by "valuable service to humanity" what he really means is that sampling is "a convenient shortcut to cranking out new commercial recordings." If you see what I mean...

26 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

I do indeed see what you mean.

Listened to the Shosh. and went immediately to your symphony... but alas my machine doesn't support the plug-in. Tsk. Is it a Finale specific plug-in, do you know, or, e.g., Flash, that I know I haven't installed here.

Marc Puckett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc Puckett said...

"While we might like to pretend that recordings are essentially documents of a performance that actually took place, sample-based music reminds us that this is totally untrue." What does EH mean here? Certainly it's true of SBM but I don't see that it is of recordings of rea... of non-SBM (trying to be not as judgmental as I usually am). I have SBM on sometimes, the house/trance/whatever varieties, when I'm catching up with the news etc but it is pleasant waves of sound that I don't actively listen to. Hmm.

Ethan Hein said...

Hi, I’m the guy who wrote the original article. Thanks for the long and thoughtful response.

My second NewMusicBox article, which goes live tomorrow, examines the question of whether musical freshness and originality are really equivalent. I argue that they aren’t. I’ll be curious as to your reaction to that post as well.

The remark about DJs wanting to play things for people that they’ll like immediately is about music that’s unfamiliar to the listener. You might well translate the remark into "people in the commercial pop world are always looking for ways to recycle the familiar,” but that betrays lack of familiarity with pop. In the past few decades, even the most mainstream radio hits are pushing the sonic envelope as hard as anyone in the avant-garde, and in a format that people actually want to listen to. Particularly in the hip-hop world, the degree and rate of innovation are spectacular and unmatched in the “art” music of the moment.

The Chi-Lites/Beyoncé example is neither homage nor theft. It’s legally licensed sampling, duly paid and credited. All sampling in mainstream pop music has had to be licensed and attributed since 1991. Even though the horn and percussion breaks are identical, the two songs are manifestly not the same. The Chi-Lites song is considerably more complex formally and harmonically. The horn and percussion breaks are just a few of the many musical ideas stuffed into the track’s running time. Beyoncé’s song is, in my opinion, more successful, exactly because of its relative simplicity. It identifies the best parts of the Chi-Lites’ song, strips away the unnecessary ornamentation and digressions, and adds harder and clearer supporting elements. The vocal melody is totally different, and the rap verse is new material as well. The end result is not “the same music” any more than Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” are the same as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

The comparison to the “Blurred Lines" case is not an apt one. Licensed sampling is legally and creatively precisely the opposite of plagiarism. (Though you can debate whether plagiarism occurred in the “Blurred Lines” case at all; I believe that it didn’t.)

Sampling is the bedrock foundation of hip-hop, techno and most other popular music of the past three or four decades. The samples range in length from extensive passages to fragments that are a few milliseconds long. If you don’t hear fundamental transformation or fresh meaning or new context, you need to pay attention more closely. It seems to me that there is no meaningful difference between hip-hop sample flipping and your variations on a theme in your symphony.

The corpus of existing recordings encompasses music from every world culture, historical era, style, instrumentation and so on. To say that “many of them are deeply repetitive and unoriginal” makes no sense. Does that include all of the free jazz and gamelan orchestras and noise and glitch and shape-note hymns and death metal and so on? The point is that you could do nothing but listen to existing records around the clock for the rest of your life and barely scratch the surface of everything being newly released, never mind the back catalog stretching back to the wax cylinder era. The freshest and most original music out there is exactly that being made by repurposing and manipulating recordings rather than playing acoustic instruments in a room. The timbral and spatial possibilities of digital audio manipulation add an entirely new dimension to musical expression, akin to the move from black and white film to color. Combine sampling and synthesis with traditional vocals and instrumentation and the possibilities expand even more exponentially. To shut yourself off from all of this music is to turn away from the vital beating heart of our culture.

Ethan Hein said...

In response to Marc Puckett: I've produced some classical recording, and they are no more simple documents of the live event than pop songs are. Takes are spliced together, bum notes are corrected, there's equalization and compression and adjustment of stereo imaging and reverb. Glenn Gould was unusual for being so candid about his embrace of studio manipulation, but he's hardly unusual. There is no "real" and "unreal" recorded music. There's just recorded music. There are different degrees of manipulation and editing taking place, but those are differences of degree, not kind.

Bryan Townsend said...

What I did with my Symphony No. 3, and indeed all of my music, is I created an iMovie soundtrack with some images above. I can view these in Quicktime on my Mac. In order to upload them to the blog I have to compress them from 500 to 800 megabyte files down to under 100, with concomitant loss of quality. And yes, I think you do need Flash to play them. Also, I believe that they will not play on iPhones or iPads and some other mobile computers. You might try using a different browser and see if that helps. Or install Adobe Flash.

Someday down the road I will get onto Spotify or some other streaming service and give everyone access to proper performances of my music.

Some recordings, that we might refer to as "archival" or "documentary", are indeed "records" of audible events, musical performances. But ever since the Beatles' work in Rubber Soul and Revolver, studio recordings have become things in themselves that are no longer documents of actual performances, but sound structures created in the studio using special devices. I suppose some of these could be recreated in concert nowadays using sequencers and samples on computers, but that is just to move the studio, with its special equipment, into the concert hall.

Bryan Townsend said...

This is what I love about the Internet! You put up a post about something and the author of the original article leaves a comment. Thanks so much Ethan. You are a powerful and enthusiastic and most of all extremely knowledgeable musician in areas that I am not so familiar with. I am looking forward to your next article and perhaps I will have something to say.

While not being a practicing pop musician for many decades, I am not exactly unfamiliar with it. I would have to disagree with your assessment of pop vs "art" music. You say, "In the past few decades, even the most mainstream radio hits are pushing the sonic envelope as hard as anyone in the avant-garde, and in a format that people actually want to listen to. Particularly in the hip-hop world, the degree and rate of innovation are spectacular and unmatched in the “art” music of the moment." Perhaps it is true that pop artists are pushing the sonic envelope and innovating in a spectacular way, but, for me at least, this is a bit beside the point. I turned away from the avant-garde a couple of decades ago for that very reason: it was music that fewer people wanted to listen to because it was about novelty rather than quality.

I am fascinated that there is a legal licensing mechanism for sampling pop music and using it within other songs! I wasn't aware of this.

Let me clarify one comment that I think you have misinterpreted. What I was referring to as "deeply repetitive and unoriginal" was not the entire corpus of recorded music, heavens no! But merely current popular music, which may have sonic subtleties as you mention, but mostly seems to be stretched out on the Procrustean bed of the backbeat.

And, of course I am not shutting myself off from "the beating (back-beating?) heart of our culture" at all. Hey, I'm bitching about it aren't I?

Marc Puckett said...

EH, Thanks for your comments! You and BT are patently more knowledgeable etc about these subjects than I am. I will point out, however, that while no one would argue that a modern studio recording of e.g. a performance of Schubert's Quintette à deux violoncelles is a 'simple document', it is none the less the case that it is Schubert's Quintet I'm listening to, not a sampling of the "corpus of existing recordings". Am not so enthusiastic about the wonders of sampling as you are, I suppose, de gustibus non disputandum and all that, perhaps.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good point, Marc. I would like to comment on one thing Ethan said: "I've produced some classical recording, and they are no more simple documents of the live event than pop songs are. Takes are spliced together, bum notes are corrected, there's equalization and compression and adjustment of stereo imaging and reverb. Glenn Gould was unusual for being so candid about his embrace of studio manipulation, but he's hardly unusual. There is no "real" and "unreal" recorded music. There's just recorded music. There are different degrees of manipulation and editing taking place, but those are differences of degree, not kind."

I have produced some classical recordings myself and have worked extensively with CBC producers and engineers. The ideal for most classical musicians is a realistic reproduction of what you would hear in a good concert hall. True, takes are spliced together and bum notes corrected, but the equalization, compression and other processing options are usually avoided as they tend to detract from the performance. The sound quality and dynamic subtleties are, as they should be, left in the hands of the performers. Surely we have enough over-produced, hyped-up, dynamically-compressed recordings in the pop world? Glenn Gould was an is an outlier when it comes to recording.

Ethan Hein said...

Classical music may be aiming for the illusion of a live performance in a concert hall, but the key word there is "illusion." Once the possibility of splicing takes is there, the nature of the undertaking changes profoundly. Same with bum notes. Every musician alive is aware of the possibilities of studio manipulation, and it can't help but inform our approach to recording.

The backbeat is certainly a ubiquitous feature of pop music, and that's for a good reason. Pop music is for dancing first and foremost, and the backbeat is crucial for dancing because it adds rhythmic interest. There's continual conflict between our expectations of accented strong beats and the actuality of accented backbeats. I think the backbeat is acting like the cadence in common-practice classical music: the fundamental structural element that informs us what the purpose of the music is. I hear the cadence as reassurance that the world is a stable and orderly place, that tension is neatly resolved. The lack of rhythmic surprise in the music reinforces that idea. Pop combines syncopated beats with a lack of cadences (or lack of harmony completely) to signify that our world is unstable, brutally mechanical and increasingly Afrocentric.

Marc Puckett said...

And I realised, overnight, that Ethan also replied to my not really very clever intimation that SBM isn't 'real music'-- of course it is. But whereas for the enthusiast-- and I mean that in both its positive and less positive connotations--

"... the freshest and most original music out there is exactly that being made by repurposing and manipulating recordings rather than playing acoustic instruments in a room... To shut yourself off from all of this music is to turn away from the vital beating heart of our culture"--

I'm not persuaded. Perhaps at some future time, 'acoustic instruments played in a room' will be regarded as the Homo sapiens neanderthalenis to SBM's Homo sapiens sapiens... but I hope not.

I look forward to your new posts-- many thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

This kind of informed debate is exactly the kind of thing I welcome on the Music Salon, so thanks again to you both. I have learned quite a lot from my commentators, not least to give a lot more attention to Sergei Prokofiev.

Yes, recorded music is fundamentally different from a live performance, though in the pop world, with more and more lip-synching, the two seem to be merging. I heard a fine French horn player once talking about digital recording. He described it as Frankenstein's monster because when he went out on tour, what he was really competing with was a digitally perfect recording of himself with all warts removed. He described it as a monster because it was a recording of a performance that had never happened, that never "lived", animated by electricity. A recording is never a live performance and I suspect that one of the reasons we want the recording to be "perfect" is that it substitutes perfection for the verve and spontaneity of a live performance.

Fascinating thoughts on the back-beat! I think that rhythm is perhaps the least-well understood aspect of music. But regarding the backbeat and dancing, I doubt that it is crucial. After all, historically, there were a host of different, extremely popular dance forms that had no back-beat. Just a few of the most well-known would include the minuet, waltz, polka, gigue and volta.

Marc Puckett said...

Cadence as the fundamental structure that informs us of the music's purpose. Hmm. I have, in the last twenty four hours, had to face the fact that my knowledge of many of these basic elements, including rhythm and (perhaps I would recognise it if it were pointed out to me) backbeat, is woefully superficial. So many theories e.g. of the place and use of rhythm in the Gregorian chant which I've read and had at best a quite notional understanding of.

A new laptop will happen fairly soon, at which point I should be able to listen to the music you post.

./MiS said...

Reapropriating other people's recorded works goes actually much further than quotation or sampling breaks. Remember Plunderphonics by John Oswald? Negative Land? Sampling in general has given way to a completely new music genre in the 1940s, musique concrète.

As for the dance music, I am not aware of any venues catering to such extremely popular dances as minuet, waltz, polka, gigue or volta. Blues, swing, tango are a little easier to find. And yes, these days people prefer foot tapping, booty shakin' grooves with strong backbeat and a thumping bass, at least when they go dancing.

Bryan Townsend said...

And it's the Music Salon to the rescue! I'm well aware that a lot of the technical aspects of music are not widely known, so from time to time I try to explain some of the basics. Here is a post on cadences: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2011/09/cadences.html

If you search for "cadence" in the little box on the right, you will find several other posts. As regards the ubiquitous backbeat, I did a big post on that here: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2012/03/tyranny-of-backbeat.html

Rhythm in Gregorian chant, alas, I don't have a specific post on. That is rather a subtle topic! Try Google.

A new laptop!! Often a good idea. But if you are listening to music on a laptop, then I recommend getting some speakers. I find the Bose mini Soundlink to work great. Because laptop speakers have no bass!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi ./MiS and welcome to the Music Salon. Can I call you ./ for short? Yes, you are quite right, the ability to record sounds, cut them up, and process them in various ways has led to a whole panoply of possibilities and genres such as, yes, musique concrète.

Heh! My referencing of historic kinds of dances was a response to Ethan's comment "Pop music is for dancing first and foremost, and the backbeat is crucial for dancing because it adds rhythmic interest." Backbeat has only become "crucial for dancing" in the last fifty years or so. For the millennia before it apparently wasn't necessary at all.

Marc Puckett said...

Thank you for the links to your posts in aid of my ignorance! I saw your comment the other day (only yesterday?) but sometimes the rude imperatives of work prevent me from getting to what I would much prefer to be occupied with.

At my advanced age, snort, one of the real regrets I experience is that I didn't continue with the piano lessons that I began in high school-- too many other things going on, I suppose; can pick out the notes and with a sufficient number of attempts can play a measure or two well enough to give a vague notion of what is intended but, pft, that's not much.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have a series of posts on music theory as well. I suspect that your rudimentary piano skills still give you more access to the mysteries of music notation than most people!

Ethan Hein said...

I debate the assertion that people didn't need a backbeat for dancing in previous millenia. That might be true in European music, but Africa has had a syncopation-driven dance music culture for basically ever, and Africa is a more salient influence on American popular culture than Europe at the moment.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sorry, Ethan, but I can't resist this riposte: please provide evidence for me from the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries of the use of the backbeat in Africa.

Ethan Hein said...

Traditional cultures change slowly, so it's reasonable to extrapolate backwards from recent documentary evidence. What, you think they were doing the minuet over there until just before the advent of tape recorders?

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a plausible assumption--but it's an assumption, not evidence. Try extrapolating back from Schoenberg to Mozart. Also, Africa is a large continent with many cultures. Think of the mbira accompanied ballads of Zimbabwe which are primarily to be listened to, not danced to. Or the harp music of Senegal. The most syncopated, rhythm oriented music in Africa is probably the drumming of Ghana and it is polyrhythmic. If you go and listen to some, I don't think you will hear much of a backbeat. Here is a little sample. Syncopated, multiple downbeats, sure, but no backbeat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSSMAoWSb8A

Marc Puckett said...

Bryan at 0908, I took your advice and bought a Bose Soundlink Mini earlier today and it is wonderful! A laptop can wait. :-) Am listening to Liszt's Les préludes for two pianos, Martha Argerich and Daniel Rivera performing at the Teatro El Círculo in Rosario, Argentina, a couple of years ago. It is truly astounding what we can become accustomed to, or to do without.

Bryan Townsend said...

Congratulations!! Isn't it great to hear the bass lines? What are you feeding into the Bose? An iPad or iPod or iPhone?

I got it for composition, myself. I have a 27' iMac and the built-in speakers are actually pretty good for most purposes. But if I am writing an orchestral score, which I do in music software called Finale, I like the playback (yes, the program can play whatever I write, on sampled instruments) to be a little more robust. The Bose makes my whole desk vibrate!

I read an article a while back where someone was saying that just about everyone these days listens to music either on earbuds or on their tinny little laptop speakers. And doesn't that explain a lot!

Until you have listened to the Rite of Spring on a good sound system with a serious sub-woofer, you haven't lived.

Marc Puckett said...

Am in-putting from this Samsung tablet, or I could use my Android mobile, I guess. Out and about, I use the mobile with a Samsung... Gear Circle, which is steps beyond the previous twelve dollar earbuds.

I can hear the pedal action! The bass! Stayed up half the night (well...) listening to Handel's Acis and Galatea and then his Solomon. (Have been taking a break from my Lenten abstinence from non-liturgical music, stretching out last, Laetare, Sunday's indulgence all week, ha, but Vespers of Passion Sunday are a few short hours away....)

Chatting with the salesman yesterday, I pointed out that the first set of speakers I ever bought, in perhaps 1973, were housed in boxes as big as microwave ovens. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh! Isn't it great? I invested in a nice sound system not long ago and, of course, posted about it here:

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2014/12/sound-reproduction.html

I am happy to say that the Harmon Kardon integrated system outdid all my hopes. Wonderful sound. But I couldn't resist adding on a Polk Audio sub-woofer. Now my life is perfect. Sound-system-wise, at least.