Digital Art: Borrowing, Recycling, Cannibalizing?

Thanks again to Harvey Taylor for his comments on and examples of improvisation, including this example of “sound collage” between “laptop” and his own trumpet improvisation: Miss You, Kauai.  

I am grateful for his introducing me to an example of digital art with which I was unfamiliar.


According to Wikipedia,

The origin of sound collage can be traced back to the works of Biber’s programmatic sonata Battalia (1673) and Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1789), and some critics have described certain passages in Mahler symphonies as collage, but the first fully developed collages occur in a few works by Charles Ives. Earlier traditional forms and procedures such as the quodlibet, medley, potpourri, and centonization differ from collage in that the various elements in them are made to fit smoothly together, whereas in a collage clashes of key, timbre, texture, meter, tempo, or other discrepancies are important in helping to preserve the individuality of the constituent elements and to convey the impression of a heterogeneous assemblage.[2] What made their technique true collage, however, was the juxtaposition of quotations and unrelated melodies, either by layering them or by moving between them in quick succession, as in a film montage sequence.

Although the technique of collage is generally associated with painting, the use of collage in music by Biber, Mozart, Mahler, and Ives actually predates the use of collage in painting by artists like Picasso and Braque, who are generally credited with creating the first collage paintings around 1912. Ives, on the other hand, in his piece Central Park in the Dark, composed in 1906, creates the feeling of a walk in the city by layering several distinct melodies and quotations on top of each other.

Today, however, it is to the genre of rap that we owe thanks for bringing to our attention this “borrowing” of the old for the creation of the new.  And I had no idea that the laptop could be an instrument!

Of course, there are current legal issues out there with the “borrowing” or “recycling” or “cannibalizing” (choose your word) of older works to create new ones. Generally, I am all for it, having loved the idea of collage from the time I learned to cut and paste. I love seeing how things change being put in new relationship to something else. Both elements are then free to “speak” in new ways.  I actually used a lot of passages of a famous writer, whose name you can probably guess, (without permission—it not yet being in the “public domain”) in a poem called “Unframed Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman,” published by the Beloit Poetry Journal a decade ago.  The BPJ did it, knowing that they might easily be sued by the descendents of that “famous” writer. And I have always been grateful, but wary of republishing that poem.

Nevertheless, as the above passage from Wikipedia notes, “quotations” have long been embedded in all kinds of music, including, of course, jazz, as tributes to the original composer.  But in writing it is called “plagiarism.”  That Shakespeare “borrowed” almost all of his plots (and perhaps even some of the language) is generally ignored.

I believe that the Internet is, or already has been,  loosening the idea of artistic “ownership,” which I realize can and does have unfortunate results, as when an artist’s work is downloaded illegally, depriving her/him of livelihood. But if “livelihood” is not the issue, then why not?  I would be interested in hearing comments about this.

 Harvey says that he began learning music on the piano, but then shifted to the guitar and trumpet (much more portable instruments), returning to the trumpet as an adult. He shares this poem about having to heft his piano whenever he moved, which I found amusing, since I had written a similar poem decades ago.  Here are both—Harvey’s first:


Beloved Behemoth


I got an elephant a long time ago,

a spinet piano three of us somehow

muscled up three flights of stairs to my attic.


I loved that elephant, played it non-stop for years

while studying composition and theory, then

returned to guitar and songwriting, and

my beloved behemoth adjusted to retirement,

with more and more stuff piled on it, and around it,

in front of it, and behind it, taking up

precious room in a small area, until

today, when three stalwart movers

delicately eased it back down all those stairs,

around all those corners, with the turn

from the attic to the second floor allowing

about half an inch to negotiate—whew!

finally out the door, onto a trailer, and

across the river to a friend who I hope

will also fall in love with my ex,

though I’m certain that the movers loved

its new home being on the ground floor.


Beloved Behemoth, I already miss you…

and I’m glad you’re gone




Things That Must Always Accompany You                                     


The cripple on the tricycle,

the idiot brother who drools

but who your mother says

must tag along.


The make-do furniture you chose

in a hurry at a second

hand store with your long-gone lover

who didn’t give a damn.


A wolf baring its teeth,

gulping its food:

your failure to curb

your temper, your greed.


Scars given and borne,

the raised pale trails of sharpness

snaking over your body.


The box of family pictures

turning powdery with mildew,

carted from home after home

as you left each behind.


The neglected piano too,

scratched mahogany,

hefted stiffly and laboriously after

you as you climbed the stairs

into each new home.


They won’t go away.


All these and more

lumber after you, sit and wait

in the edges

there in the corners for

your attention,

for the unlikely

miracle of your love.


Like despised

ignored dwarves

in a fairy tale, they grow

as you age,

looming toward the center,

an unexpected bridge

to wholeness.


Turn, touch,


your finger along

their sharp curves, smooth

edges, dulled surfaces.


Wash them with your tears,

rub them with sweet-smelling oil,

dry them with your hair.


You are their last

chance for redemption

and they, yours.


So: what do you think about “borrowing,” “quoting,” or “recycling” the music/art/writing of others? (How) has the Internet changed things in this regard?

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