Emotional/Cultural Reproduction of Music and the Avant-Garde

Painter/author/art critic John Berger wrote in the late-sixties about a continuing school of thought that was centered around the foundational idea of a “mechanical reproduction” that came about most specifically as a result of the impact of the camera on art. As in, the reproduction of a work of art in a printed magazine for instance, when everything about it’s meaning and it’s profundity is contained in its actual environment, it’s time period, it’s tactility, it’s physical size, etc is sort of lost in translation. He argues that this transformation then becomes a new and different beast, and rightly so.

An example. If you’ve ever seen a Jackson Pollack for instance, in real life, you know that the size and the application of the paint goes into a piece that works to engulf you to a certain degree in its immensity and breadth. To a certain extent, these go into the artistic conception behind the entire thing. What if this is taken by a video camera and put through the television in your home? Is it now not framed by a plastic screen edge? Sized at the mercy of your desired(or afforded) screen size? Displayed in the “museum” of your house next to your fireplace and hanging above your dog? To what degree is it not really the same piece that it started out as?

I think that this happening exactly can be found even more liberally in music. First maybe literally comparable to sound recording instead of having it performed live, music like classical or Jazz to a good degree, takes on new meaning now does it not? So then, how much further removed can it be when placed with other stimuli? Other imagery? Connotations, associations, implications found in the synthesis of the media of the modern age.

Seeing something like “Teardrop” by Massive Attack being used as the theme song to House for example sticks out as an emotional removal I think from the original concept of the song; but I can only know this, from having been with the original for no small amount of time. Grizzly Bear too for instance, was on the same Volkswagen commercial that I must have seen thirteen times during Life last night. I would contend that both of these musical examples either are, or were at one point, a contribution to the forward progression of music outside of that which is or was explicitly mainstream. They could be called then, for these purposes, avant-garde in terms of their contribution to music at the time. Hell, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine is STILL seen as being progressive in terms of its incredibly effective experimentalism after more than ten years. As an avid listener of Massive Attack (and trip-hop in general), I wonder at the potential problem in having something reproduced under the guise of something else.

Crafted to be dark, smoky, industrial, intelligent, even to a great degree intensely sensual, everything that Massive Attack created during the nineties was born from these. “Teardrop,” and even Mezzanine are thus very much a part of this. Britain’s Times from five days ago in an article : “Somewhere back in the early 1990s, when Britain was dull in a different way, I first heard Massive Attack’s Blue Lines..and this sinuous, sensual, subversive soundscape sprang into being somewhere into being between my ears. Or was it in the room? Or even encompassing the whole block of flats?”* It is in this that I too, (with many others I’m sure) found myself listening initially. When this is superimposed with something else, how can it any longer be exactly that?

It could be argued that, “An artistic extension is placed onto the original work beyond it’s initial meaning. This, to some degree is the point of abstraction, right?That in the less literal offerings of something as heavily abstracted as Massive Attack essentially, there is that much more room to move around it, to vision inside of it, to make it ours however we see fit, and however we are able from our own perceptions.” And while this is true it is my conviction that we ideally understand exactly that before, we look at someone else’s efforts added with it, in a way that is dramatic as this.

“But Matt, this is the exposure of a song that is seeing a new life (and a new audience) in being the theme song to a show on one of the largest media networks in the world.. is there no credit for re-exposure here?” – And to this I say that I think that I would rather have a select few, see and understand the song taken with the record, solely in terms of it’s own inherent offerings than have it be an extension of someone else’s alternation. The attachment is okay as far as I’m concerned, I’m just convinced that it does the original a disservice in making it a mere validation, a contributing factor to a different idea. Britain’s Times again about an article regarding MA’s new record headlines: “The band’s gritty, sexy, and subversive sound has wallpapered lifestyle TV. Can their new album escape that fate?”*

I don’t know, maybe I’m biased. That part of it is that it’s commercial; that I already dislike House as a show, and hate to see something that debuted well inside of the international avant-garde collective be given recognition now as only that of “Oh that’s the House theme!” for 20 seconds. Where do you draw the line? Where does something become untouchable? I’m all for stealing ideas and making them totally something else. Massive Attack has their foundation built of this. Stolen samples, concepts found in just tiny bits of song lines made new, gave them every part of their start. Adaptation is the lifeblood of creativity. When it becomes something almost contrary to the original meaning though, I think it’s here that I take the most offense. To me, for example, listening to Grizzly Bear over top of Tracy Morgan punching Stevie Wonder in the arm is a bastardization of the original context and ideation behind the creation and presentation of the song alone. They don’t even get to the lyrics of the song(probably because they’re emotionally counter-productive to the aim of the ad campaign? Appealing to the hopefully “hip” branding VW will see as a result?).

To a certain degree this is everywhere, and coping with it is just a fact of life. My question lies in where we draw the line. Jazz music did this for years, but it either stayed true to the source material for the most part, or out of imitation, became in turn something completely new and novel, just having the source be a cornerstone for eventually a completely different “building.” A capella music does nothing but reproduce aesthetically EVERYTHING with the human voice. It probably, in terms of aesthetics, maybe takes original source material as far as it could be, and often can be just as guilty in capitalizing off of it. Girl Talk? Jason Derulo? There is no end. It creates a framework that maybe cannot leave the moment of it’s conception. If you heard Iron & Wine’s “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” for the first time over the course of the move Twilight, for instance, and made a note of it’s use, can you ever really hear it again without placing it visually into that context, that imagery? How is it now something else entirely? First heard of Imogen Heap backing up Jason Derulo or the O.C.? “Hide and Seek” takes on a new meaning, doesn’t it?

And so it seems that we’re endlessly caught in a Catch-22 of use, misuse, reproduction, and authenticity that maybe doesn’t have an answer. I have opinions, but were they applied universally, we would be without a great deal of immensely positive other artistic endeavors. It’s your comments that I want to hear more than anything else. Affirmations or antitheses? I want ’em. There are absolutely gaping holes in this argument. Tear all of this to shreds. I want to hear it.

*http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article6995744.ece

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~ by crossmd on March 29, 2010.

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