An important dynamic in oral traditions and the oAgora is that recombination of elements is practiced by most performers – no copyright means no copyright infringement. And in the oAgora this works. In the tAgora, however, copyright is a possibility and can be controlled. One person generally authors a book – it is an individual’s work, it doesn’t belong to anyone else. Since it is textual, it is final and authoritarian. But in the oAgora you always have multiple authors, multiple performances. Multiple authors allow for a continuous “remix” of a work. Being able to borrow, learn, and rearrange phrases or words from other performers is a trademark aspect of the oAgora. Oral traditions can’t survive if they’re limited in their ability to incorporate and borrow from other works and genres. Their protean nature is what keeps them alive.
Here we’ll look briefly at the concept of remixing works in oral traditions, and then explore some ancient and modern pieces that work similarly. To echo the Pathways Projects disclaimer, I’m not claiming that mashups are identical to oral traditions; I simply want to demonstrate that parallels exist between these art forms.
Oral Tradition: The Model
Consider the example of South Slavic epic, where the guslar composes his poem as he performs. He will set up a particular story, and the generic story line will be familiar to his audience, but how the poet gets from the beginning to the end remains an ongoing surprise (think Titanic). Whether the poet will include a side story, taking the hero on a roundabout path to his goal, or whether he will tell the story “straight” through is unknown to the audience. If, for instance, the poet is performing the story of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey, he may relate the list of invitees, the kidnapping and rescuing of the bride, or the wedding itself at greater or lesser length.
The audience knows what events constitute the minimum, the most basic elements of the story. But the guslar is not limited to this series of events. If he wishes, while he’s reciting the list of wedding guests he can expand upon their accomplishments; instead of saying “X, son of Y”, he can say “X, who accomplished the following…” and embed a second story within the arc of the wedding story. Or perhaps during the battle for and rescue of the bride he decides to dwell on a particular duel, providing details about the combatants and their lives. But all of his insertions and alternate methods make up a part of the overall tradition. It’s up to the poet how he navigates his shared story-web.
The guslar, then, has the freedom to include or exclude parts of the overall tradition to any given performance. He can mix and remix the elements of a story to create the poem he wants for a given setting. The poet is not limited to performing precisely the same story every time, of including identical details in each performance. Since in the oAgora there is no “right” version of the story, every version is valid, and no particular version is protected or copyrighted. Indeed, the medium doesn’t support "identical" performances. While the overall story-path remains the same, the details vary with every performance. The poet can and does remix indefinitely.
Analog: The Ancient World
There is an exception within the tAgora, however, when it comes to remixing. In the late Roman Empire and early medieval period a type of poem called a cento developed. A cento is a poem composed entirely of bits and pieces from other poems. Ausonius, for example, wrote a cento entirely of lines drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid, called Cento Nuptialis (The Wedding Cento). While Ausonius used Virgil’s poem, taking lines or half-lines, he rearranged them and technically wrote his own, new work. Here is a sample of the Cento Nuptialis:
Exspectata dies aderat dignisque hymenaeis
matres atque viri, iuvenes ante ora parentum
conveniunt stratoque super discumbitur ostro.
The wished-for day was present, and with worthy wedding hymns
mothers and husbands, and the young man before the faces of his parents,
they gather together and he reclines at the table on top of the purple-dyed blanket.
In the Latin passage, each colored section represents a half-line taken from Virgil’s text. For example, the first red half-line is from Aeneid book 5, line 105; the second orange half of that line is from book 11, line 355. The second line works much like the first, while the third line is an entire line in the Aeneid – book 1, line 700. This sample is representative of the entire Cento Nuptialis. Even though Ausonius was “sampling” Virgil, he is still credited as the author of the Cento Nuptialis. Ausonius, along with others, was in essence applying an oAgora strategy to the tAgora by recombining an existing work to create something new. While Ausonius may not have thought of his work in oAgora terms, he incorporated oAgora tactics.
We don’t have a lot of centos from these earlier periods – it would seem that while they were composed, they were not a popular form, or at least not popular enough to preserve. And if you consider the cento from a tAgora perspective, it is easy to see why they never “caught on”. The object of the cento is not necessarily reading the poem and evaluating its own merit(s), but in identifying what other poem(s) the author has incorporated. In the late Roman Empire and early medieval period the vast majority of people could not read – education was a privilege for the upper classes, not a requirement for all children. Only some readers would understand or appreciate a cento. The cento was perhaps an erudite guessing game, a game literati play, one that makes the reader feel intelligent for “getting” the reference.
In some ways, the cento is merely an expansion and development of allusion. Allusion is a common literary device that an author can employ for a variety of reasons; maybe an author wants to tip the reader off to a certain way the work should be read, or is playing with ideas from the other work, or is trying to impress the reader with literary knowledge. More often than not, an allusion is used to point out that the author is aware of a precedent or prior work, and is working both in reference to and against this precedent. Centos take this device to another level – instead of merely quoting a line or two from another work, a whole new work is created out of a prior one. This is allusion taken to an extreme. The cento, while interesting and amusing, was always somewhat limited in appeal.
Digital: The Modern World
Before moving on to the modern digital world, a pause at the beginning of the twentieth century is necessary. The idea of allusion and playing with source material features heavily in some works of the modernist English poets – particularly T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. While in some senses what Pound and Eliot do with their poems is akin to the cento, in general their poetry is based more on allusion than remixing.
Today, remixing, sampling, and recombining are familiar activities in popular music – all early hip-hop, or rap, was based on the principle of recombining existing music. A DJ would create music by borrowing bits and pieces from other songs, putting them together in a new way; usually they would use popular songs of the day, especially disco. The DJs provided music; rappers or MCs would provide lyrics. The rap itself would be an original work, either spur-of-the-moment or previously composed, but performed without reading from a page. This is not an unfamiliar concept in the oAgora – both Tibetan paper singers and slam poets operate in a similar manner.
As hip-hop grew in popularity and came into the mainstream, the issue of ownership arose. As long as rap was a street phenomenon and wasn’t necessarily lucrative, no one worried about copyright infringement, paying royalties, or asking permission for the music. The music was available, and people made use of it. But the increase in popularity also meant an increase in potential profit; as individual DJs or rappers acquired a certain reputation and following, their marketability rose and the record industry recognized them as “legitimate” artists. With recognition came the inevitable legal issues, and musicians or copyright holders from previous eras began to object to their music being used without permission.
These legal developments in turn led to the need for permissions and the payment of royalties, called “clearing”. The sampling that hip-hop was built around began to become more and more of an issue; it became more expensive to incorporate, and it became more of a cause for legal action. For example, in 1992 The New York Times reported that Aaron Fuchs was suing Sony Music and Def Jam Record for copyright infringement over some vocal and drum beats. What was really at stake was the drum beats – until 1992 no one had cleared drum samples. The New York Times reported that at the time the rap industry was worth an estimated $1 billion. For a genre that had only been “legitimized” for about 12 years, that sum is an amazing amount of money. And it is easy to see why sampling would come under fire.
There exists within copyright law a concept called “fair use”. Essentially the idea is that a person has permission to use a certain amount of a copyrighted work without asking permission of the copyright holder. If you’ve ever quoted an author in a paper or a book report, then you’ve used copyright material, but within the boundaries of the fair use doctrine. Where the debate over the fair use doctrine comes in is how much (or little) a person can use.
Fair use is an extremely flexible concept, and is intended to be so. It’s primarily designed to protect criticism, comment, educational uses, scholarship, and parody. There are four criteria used to judge whether this kind of repurposing is fair or not, including intended use, the nature of the work, and how much is used.
Copyright laws are applied to all kinds of works – books, music, art, performances, even the Internet. The laws do their best to define what is copyrighted, and how, but they’re not always completely clear on the how much is allowed. If you copy a sentence for a paper, that’s permissible – if you copy the whole book that’s, not. But what if you use a page or two to prove your point? Exactly how much can you copy before it starts damaging the copyright holder?
Quoting a book in a paper is probably the kind of redeployment you’re most familiar with. But music and songs are also copyrighted; how much of a song can you use before it’s no longer “fair”? That is the central question – and one that remains mostly undefined to this day. Decisions are made on a case-by-case, song-by-song basis. There is as of yet no hard and fast rule about how much of a song can be used before it exceeds the fair use doctrine.
Part of the problem is that a concept like fair use works reasonably well in the tAgora, but not well in other agoras. A sound recording is not quite the same as a book; while U.S. copyright law does treat them differently, the basic ideas applied are really tAgora ideas. If you go to iTunes or Amazon you can hear up to 30 seconds of a given song; that’s the universally agreed-upon length for a musical sound byte. Any longer than that and it may not be considered fair use. But why 30 seconds? Why not 10, or a minute? Should the sample vary based on the length of the song itself? Is 30 seconds really a fair representation of a 10-minute movement of a symphony?
In literature one author can often quote another without repercussions; but in music sampling can become grounds for a lawsuit. The legal issues involved with sampling have mostly been settled, although cases occasionally come up. In 2007, for example, Jay-Z, Timbaland, Linkin Park, and EMI Music Inc. were sued for a sample on the single Big Pimpin’ – a song called “Khosara,” written and recorded in the 1950’s. EMI Music’s lawyers claimed that “Khosara” was subject to the regulations of earlier copyright laws, and therefore there was no infringement. This is only one example of the kinds of cases that are argued today.
Mashing it up
Lately, a new style has emerged on the music scene and gained popularity – mashups. Mashups take two or more songs and rearrange them in order to have parts of one song (vocals or melody or rhythm) playing simultaneously with parts of another. In the early 2000s mashups came into the spotlight with DJ Dangermouse’s The Grey Album and the Jay-Z/Linkin Park project Collision Course. The Grey Album combined Jay-Z’s The Black Album vocals with The Beatles’ The White Album. Examples of how this blending works include Helter Skelter combined with 99 Problems, Julia with Dirt Off Your Shoulder, and Glass Onion with Encore( LISTEN ).
The popularity of The Grey Album led to further mashups – Collision Course was a mashup album featuring Jay-Z and Linkin Park. It included songs such as Dirt Off Your Shoulder/Lying From You, Encore/Numb, and Big Pimpin’/Papercut ( LISTEN ). A third example of a mashup album is Jaydiohead, which combines Jay-Z and Radiohead, with songs such as Dirt off your Android( LISTEN ) (Dirt off your Shoulder and Paranoid Android), No Karma (No Hook and Karma Police), and 99 Anthems (99 Problems and The National Anthem).
Different Approaches; Same Result
Most well-known mashups consist of two songs played together, as can been seen from the previous examples. But there is a major difference between The Grey Album and Jaydiohead as compared to Collision Course. Collision Course was worked out between Jay-Z and Linkin Park as a collaborative and creative effort; they re-wrote or re-worked songs and performed them live together on stage as well as recording them. The Grey Album and Jaydiohead are studio productions, and were created without permission for any of the songs. The Grey Album was released on February 24, 2004, and was only available as a free download for a 24-hour period; the album was never released for sale. It was intended as a protest against sampling lawsuits that don’t consider sampling to fall under fair use. While Jaydiohead was not conceived of as a protest, it is similar to The Grey Album in that it can’t be bought and also operates under the fair use doctrine. While the Jaydiohead website provides links to torrent sites, The Grey Album no longer has its own site and has to be found by searching torrent sites or be passed along by a friend.
While the previous examples combine two artists or songs, there is no real limit on the number of works that can be combined. Girl Talk, the stage name of Gregg Gillis, combines multiple songs for each of his compositions – Feed the Animals (his 2008 album) is reported to contain 300 samples of source music, contained in 14 CD tracks. Gillis, however, does not pay or seek permission for any of his samples. He believes that he too is operating within the fair use concept in copyright law. In an NPR interview, Gillis admits that he could be sued, but he thinks that all music is built on influences and recontextualizing those influences. As he puts it in the NPR interview “If you do a well enough job of disguising your influences, it’s called original.” Gillis definitely operates with oAgora assumptions.
Putting the Pieces Together
Gillis also creates his albums in a fashion typical of the oAgora. He begins by composing “his” (for lack of a better term) songs for live performances, and through trial and error constructs each song. He then plays these songs at a show, but before the next show he might tweak them in some way. The creations don’t stay the same – each performance is a little different. The albums that he releases consist of single, captured performances. Because Gillis works with pop music and Top 40 hits, it’s possible that by his next live show he may have heard a new hit that he can work into one of his creations. He doesn’t go back and change the album, the record of a single performance ( LISTEN ), but he does update and adapt his live shows. Gillis doesn’t treat his music as static, as a one-time thing, but as an ever-evolving construct. Even though the preserved performance may stay the same, his live show will vary every single time – just like that of an oral poet.
And in the End….
I want to close by posing a few questions to which I don’t necessarily have answers. What do Girl Talk and others like him mean for the music industry? He has achieved a great deal of success, both in his popularity with audiences and financially. His shows and albums are so popular, in fact, that he was able to quit his day job (he was a bio-medical engineer) and become a full-time musician. To date he has not been sued by any of the hundreds of artists he has sampled.
Girl Talk may mean to the music industry what the Internet has meant to print media – old ideas can’t always work with the new technology. The tAgora still has a crucially important place and serves myriad essential purposes, but the Internet does things differently than print can. For now, ownership of music and musicians is still the norm, but for how long? There are always independent labels willing to take a risk and sign a talent, willing to fight the necessary battles. And the Internet, the eAgora, allows for the spread – the publication – of music in a way that wasn’t possible before. Songs can be downloaded from websites faster than you can get to the store and buy a CD, and once a song is on a computer, who owns it? And in the case of mashups, can the concept of ownership even apply?