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...