Borrowed materials in music or Musical Appropriation

Detail from Xu Yang's "Prosperous Suzhou" scroll which was the inspiration for Jon Silpayamanant's "Shengshi zisheng tu" 盛世滋生圖 for erhu, electronics, and video
Detail from Xu Yang’s “Prosperous Suzhou” scroll (1759) which was the inspiration for Jon Silpayamanant’s “Shengshi zisheng tu” 盛世滋生圖 for erhu, electronics, and video

Composer, Alex Temple, has written an interesting piece regarding borrowed material in music. I’ll quote the relevant section here:

[T]he response I wound up thinking about the most is actually one that I didn’t agree with.  It was from a composer who said that while she liked my music’s collage-y, turn-on-a-dime syntax, she wished that I would use my own materials rather than borrowed ones.

I can see why someone would react that way to my work.  I make a lot of allusions, and often very obvious ones.  But here’s the problem:  what kind of material wouldn’t count as borrowed?  If Dayglo Attack Machine had used atonal harmonies rather than major seventh chords, nested tuplets rather than 4/4 syncopations, and sul ponticello string overpressure rather than doubled flute and vibes, most people wouldn’t describe that as using “borrowed material”—but it would be.  I didn’t invent that language any more than I invented the language of 1960s advertising .  And in fact, those materials are further removed from me culturally than the ones I used:  not only do all of them go back at least to the 1960s, but they’re also European rather than American in origin.

At first I thought this was a good way to look at it.  We’re all using borrowed materials in music unless we’re actively creating our own idiomatic musical system–like what Harry Partch did when he developed his 43 note per octave just intonation system. As I’ve thought about it since reading the piece I also realized that the issue is far from clear cut. It’s not simply an issue of something being completely borrowed as-opposed-to something being completely original. Ironically, Harry Partch also shows how this dichotomous approach fails in that he had to create his own instruments to play his 43 note per octave system.

See, an argument could be made that, for the most part, music being composed in that Western Art Music Tradition is usually being composed for instruments which co-evolved within that same Western Art Music Tradition.  Many of the techniques, stylistic quirks, tonal and rhythmic systems were developed within the context of European Art Music–and within the context of the evolution of European Art Music Instruments.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be able to write from whatever borrowed system that exists–far from it. But what I am saying is that the whole idea of being a Classically trained composer can’t be entirely abstracted from the context of the techniques Classical trained composers have used to learn their craft.

Sure, someone could argue that those techniques aren’t specifically tied to the artform in any meaningful way, but that’s besides the point.  It’s not an essentialism or normative argument for tying the Compositional style to the instruments and tradition so much as it’s a descriptive observation about how there is a close connection between the craft and the style of the instruments and the tradition.  Otherwise we’d see as many composers writing in Classical Ottoman Turkish Music style, Japanese Court Music style, or Byzantine Chant style as often as Classical Music style and with the same chance level of occurrence.  We don’t, and shouldn’t expect to.

Near the end of the piece, Temple says:

[O]ver the years, I’ve continued to think about that conversation, because I keep running into the same ideas.  For example, Garrett Schumann recently posted on Twitter that composers who use common-practice tonality should do so “thoughtfully” and “deliberately,” and be aware of the “historical and socio-political assumptions” involved in making that choice.  I’m all for thoughtfulness and historical awareness, but what strikes me is that I never hear anyone calling on composers influenced by Saariaho or Lachenmann or Ferneyhough to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of pre-existing ideas.  It seems to be taken for granted in many new music circles that anyone who composes in a European modernist idiom is doing so because they’ve thought about all the possible options and made a historically informed decision to go with that one, but that anyone who composes in a tonal idiom is doing so naively.  The funny thing is, the assumptions that people make actually contradict each other.  If atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the “native language” of contemporary classical music, then you can’t take it for granted that anyone who uses them is doing so after years of rigorous aesthetic soul-searching.  They might just as easily be doing it because it’s the norm in their musical subculture.

Taking what I’ve said above, then some of that thoughtfulness and historical awareness and socio-political assumptions have been part of what has built the system in question.  Sure, not the totality of it–music systems can’t completely encompass the totality of any historical period.  Then again, neither can a regular linguistic text. That doesn’t mean that some of the historical meaning isn’t embedded in the text.

I think that we as musicians tend to forget that notated music is text.  Musical text, to be sure, but a kind of text nonetheless. All texts, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, etc. have been constructed in a very specific historical period and region. How the text is used, what it looks like, and how it represents something physical has as much to do with it’s being embedded in some historical and socio-political context as it does anything else.  The transmission of the text, and how to use it, is also dependent on how it co-evolved with the instruments used to reproduce it.

There’s a reason we don’t use Korean Chôngganbo, Byzantine Chant notation, or Hamparsum notası, to notate Western Classical Music, and it’s not unrelated to why we don’t use various form of tablatures or chord charts to notate it.  This isn’t a comment about complexity–other notation systems are built to noted  types complexity that Western Classical notation can always adequately represent. Part of why they were constructed is specifically to highlight compositional techniques and musical styles that are tied to the traditions within which they have evolved.  Again, a whole system of notation, instruments, performance practice, and history which are closely (though not essentially or normatively) tied together.

This is not to say that “atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the ‘native language’ of contemporary classical music” so much as just one of major dialects of contemporary classical music. To be sure, what Temple is talking about is how much the field is changing with regards to the openess of younger composers to more contemporary idioms and musical dialects and languages, but for the most part all those tend to fall within the musical techniques used in the extended European-American world.

Interestingly, I had posted the following quote to my twitter feed–not specifically in reference to Temple’s piece (I hadn’t read her piece when I posted this).

And it was semi-facetious remark directed at something completely unrelated (Doom and Gloomers), but the core sentiment is still applicable. What Temple said isn’t stupid, by all means, the main point regarding the double standard of disparaging composers for using a “borrowed idiom” over another idiom which is in many ways just as borrowed is a problem. In the end, though, the problem has more to do with how we tend to make sharp dichotomies to reinforce certain hierarchies.  It’s just classic ingroup/outgroup behavior that humans have been doing since we were hunter/gatherer tribes.

I think we need to move beyond that and find the nuances between the sharply opposed viewpoints when they exist.  And by all means, used “borrowed” materials all you want in your compositions–I’d love to hear Temple’s “Dayglo Attack Machine” whether it’s using appropriated music or not.

8 thoughts on “Borrowed materials in music or Musical Appropriation

  1. Hi there,

    I just ran across your response to my article. You make a good point about the notation system of classical music being better suited to some techniques and modes of expression than others. I was thinking mostly about using materials from Western pop culture and Baroque-to-Romantic standard rep, both of whuch use mostly the same set of instruments as contemporary classical music (although not a lot of composers know how to wield studio recording as an instrument the way pop/rock/hip-hop/EDM producers do). I’ve actually got another article coming out later this weak that deals with interactions between CCM and non-Western music, but more from a sociopolitical than a technical angle.

    “Dayglo Attack Machine” isn’t really worth hearing, I think, but here’s another piece I wrote a couple of years later that deals with some of the same ideas:


    1. Hi Alex,

      Yes, totally agree that most classical composers don’t know how to use production/post-production techniques as a compositional tool. I noticed your comment about your next post being about the non-Western music issue and I look forward to reading it!

      Thanks for the link!


  2. Sure, someone could argue that those techniques aren’t specifically tied to the artform in any meaningful way …

    I might argue that they are indeed tied to the artform in multiple extremely meaningful ways … but they are not bolted there with titanium u-bolts. You can pick those techniques up and make of them immigrants to a new artform, and see what happens when you do.

    I think the thing about the “make sure you acknowledge using classical forms” sounds too much like “make sure you apologize for being part of a mainstream culture to which our social circle has assigned the role of oppressor.” There doesn’t seem to be a space in that culture — as there isn’t in the culture of mainstream classical music that they say they stand against — for doing musical things for shits and giggles. This is a big reason why I don’t care to learn composition in ANY academic setting. I don’t want to justify every damn choice I make. “But WHY are you putting that F# there!” Because, okay? Jesus.

    1. Right, I don’t think there should be a problem with appropriating something as long as you acknowledge that’s what you’re doing and understand that it’s not the original thing. This is actually a big issue in the world music where groups will call themselves, for example, an Arabic band when what they’re doing is really an Americanized fusion that sometimes bears little relation to an Arabic ensemble. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a fusion band, but if you can’t understand that’s what you are and you’re trying to pass yourself off as a traditional Arabic group, well–that’s just bad form.

      While most of my early compositional training did come from that music conservatory setting, I’ve been fortunate to have gotten into the world music and underground (i.e. non-academic) experimental music and improv scenes as well so nearly always incorporate all those elements into my writing–at least when I’m not writing something more traditional, of course! 😀

  3. You know, this reminds me of the fanfiction analogy that I like to use — using stuff to make one’s own stuff. Derivative and transformative works.

    I’ve also heard people insist that “hey, we’re stealing anyway, right?” when it comes to writing Buffy fanfiction or whatever. I never bought it, and I always disagreed with it. I think people in the fan communities like to say it because it’s like, “Look how illegal and transgressive and risk-taking we are!” or something.

    The thing is, they aren’t taking credit for it. The ob!disclaimer in front of almost every fanfiction story I’ve ever read went something like, “WB and Joss Whedon own these folks. I’m just playing with them.” Or “I relinquish all rights if a future storyline resembles this story in any way, although I’d love to see Angel and Spike doing it!”

    They openly acknowledge where they are getting their ideas from, mostly because they are eager to point other people in the direction of the universe they fell in love with. This is essentially the same acknowledgement that you are calling for, and ideally it’s driven by the same motivation: using your own creativity to share the thing you fell in love with others, not to take credit for it.

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