Jonathan Lethem, Igor Stravinsky and “Bold” Fair Use

My friend Liz tipped me off to A Plagarism The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem’s essay on IP and creativity. (Lethem, named a MacArhthur “genius” in 2005, appeared on Benjamen Walker’s first Theory of Everything episode.)

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses…

Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall’s fall—i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar—it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.

Whatever charge of tastelessness or trademark violation may be attached to the artistic appropriation of the media environment in which we swim, the alternative—to flinch, or tiptoe away into some ivory tower of irrelevance—is far worse. We’re surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them.

Lethem’s essay reminds me Sunday’s performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen. [Thanks, Angel, for the invite.] The CSO’s “Beyond the Score” lecture before the performance made the case that Stravinsky was influenced by Lithuanian and Russian folk music and aided by archaeologist, folklorist, and mystic Nikolai Roerich. To wit, Edward Green quotes from Eric Walter White’s Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works:

    the opening [bassoon] melody…he borrowed from a collection of Lithuanian folk music.

Wikipedia adds:

Though the melodies draw from folklike themes designed to evoke the feeling of songs passed down from ancient time, the only tune Stravinsky acknowledged to be directly drawn from previously-existing folk melody is the opening, first heard played by the solo bassoon. Several other themes, however, have been shown to have a striking similarity to folk tunes appearing in the Juskiewicz anthology of Lithuanian folk songs.

Finally, Wayne Marshall has been thinking about the place of creativity, fair use and the crackdown on the Mix Tape:

I think we should be as bold about our use of audio, video, transcriptions and the like as we are vigilant about the power/privilege relationships involved in such use. I wouldn’t wish a lawsuit on anyone, but the truth is that we may need to take more risks — and make eloquent arguments — in order to push the law/discourse toward a state that better suits our practices as writers, teachers, artists, etc.

[Update: Jeff Chang, too:

the situation actually reflects a larger change in the distribution of rap music. It all starts with the inability of major labels to meet the demands of the rap market.

Mixtapes have surged in popularity over the past 5 years because they meet the demand for rap that the major labels can no longer fulfill….Mixtapes won’t die. But 2007 may be the year that the mixtape begins to really be absorbed into the machine, which may be a kind of a slower death.]

dig it:


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