Adieu, Maestro

March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the years, I’ve grown to love and appreciate flamenco. I had the pleasure of working the sound during a concert by Juan Carmona in Aix-en-Provence years ago, and was impressed by the levels of musicianship, technique, rigor, emotion and physicality which could all coincide in one music, as something rare. Paco helped develop what is known as the “New Flamenco,” incorporating sophisticated harmonic colors from jazz and other musics, while maintaining structures resulting from a long-established tradition—as well as popularizing the cajón from South America, an instrument whose timbre marries perfectly with the acoustic guitar, as if it had always been a part of flamenco. But then, that’s normal; the work of a master, like Paco, or J.S. Bach or Miles Davis, has an inevitable quality to it, a tendency to present itself as the most natural—or the only—way of going about it, so that doing it any other way seems almost inconceivable. There are people who find flamenco too harmonically uniform, or dislike aspects of a certain stereotypical or clichéd idea of it, but these types of complaints often come from those who are simply not listening well enough. Although it has a life of its own, as an oral tradition, flamenco can be more broadly situated among the different styles of music—fusions with local cultures, really—created by communities (in Spain, gitanos) resulting from the voyages of the various Roma, or Romani (still colloquially known by the inaccurate label [or exonym] “Gypsies”) throughout Europe and North Africa—popularized in recent decades by filmmakers such as Tony Gatlif. Like most orally transmitted music, what it may lack in some qualities it compensates for elsewhere, and the various complexities and subtleties can only be noticed when one becomes familiar with it. But this is not something to discuss as much as it is to be heard.

Paco de Lucía (1947 – 2014)

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Everything Is a Remix, part XXIV

January 7, 2014 § 2 Comments

Although originality is certainly a virtue, I see a problem with the fact that artists are often accused of “ripping off” other artists by copying and incorporating portions of their songs in their own work. Not only does popular music—and music in general—depend largely on choosing between elements of an already existing repertoire of themes, techniques and ideas, it could be argued that part of the artistry is the ability to cleverly incorporate and rearrange these elements in new ways to create something novel and uniquely personal. After all, if one was required to reinvent the wheel with each song, or book, there would be very few songs to listen to, or books to read, and the distinction between being influenced by someone and outright copying them is not necessarily so clear—the point at which an idea is modified so much that it becomes another distinct idea is not so clear either. If ideas can be “stolen,” then most of us are thieves on some level. Furthermore, music, as one human activity among many, like language, is subject to inherent limitations resulting from our inborn capacities (genetic makeup), and so we should expect to see what are basically unlimited variations on a finite set of abilities—we should not expect humans, in other words, to begin producing “non-human” music. Even though we all have certain inherent capacities which are more or less the same, no one creates in a vacuum, and most human activities are a result of a collaboration, whether direct or indirect. In fact, it could even be said that this blog post itself is a remix of an idea which inspired me in the first place to write on the topic (of course, this apparent similarity is merely a coincidence).

R.L. Burnside Delta Blues 1969

Album “Mississippi Delta Blues – Vol. 2” released by Arhoolie in 1969 (thanks to Stefan Wirz [www.wirz.de])

For example, according to the presentation on R.L. Burnside’s 1969 release on Arhoolie (recorded in 1967), his track “Skinny Woman” is based on Yank Rachell’s 1934 recording of “Gravel Road Woman.” In what might be its earliest recorded form, we can locate a version of “Gravel Road Woman” interpreted by Yank Rachell & Dan Smith. Musically, they are similar in the way that many Delta Blues songs are similar, but not recognizably so, and Burnside simply seems to have used the idea and lyrics of the song as an inspiration for his own creation, most notably the repetitive melodic motif in the bass. Burnside’s song was later covered, with different lyrics, by the Black Keys under the title “Busted,” released in 2002. Moving to Scottish musician Bert Jansch, who was himself influenced by American folk and blues singers, “Blackwater Side,” itself based on the traditional folk song “Down by Blackwaterside,” was released in 1966, three years before Burnside’s album—the song incorporates a motif very similar to Burnside’s “Skinny Woman” but was released before it, raising the question of who exactly influenced whom, if at all. Led Zeppelin, whose tendency to lift the songs of bluesmen/women for their own purposes is well-documented, released their—or rather, Jimmy Page’s—version of the song in 1969 under the title “Black Mountain Side,” thereby barely concealing the origins of the piece.

This all brings us to four observations of interest: 1) Although a song may be “based on” another, it can sound rather different, 2) Unoriginal ideas may still result in good music, 3) When copying, it is not the lack of originality which is insulting, as much as it is the failure to acknowledge where one’s ideas come from, and 4) Even though one may not even be aware of the provenance of one’s ideas, they may still be virtual copies of other ideas.

Yank Rachell & Dan Smith: Gravel Road Woman (released 1934)

Bert Jansch: Blackwater Side (released 1966)

R.L. Burnside: Skinny Woman (released 1969)

Led Zeppelin: Black Mountain Side (released 1969)

The Black Keys: Busted (released 2002)

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