Friday, January 28, 2005

Ein Kol Chadash

"There is nothing new under the sun." The words of King Solomon, wisest of all men, as true today as when he wrote them, thousands of years ago.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a great chess player all by myself. I thought that reading chess books or learning from how others played was "cheating", that the only valid measure of chess skill was the skill you achieved with your raw intellect alone. Naturally I remained a very mediocre chess player, and soon gave it up in frustration.

The point that I missed is that, yes, given an infinite lifespan, it might be interesting to see how far you could get on your own, but in our world, if you don't build on what has been done before, you're not going to get very far. People have been playing chess for hundreds of years. Why not benefit from that experience, and start at the limit of what we currently know, rather than fighting through what others have already done? It's just duplicated effort.

I was reminded of this when, listening to a rap song in the car, I was suddenly struck by how my attitude to rap music had changed. I remember when I heard the first rap songs that used sampling of well-known (to me, anyway) popular songs, such as Puff Daddy's Happy Breath, which uses a sample of the Police's Every Breath You Take. I was really offended. I felt these people were shamelessly stealing the creativity of others, climbing on the bandwagon of a classic song, kind of like a hack artist who achieves notoriety by painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Now I realise that the rap artists are building on a heritage common to all of us, that all artists use. No-one creates music in a vacuum, and if they did we wouldn't recognise or appreciate it. We only like music because we have heard similar material before, and appreciate what the artist has done to build on that body of work. Rap artists place their artistry in the words that they rap and the skill they employ in doing that; the music is less important. Still, by reinterpreting classic music, as Puff Daddy did, a new meaning can be found, a different aspect.

The Police took reggae and ska music that they liked and crafted it into the Police sound, adding their own lyrical and vocal talents on top of that base. The fact that the difference is exaggerated by their playing their own instruments shouldn't hide the fact that they have used a familiar music form. The exact copy that sampling affords means that there is no skill in playing the instruments, certainly, but that is no fundamental objection. One could employ session musicians to perform music without losing one's artistic integrity and licence.

It's interesting that many artists seem to subscribe strongly to the "don't copy" argument, especially when they think someone will copy them, but seem curiously blind (as I wasn't in my nascent chess career) to their own copying. So artists fail to see that their own careers are based on the body of art that has gone before, yet go to ludicrous lengths to prevent anyone from benefiting from their own work on any but their own circumscribed terms (eg Harlan Ellison). Contrast Cory Doctorow, or the artists who contributed to the Wired CD. These people get it. It doesn't seem to make them better artists (that seems to be an independent factor) but I bet they're happier than the ones who obsess about how much they're "losing" to piracy etc. (Entities like the RIAA, of course, do not represent the interests of artists at all, but rather the interests of companies heavily invested in a particular - and hitherto very successful - method of exploiting artists commercially.)

So there isn't anything really, fundamentally new: we are all human, and our responses to the world that we find ourselves in take on familiar forms. Anyone who truly believes he can create something from nothing, that his creativity owes nothing to those who have gone before him, believes himself to be God. And, as the old joke goes, the difference between them is that God doesn't think He's a man.


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