WHEN KANYE WEST’S new album Yeezus officially launched on June 18, it was almost immediately followed by a number of listener-created playlists scattered across various social media and music streaming platforms, all titled “The Yeezus Samples,” or something of the sort. They were, simply put, source material guides to all of the preexisting song excerpts (samples) West used for the mixes on his album. The reasons behind each selection are now open for debate. Some were likely selected merely for the attractiveness of a hook; others to add textual resonance, recalling certain words, tones, time periods, or political events. Sampling, and the sample samplers who follow, are now a regular part of popular music and music fandom.
There was, of course, a time as late as the 1990s when sampling was controversial. (What about copyright? Why can’t this generation write its own music instead of cribbing ours?) Even as venerable an old soul as George Frideric Handel was pulled into the debate when, at about the same time, it was discovered the extent to which he had “borrowed” and reworked other composers’ melodies in some of his most famous arias and choruses. It was a minor querelle académique, and those who took note of the “borrowings” were accused of attacking the reputation of a good man and a great composer.
In retrospect, however, those tempests have been consigned to the teapot. The copyright problem has long been resolved — though not without a barrage of record industry lawyers — and the moral imperative to pure invention (“Thou shalt compose from nothing!”) today seems a rather rigidly romantic view of how creativity works. Beethoven is the prototype; his exhaustive and exhausting sketchbooks remind us that serious music is hard work, and idiosyncratic originality the marker of credibility. But a new generation of Beethoven scholars happily points out how much even he seems to have snipped from Rossini, despite our mythic image of him banging away at his piano, carving his thoughts into blank granite rock. If Beethoven was our musical Prometheus, we might well remember that even Prometheus didn’t invent fire. He “borrowed” it. Nothing will come of nothing — not even Shakespeare.
Meanwhile crowdsourced scholarship like the Yeezus samples shows that, despite a few continued grumblings over “originality,” such borrowings are not evidence of a lack of invention or work ethic among artists who remix existing works. Peeling back those layers of influence is a satisfaction of its own, a part of intelligent listening. A piece of music, high art or pop, is expected to be a blueprint of historical references and codes to be reinterpreted by the listener. We like, expect, even demand our art to contain such coded messages, and we feel good about recognizing them. Those in the classical world who might still claim that pop music is devoid of any sort of wholesome intellectual work, the homework required to appreciate “serious music,” should take heart in all this, no?
It is those of us on the “serious” side of things who are lagging behind, in the niche once called “classical,” which today seems to exist for the sole purpose of alternately being proclaimed dead, dying, or saved. On the same day that Yeezus was released, about 300 miles west of the Paris studio where West had recorded it, classical violinist Daniel Hope performed “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.” The program was a live version of an album Hope released to some commercial success and much manufactured hand-wringing last year. The piece is just what it says on the label: a fragmenting and reworking of some of the catchier chunks of Vivaldi’s most famous work. I have been listening to it a lot lately. It is every bit as “repeat track”–worthy as Vivaldi’s own concertos. And Richter and Hope were not the only ones. Among the tracks on violist Garth Knox’s album Saltarello, released only a few months before Hope’s, are individual movements of Vivaldi concertos “stripped down” to a lean fighting weight of only solo viola and cello lines (just the highest and lowest voices, which famously, according to Brahms, is all you really need).
Glancing at the quizzical headlines slapped onto reviews of Hope’s album, one would think this was a sudden spurt of subversive vandalism infiltrating the halls of the classical museum. While essays on classical music are rife with talk of influences, and at times even quotation, the notion of direct reuse, sampling, or remixing as the centerpiece of a new composition is always treated as something yet unseen. It is not. Remixing the canon has been essential to the musical avant-garde for at least the last half-century. In 1942, the composer John Cage directed his performers to spin random classical records as part of his Credo in Us. Twenty years later, Karlheinz Stockhausen constructed his electronic composition Hymnen out of strands of national anthems, recorded off the radio. The idea of remixing reached Lincoln Center (and thus the ears of the “uptown” New York concert crowd) with the 1968 premier of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. Berio used a complete performance of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 as a background, over which he laid a sort of ghostly musical graffiti — a cacophony of past and present musical borrowings and references. It was shocking to many then, as it was intended to be, drawing uncomfortable social parallels between the artificial autonomy of the concert hall and the real political turmoil outside it. But that was generations ago, and it has turned out to be only one drop of a large and important wave of past-referential music (what musicologists today loftily call “polystylistics,” a term put forward by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke over 40 years ago) that ranged from Peter Maxwell Davies’s angry jabs at Handel in Eight Songs For a Mad King, to George Crumb’s devastating quotations of Schubert in Black Angels, to John Zorn’s wild slash fic, composite-style albums.
By the 1970s, quotation of past works was essential to what has proven to be the “mainstream” of classical concert music today. In the best-selling music of Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun, the idea of playing with and against the sound-property of past eras has become normal and accepted. In fact, by now one might reasonably argue that it has been played out. It is now a regular feature of the pops outreach for orchestras like the Brooklyn Philharmonic, in their highly popular “Beethoven Remix” concerts. And today, of course, those quotation and collage works exist alongside a mountain of louder pop music hits that have made referencing, borrowing, and sampling the expected process for creating music.
Given that history, and the instant access to a thousand years of music swirling about the heads and earbuds of both young composers and listeners today, I was surprised at how much of the discussion around Hope’s recording emphasized its presumed novelty, wondering if it required a permission slip signed by a member of the Academy of the Ancients. The usual conclusion was that it was acceptable, even noble, as an act of reclamation or salvage. The works in question, venerable to the point of burden, needed this. “Can’t take another moment of Vivaldi’s ubiquitous Four Seasons?” asked an article on NPR. “Neither could Max Richter […]. Long ago he loved it […] but like some of us, he grew tired of the overplayed warhorse.”
Richter seems to have anticipated the question of permission, and he dutifully presents his renovation permit. “I found it more difficult to love [The Four Seasons],” he confessed in the same story on NPR. “We hear it everywhere — when you’re on hold, you hear it in the shopping center, in advertising; it’s everywhere. For me, the record and the project are trying to reclaim the piece, to fall in love with it again.” It seems like the cautious and prepared defense of someone being accused of euthanasia. Yes, I did it, but I had to. The victim was already suffering! I just sent him to a better place than … [gasp] the shopping center.
It is a justification that puts Vivaldi’s presumed need for veneration front and center, and reads Richter’s work as an homage to the past rather than a testament to contemporary sound and taste. There was little discussion of the sound of Richter’s actual composition in its reviews, beyond an accounting of credit in the form of percentages. “Richter discards some 75 percent of the original,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. (It was “90 percent Max Richter” in the Chicago Sun-Times.) Those who enjoyed the sound of Richter’s music emphasized its exciting distortions of the original; those who did not derided it as too pop-derivative to pay it proper veneration.
Genuflection apparently remains our most comfortable posture in classical music, at least among many of its most steadfast “defenders.” We have moved a bit, but barely, from the idea of the classical musician as a mere museum curator, leading us through our once-a-year trip to visit the old masterpieces (“Don’t touch, please, children. Your fingers are so greasy!”), to the idea of the classical musician as a dutiful restorer, carefully ticking away at the gaudy accretions of a century of handsy tourists in order to uncover, if not the original artwork beneath it all, at least its original spirit. Not surprisingly, the words “original” and “spirit” are also littered throughout the reviews and interviews surrounding Richter’s composition. They are perhaps the most oft-uttered words in the cliché-deck of any classical performer. Everyone from the “authentic performers,” who play on original instruments, to promiscuous note-changers like Vladimir Horowitz, often maligned for placing his own fun ahead of the composer’s work, will, when pressed, dutifully recite the pledge of allegiance, that their role is to uncover and honor the original spirit of the composer — no more, no less. Our attitude toward the classical masterpieces remains oddly in the frame of junior high civics: ask not what Vivaldi can do for you: ask what you can do for Vivaldi.
Not so for Kanye West — nor for his listeners, who have moved beyond such simple motivations as curatorial adulation. At some point those in the classical market might realize what West already does (and what I suspect based on his score that Richter does as well, though he may not say it aloud), and conclude that there is little we owe Vivaldi and, dead as he is, even less that we can do for him. But there is still a lot that his fantastic mountain of notes can do for us.
When they show up, works like Berio’s Sinfonia or Cage’s Credo in Us are viewed as novelties or marginal experiments even though, taken collectively, such “remix” works have long been close to being a mainstream trend in new music. It may seem curious, given the recent history of new music, how stagnant the common image of classical music remains. But the idea of the static classical museum has held for so long because it has cultural value. The excitement of the concert hall came from that unequal distribution of agency. It has been a spot for conjuring, a ritual transubstantiation of titanic unchanging monuments that appear from behind a glass enclosure. We are taught to admire them, or in the language of college music courses, to “appreciate” them. The great works of the past acted upon us, to better us and uplift us. The canon gained the esteem that comes from being supernaturally beyond the present. Audiences gained the thrill of the ritual, and the experience of the sublime, when we mortals basked in the presence of those conjured immortals. It was satisfying, for a while — for a century at least.
It is, however, also a falsehood that requires the classical mainstream to deny much of its actual history, which is far more volatile than the story as commonly told. Over the centuries, the renewal of musical works inevitably exposes them to historical forces far beyond that of righteous, antiquarian obligation. Yes, works can be “preserved” or “maintained” in something like an original state, a static specimen dish kept pristine by rigid training and equally rigid rituals of proper handling. This, for the canon of classical music, has been the role of the conservatories (it’s right there in the name), in which performers are trained to “stay between the lines” of the score, and of the music appreciation classes, where new listeners are shown all the proper diagrams and safety procedures. But outside those sterilized chambers it is a free-for-all, a genetic zombie apocalypse of cross-genre infections and unregulated, nonaccredited Frankensteinian experimentations.
The stasis myth has been exposed by new access to the recorded legacy of the last 120 years, most of which is now on YouTube. Comparing multiple generations of recordings reveals the ways in which we have altered our monuments over time. When you change the way the music sounds, you change what the music means — and orchestral Beethoven as performed today is vastly different from Beethoven as performed 30 years ago. It is faster, lighter, brighter, with its melodies articulated more sharply. Bach’s orchestral pieces have undergone a similar transformation: from heavy, brooding, and gothic, to fleet and precise — the plodding bass lines in Furtwängler’s and Stokowski’s Bach transformed into the lilting dances of Herreweghe’s and Eliot Gardiner’s — first in the name of “authentic performance style,” and later, simply (and more honestly), in the name of collective preference.
This is the difference between works that are kept alive in the fenced-off wildlife preserve of the academy and works that survive on their own, in the jungle of popular consumption. The latter are scarred by their environment, and changed in their demeanor. They are subject to the whims of an ecosystem that is cruel and random, that does not honor their right to exist. It is how Beethoven’s Ninth was transformed, generation by generation, from revolutionary hymn to Nazi propaganda to dark, Kubrickian parody to ubiquitous children’s choir kitsch to credit card commercial jingle to action movie soundtrack. Vivaldi’s appropriation by advertisements and in the shopping center is part of the same process. But he has come through it and today inspires music-making that, like Richter’s, is full of life. Unlike their domesticated brethren, who grow bloated with regular feedings, and drowsily go through the motions of an occasional growl for bored tour guides, works that continue to thrive out-of-doors undergo processes of evolution that are both hideous and beautiful, but always full of blood and emotion.
West has the luxury of an audience that accepts and expects him to deliver his message encoded in layers of previously existing sounds, through juxtaposition, pairing, and contradiction. Each selection is laden with meaning, if one wants to hunt for it. Over the course of Yeezus, we are asked to determine what Brenda Lee’s “white soul” really means to us, why the corporate and formulaic but also rough and low-fi sounds of Bollywood are so alluring, and what we might say to a group of children who optimistically sang “I just know He’ll give us what we really need,” in a church on Chicago’s South Side, now that they are grown, scattered, and still in need. From obscure tracks newly invested with life to canonical ones newly invested with contemporary meaning, the result is ultimately one of renewal and reinvigoration.
West turns to a number of sources for his samples and references, but the track “Blood on the Leaves” comes closest to Richter’s technique of remixing a single piece. In perhaps his most provocative selection of material, West creates what is essentially a duet with Nina Simone’s recording of “Strange Fruit.” The potential for meanings, both serious and ironic, flies by like history itself as West collapses Billie Holiday’s 1930s, Simone’s 1960s, and West’s own supposedly “postracial” America. In the process, he alternates between a wistful lament over the burden of following Holiday and Simone as a black artist, his own perceived failure to live up to them, and an angry denouncement of the corporate lifestyle in which he now finds himself trapped. In its six minutes, one might drift from an initial skepticism of West’s historical comparison to a sympathetic realization that he, too, is skeptical yet resolved. If nothing else, by reflecting on his own excess while Simone’s voice watches over him, at times seeming to burst forth in a scolding percussive blast, West asks each listener to judge him — and themselves.
That is but one reading. What each such sample means, if anything, is now in the hands of West’s audience. It is a kind of intellectual contract between artist (encoder) and audience (decipherer) that we have tended to deny to popular music. But beneath it all is the understanding that the museum glass is broken, that “appreciation” is not enough, and that the music of the past, from the most banal to the most sublime, must be grabbed, held, and used in order to remain relevant from generation to generation.
So, perhaps it is time for us to stand up and account for our own taste and admit just what it is about the Vivaldian sound that seems so eager for the free life once again. It was never really Vivaldi’s music that was dull. It was the performances of the 1960s and ’70s that were to blame for his decline — slow, delicate, middle-of-the-road processions of bewigged animatronic classical busts come unconvincingly to “life.”
A new generation of performers has reinvigorated his music, bringing to it a heavy metal speed and improvised virtuosity that reminds us what it was in its first life — sleek Italian runway music that served as a background to the manic parade of Venetian street life. His concertos were mood music, emotionally satisfying morsels that traded in static states of mind rather than complicated narratives. Originally written, many of them, to lure tourists to the girls’ orphanage where he worked, they acted as the dreamy soundtrack to the experience of Venice of Northerners lost in the swampy, lurid fantasy of their Italian grand tour.
Vivaldi’s generation reveled, without embarrassment, in instant emotional gratification. Its most popular form of music, Opera seria, was not like later Romantic opera. It did not present a deep unified story in the Wagnerian sense, and instead provided little more than a series of 40 or so fragmented emotional moments, each represented by a static aria that crystallized a single mood. Baroque-era audiences treated the productions as live “best of” concerts, wandering in and out of the theater, choosing to listen only to the excerpts that touched the right mood for them that night. Baroque composers were trained to enhance such evocative mood-experiences even when writing instrumental concertos. The constant nervous pulse (that for much of the 20th century led to Baroque music being called “sewing machine” music) invigorates in the same way modern rock or hip-hop does; the cascading sequences and recurring fragments of melody produce a pop-like repetition that pulls the listener back again and again to the same emotional starting point. The system of tonality was not yet as free to wander as it would be for Mozart or Beethoven, and so the harmonies are concentrated around a few basic chord progressions that get repeated frequently, building a tremendous amount of focused energy and keeping the listener locked in a single state of mind — be it ardor, despair, or frenzy.
The form of the Vivaldian concerto is based on the idea of the reoccurring “hook.” It is similar in this way to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus progression of our own pop songs. Richter’s own comments on his music reveal this connection to today’s composition: “I was pleased to discover that Vivaldi’s music is very modular. It’s pattern music.” So is Richter’s, as well as that of many of the most prominent composers of both “classical” and “pop” minimalism (not to mention trance, hip-hop, dance, house, etc.) of the last 20 years — from Brian Eno and Meredith Monk to Kanye West, Gotye, Nico Muhly, and John Luther Adams.
And so the Baroque wing has become one of the most currently accessible of the classical museum, being better suited than the more expansive and sprawling Romantic works of Beethoven or Mahler to the fragmentation that occurs in today’s digital music marketplace — where single “tracks” (rather than complete four-movement symphonies) are downloaded, one mood-sampler at a time, in $.99, individually wrapped slices. Vivaldi’s concertos and arias work on the same emotional-cutlet principle. So we should not be entirely surprised at the recent resurgence in the Baroque sound. Richter realizes and exploits all of this. But where Vivaldi’s original concertos mimicked the theatrical experience of opera, Richter’s mirrors our modern experience of film music, creating evocative backgrounds based on layering and looping, repetition and crescendo.
Richter is not alone. The basic ingredients of the Baroque era (now “neo-Baroque”), joined together with the techniques of minimalism, have over the last 20 or so years created the closest thing since the end of the 19th century to a common practice in “high art” music that is recognized by both composers and casual listeners. All of the “polystylists” already mentioned have favored Baroque sounds in their borrowing. Gubaidulina turned the melody from Bach’s “The Musical Offering” into a panorama of 20th-century compositional styles. Schnittke returned so often to the Baroque concerto grosso form that Vivaldi must be considered a recurring character in his music. Tan Dun casts Papa Bach himself into his Ghost Opera. Meanwhile commercial and film scores abound with elements of the Baroque style mixed with minimalist loops, something easily heard listening to Clint Mansell’s haunting Vivaldian “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem for a Dream, or Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception.
However, what most puts to lie the claim that Richter’s reworking is a salvage job is how quickly one stops noticing the Vivaldi fragments selected by Richter as historical at all. When I first heard Daniel Hope’s recording, I was ready, decoder ring in hand, to take strict account of debits and credits. I was almost pruriently excited to hear the past ripped apart, to hear it as Hope claimed I would, “as if an alien has picked it up and pulled it through a time warp.” What I heard was anything but; it was familiar and every bit of the present moment. Richter’s piece is not a gateway to Vivaldi or to the past at all. If anything it is the reverse. The Vivaldi name was more of a gateway to an intense enjoyment of today’s minimalism. I have since listened to more Richter than I likely ever would have if he had not first lured me in, with the prospect of his alien Vivaldi time warps.
But it is worth asking why I needed such a trick — a 300-year-old brand name on the tin, and the revelation that “Vivaldi did it this way too!” — to allow myself to hear the value in so much of the most engaging music around me. After all, no one bought (or downloaded) Yeezus because of the samples they heard it contained. No one conceives of modern sampling as a series of homages or reworkings. West is content to let his listeners figure out what is in the mix and to decide for themselves — if it matters. Richter draws from just one source, but his album doesn’t fail to make this as conspicuous as possible. The canon-source is cited right in the title, and shown all too clearly in the album art: a pastiche of Vivaldi’s original scores, with (presumably) Richter’s hard work in the form of his scribbled margin notes.
And so, despite it all, invoked along with Vivaldi is Beethoven, the paradigmatic sketcher, notetaker, and hard worker, still carving away at his granite block and still glowering through the museum glass at us disapprovingly. It is this image of “classical” music that we seem unable to leave behind — that it is about struggle, and about monumentalizing the dead. It was not that way for Vivaldi. Those ideas came later. And so, ironically, if we really insist on the notion of honoring his original spirit, we’ll stop fretting about the state of him and start paying attention to the landscape around us, to what today’s performers and composers are creating. No need to worry about caretaking the mortal remains of 300-year-old ghosts. We’ll be joining them soon enough.