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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #550
Les grands artistes volent
David Gunn

Igor Stravinsky once famously said "Les artistes inférieures empruntent; les grands artistes volent," or lesser artists borrow; great artists steal. And he certainly practiced what he preached. Over the course of his lifetime, the sticky-fingered maestro was known to have filched more than 400 batons, a dozen tubas, 58 tuba mouthpieces, eight books on tubal ligation, the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House (twice!), plus Richard Strauss, whom he held for ransom for a week. (Historical footnote: Stravinsky never collected a penny. Strauss' unremitting dourness prompted Stravinsky to return his rival well ahead of schedule. On the other hand, the ordeal gave Strauss the inspiration for his opera, "Der Muffig Russe" (The Smelly Russian). Before it could be performed, however, Strauss died under mysterious circumstances involving a tuba.)

In the years that followed, scores of nonpop composers have taken to heart Stravinsky's dictum. Whenever feasible, we pilfer an idea from somewhere or somebody else. Wholly original concepts are frowned upon. Overly inventive composers are ostracized, sometimes even killed. This is because we wrote the book about twenty-first century audients -- or at least colored in some of the pictures. We know, for instance, that listeners are assailed by information of all kinds from every conceivable direction, as well as some that are inconceivable. These willing spectators need their auditory diversions to be transparent, not obfuscatory. According to data from a famous statistical clearinghouse (and if I mentioned its name, you’d recognize it in an instant), audients fancy a recognizable melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre or sonic fulmination more than they do snakes on a plane by a whopping margin of six. Otherwise, they’re prone to bouts of melancholy and resentment. (This is true for the snakes, too.)

Take, for example, Muzak, that bastion of business background music. For years, the company provided placid instrumental arrangements of popular music specially handcrafted for playing in shopping malls, public toilets, and above all (ha) elevators. But recently, Muzak fiddled with its easy listenin' formula by injecting some original music into its repertoire. The result? Their customers abandoned them like rats deserting a sinking tuba. And last week, Muzak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (Note: If you’re reading this story after it has been posted online, that last sentence should read "Vere dolet qui sine Muzaka dolet."*)

Stealing music is typically a solitary enterprise, however there are occasions when it pays to have company. One urban composer -- we'll call him "Landini" -- had employed borrowed melodies in his tunes ever since he could pick up a nose flute. But he had only "borrowed" them. In Stravinsky's view -- and, indeed, in the minds of two reviewers who we will also call "Landini" -- that made him a lesser artist. So he aimed his sights higher: he would steal his next musical idea. He figured he could just race up to another composer, grab a motif, rhythm, fulmination or whatever, and dash off before his victim could react. The problem with his plan was that he was both smaller and much slower than his target tunesmith. So he persuaded another composer to help with the heist. Landini and his accomplice (who we'll also call Landini -- and what are the odds of that happening?), concealed themselves along the berm of Tin Pan Alley. When their quarry strolled by, they leapt out, forced him to the ground, commandeered the melody he had been humming, and escaped with only a touch of brucellosis. Landini put the tune to use at once, and Landini the critic (i.e., the first one) later praised it for being "derivative." Turns out the victimized composer had lifted it from another composer, who had engaged in similar purloinical activities of his own ... on and on, all the way back to 1680 when Pachelbel's new pressure cooker malfunctioned. Before it blew up, it emitted eight piercing squeals, which would become, once the composer's writing hand mended, the two-measure ground bass to his D Major Canon.

Today, musical larceny is easier than ever. Countless banal ideas exist as internettlesome wave files, endlessly lapping against the shores of the cyber sea, just begging to be filched. This very radio show has supplied its share of pinchable material over the years, so the attentive composer should already be preparing to download samples from the acoustic events soon to follow in the house. Of course, before there was a house, there was Kalvos ampersand Damian's New Music Bazaar. During its ten and a half-year existence, the proprietors interviewed scores of composers who attempted to be original, defying the very real needs of their audients. Many of them have since paid the price of their foolish vanity and are now dead -- or worse, living in a dingy Tulsa walk-up with a broken pressure cooker while earning minimum wage mucking out whale barns. It's you we're speaking to when we say stop trying to be so darned clever! Listen to Papa Igor. Go steal a nice tune, maybe add a Landini cadence to it. You’ll feel a lot better. As will your intended audients. Afterwards, you can boot up this chat with a tunesmith who has larsony on her mind, or at least in her name. Just be sure to wipe the ambergris off your boots before venturing in the house.

* He mourns honestly who mourns without Muzak.