music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Rip + Remix Culture, Part Deux

“There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.” -- Henry Matisse

Last week, I came home from a late rehearsal and was confronted in person by a disgruntled reader of my last post, namely, my wife. She took issue with me over my second paragraph:

“I’ve always been a little suspicious of the concept of ripping and remixing of other people’s work. It goes against the grain of a traditional artist’s view of creativity. That view says that creativity comes from within as a total and complete original expression. All artists are informed by what has happened before them and they are influenced by their predecessors and their peers. But the expression of that influence is usually a nod to a style, attitude or gesture, not the wholesale rip-off of an actual piece of the original work."

She told me that I had an extremely narrow view of creativity.

So we sat down over the course of the next hour and hashed it out.

I always welcome the chance to have my mind changed. It’s the only true way to keep a check on ourselves and keep our minds open to new ideas. I read Lawrence Lessig’s book, The Future of Ideas, over two years ago in this spirit. Lessig is one of the founders of Creative Commons, an organization providing creators with a less restrictive alternative to traditional copyright protection. More on him later, but in the meantime, back to our argument…I mean, our discussion.

I had to concede that creativity is not always a singular vision with wholly original source materials. If an individual takes elements of several existing works, songs, for instance, and mixes them together with a voiceover or a new drum track to create a new work, well, gosh darn, that qualifies as a creative act. Collaborations, which by nature are not singular visions, are of course, also creative acts.

(In case it wasn’t clear in my post, I also want to say that I have no qualms over the rip/remix of the original “March of the Penguins” film. I only used the alteration of the movie to highlight it against the broader backdrop of the rip/remix issue.)

Coming from a traditional music background which reflects the era of my education, which includes rock and roll, R&B, jazz and classical music, I think I’ve been prejudiced to appreciate the models of creativity I was presented with. Digital rehashing wasn’t available to the artists I studied. Most of the composers I studied were loners and wrote music in solitude. Even rock legends like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and many others I grew up with all wrote most of their own material and if they strayed from that, it was to cover a song by another writer/musician. They all forged their own styles by giving “a nod to a style, attitude or gesture” but never to the best of my recollection did they directly “lift” or incorporate a piece of another musician’s recorded output, nor are their entire careers based on such sampling.

Lessig makes the argument that copyright terms should be shorter in order to introduce material to the public domain or “commons” quicker so that artists can use the material as building blocks. He says that without these building blocks artists will suffer from a dearth of creativity because all art is built upon the backs of those who have gone before them.

I disagree.

As I said earlier, almost all artists are influenced by their predecessors and their peers, and in some cases like Bartok and Stravinsky, occasionally incorporated melodies from peasant folk songs into their broader works. But for the most part, the wellspring of creative output and raw material that artists draw upon is their own, and is massaged into existence by every experience, feeling and urge the creator comes across in life.

Upon my wife’s suggestion, I asked a handful of composers and musicians in Los Angeles for their thoughts about the subject. Almost to a man, they believed that although the work of rip/remixers could be very creative, they didn’t feel that it qualified them to be respected in the same way that traditional musicians and composers are. Call them collage artists but they’re not musicians, one said. Remixers can’t create anything unless someone first creates for them, said another. Copyright issues aside, any composer who has experimented with looping programs and automated composing programs knows in his heart that he is somehow faking it when compared to the traditional model. Is there room for alternative methods of art creation using machines, spare parts and the mind to meld something new? A few new artists will probably break out of the pack, but I doubt it will ever become the status quo. I just hope that young people eyeing a musical career don’t get sidetracked into believing that cut-and-paste can take the place of discipline, hard work and practicing.

But it’s a new world today and that’s why technology is making us question principles which we may have held for many years. Those questions, and their subsequent answers, are what will keep us from closing our minds.

How was that, dear?

August 23, 2005 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

Return to the front page