What I learned from reading (select chapters of) a book. That introductory sentence probably wasn’t necessary. That explanatory one probably wasn’t either.
Mark Katz is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, according to its back cover, “explores how recording technology has encouraged new ways of listening to music, led performers to change their practices, and allowed entirely new musical genres to come into existence.” I took this book out of the college library in mid-November, but didn’t open it until a few days ago. Yes, I have renewed it.
I was mostly concerned with the seventh chapter of the book, entitled “Music In 1s and 0s: The Art and Politics of Digital Sampling”. The chapter actually addresses a significant portion of the questions my chosen topic raises. Possibly too many?! I have some worries that this particular may become a crutch of some kind. I’ll definitely have to prevent any reliance on it.
Katz introduces the concept of digital sampling with the example of Clyde Stubblefield’s drum break in James Brown’s 1970 song ‘Funky Drummer, Part 1 and 2′, which is supposedly the most sampled break in popular music. He says the break “enjoys a promiscuous, chameleonic existence”, appearing in quite a wide and varied range of songs, having been manipulated using digital technology. “In each example … something of the original sound is maintained, yet its meaning changes in every new setting.”
Stubblefield is also one of the subjects in a documentary called Copyright Criminals, which I will inevitably draw on while doing this dissertation. Although his performance has been appropriated so frequently, he apparently has yet to received any credit or compensation for any of these samples. What’s interesting is that this isn’t because all these artists have used the sample illegally – though I’m sure some have, it’s because Stubblefield was just a hired hand in the studio. James Brown is credited as the composer of the song, including this drum solo. So, even if every one of these cases of sampling were all “legitimate”, the credit and the cash would be heading to the James Brown estate, not the actual performer whose performance is being used. As such, it would be disingenuous to claim that the samplers are somehow depriving Stubblefield from potential revenue – a kind of argument oft used by proponents of strict copyright laws and protection.
Anyway, back to Katz!
He goes on to describe what digital sampling is, namely “a type of computer synthesis in which sound is rendered into data, data that in turn comprise instructions for reconstructing that sound.” He likens sampling a jigsaw puzzle: “a sound is cut up into pieces and then put back together to form a digitized ‘picture’ of that sound.” In this process, the sound is not captured in its entirety. Instead, at a certain rate (e.g. 44,100 times a second), the amplitude of the sound rate is measured, with this measurement stored as a number. In order to reconstruct the sound, “sampling can … be fast and fine enough so that the human ear perceives a continuous and faithfully rendered reproduction.”
When a sound is captured like this, it can then be altered and shaped in many different ways. This is the advantage of digital sampling.
Tempo and pitch can be increased or decreased in any increment, and the two can be manipulated independently… Sounds can be reversed, cut, looped, and layered; reverberation can be added; certain frequencies within a sound can be boosted or deemphasized. Noise can be removed to make an old recording sound pristine, or even added to make a pristine recording sound old, as can often be heard in recent popular music. All of these manipulations can be visited upon any sound, musical or otherwise, and on any length of sound that can be recorded. A sample can be a fraction of a waveform, a single note from an instrument or voice, a rhythm, a melody, a harmony, or an entire work or album. Although sampling, particularly when done well, is far from a simple matter, the possibilities it offers are nearly limitless.
Katz explores the roots of digital sampling, “as a form of musical borrowing.” He cites various instances of such borrowing over the last millennium: medieval chants borrowing earlier ones; Liszt and Rachmaninoff using ‘The Day of Wrath’; Bach reworking Vivaldi; Gounod reworking Bach; etc. Then he asks:
Yet isn’t there something fundamentally different between such traditional acts of borrowing and digital sampling? It is sometimes said that while a quotation is simply a representation of another piece, a sampled passage of music is that music. But that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.
As we saw above, after sampling a sound, one is left with but an approximation or ‘picture’ of the sound, not the sound itself. Okay, so the approximation might be one so good that a listener may not be able to distinguish it from the source – but it is an approximation nonetheless. So, “if sampling represents sound, we cannot say that a sampled passage of music is that music.”
However, this representation is in a completely different league from those historical examples. Gounod certainly wasn’t able to capture the sound of the air in the room when Bach was composing his Prelude in C Major, whereas a digital sample of Stubblefield’s drum break can recreate, in great detail, how the space in which he was drumming sounded. Rather than borrowing just a piece of work, sampling allows us to borrow “a unique sound event”: a specific performance.
Katz uses three case studies to examine different uses of sampling. The first is Paul Lansky’s ‘Notjustmoreidlechatter’, a piece built from samples of his wife reading Jane Eyre. The piece is quite startling. You can clearly tell the sounds are that of human speech, but it is nigh on impossible to pick out what words or phrases the sounds have come from. Indeed, the chances of someone oblivious to its origins listening to it and picking out the text that was used would be nil. If, instead of taking a novel from the public domain, Lansky had used a contemporary, copyrighted piece of writing, I would find it hard to believe that its author would accuse him of any kind of theft. Have a listen and see if you agree (headphones advisable):
Of course, the question I’m asking is: what if it were a copyrighted piece of music?
The second and third case studies do use audio resources, in different ways. Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ centres on the unaccompanied vocal part that opens of Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’:
Wait, unaccompanied?! Yes, this surprised me too. I had assumed the vocal and piano were from the same source. Admittedly I never gave it a very close listen – and hadn’t listened to it for a long time. Listening now, with that knowledge, it seems obvious. But back then, Norman Cook had 15-year-old me completely fooled. I suppose it helps that the opening of the song (the piano and vocal) is so clearly distinct from what happens when the whole thing kicks off a minute into it. Also, I was probably distracted by the Spike Jonze video.
But what effects do/did Cook’s sampling have on the original recording and its performer? Some argue that the sampling “neuters Yarbrough”, “changes [her] voice in such a way that it is less nuanced than the original” and eliminates the original’s eroticism, rendering her voice asexual. Katz goes on to offer “another possibility, perhaps not mutually exclusive … that Cook is disempowering Yarbrough, erasing her history, identity, and vitality.” Similarly, one could argue that this is “just another example of a white musician appropriating and denuding black culture for profit and fame?”
It turns out that Yarbrough was actually “pleasantly surprised” when she first heard the song. She was pleased that Cook had sampled the hook from ‘Take Yo’ Praise,’ which she considers the emotional core of her song, with an important message to offer… Yarbrough also feels that the gospel quality Cook lent the sample was appropriate, and brought out the spirituality of her song, at least in the opening of ‘Praise You.’ … And although Yarbrough seems ambivalent about what she calls the ‘dance hall’ sound of the remainder of the song, she does not feel that it in any way devalues her work. After all, she points out, ‘I can still do that song as I do it. And so what he did, thats’ on him; what I do, that’s me.’
Cook also gave her a co-writer credit and a considerable 60% of the royalties. Is this Cook being fair? Generous? Or perhaps he wished to avoid a repeat of when Pete Townshend “was given sole composer credit … and 100 percent of the royalties” of an earlier song in which he sampled (a cover of) The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’.
As well as receiving money from the sales and licensing, Yarbrough has benefited from Cook’s song in other ways:
‘Praise You’ has brought a good deal of positive attention to Yarbrough and her music, leading to the re-release of her 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker; two remixes of the song, and a reevaluation of her place in popular music by the press. Cook may have ‘chopped chunks’ out of Yarbrough’s song, but the result hardly seems to have been disempowering.
The third case study is of Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power‘.
The backing track of ‘Fight the Power’ contains dozens of samples, most of which are less than one second long. These individual fragments are “chopped, looped, layered, and transformed” to create a complex, polyrhythmic sound which has a “dizzying, exhilarating, and tantalizing” effect. The sampling also reflects the political message of the lyrics. Chuck D. raps about important black figures’ lack of recognition in America, while accompanied by “samples, literally in the form of digitized snippets, of the work of [Public Enemy's] underrepresented heroes”.
One of my favourite parts of this section is where Katz dismisses the possibility of this sample-based music being replicated live:
…it would be extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible, to reproduce the dense polyphony and distinctive timbres of the rhythm track without digital sampling. Even if the sampled musicians were to perform their chopped and looped parts in concert (an unlikely prospect!), they themselves could not exactly reproduce the original. It is not simply their voices or their playing that is important, but specific and well-known performances as mediated through recording technologies and heard on discs of a certain vintage.
Katz closes the chapter explaining how, instead of requiring traditional forms of notation and people to perform, “composers who work with samples work directly with sound, thus becoming more like their counterparts in the visual and plastic arts.” With that, ”sampling has transformed the very art of composition.”
So, almost everything in this chapter directly relates to issues I want to address: what sampling is; how it can be used; how sampled artists react to, may benefit from and/or may suffer from having their work sampled; if sampling can be original or creative; and so on.
The chapters either side of this one were also of interest. Chapter six spoke about turntablism. This clearly has parallels with digital sampling, as turntablists use their equipment and skills to “[alter] existing sounds and [produce] a wide range of wholly new ones.” And, among the community, originality is of the utmost importance, however, it “is not judged on the source of the raw materials, but in their selection, juxtaposition, and transformation.” This chapter also really made me want to re-watch Scratch.
Chapter eight tackled the issue of online peer-to-peer file-sharing, the implications of which (with regard to copyright) definitely relate to my chosen topic.
Alas, I have gone on a bit. And I really need to focus on (so many) other sources of information. But hopefully this has given some more insight into what I’m researching.