Shoulders of giants

27 Jul
Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination … Select only things that speak to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. Film Director, Jim Jarmusch

When Motown girlie band The Toys topped the 1965 charts with Lovers Concerto, our school music teacher insisted its gorgeous melody was a steal from Bach’s Minuet in G major. He was wrong – that piece is 3/4 while the Toys’ is 4/4 – though his error was widespread. It took years for the credit to be more accurately directed at Johann Seb’s peer, Christian Petzold. I’d guess the confusion could only have arisen because at least one and probably both tunesmiths were themselves no strangers to the art of sampling. They’d hardly be alone in that. Tchaikovsky was forever raiding Russian folk, while anyone today caught lifting Native American tunes the way Dvorak did for his New World would be in line for a PC lynching.

Being a classical rather than a jazz man, that teacher missed a surer opportunity for the musical disdain his generation, which in fairness had seen the great depression followed by total war, delighted in pouring on mine. Two years earlier the fab four had released a Lennon-McCartney composition, All My Loving: here. Nice tune; gratifyingly smooth in its call-and-answer scalar drop. Now try Kathy’s Waltz, here, from Dave Brubeck’s 1959 Time Out. Drag the slider to the one minute mark and play the next nine seconds. That’s all it takes to make the match and rule out mere coincidence; though not cryptomnesia, aka unconscious plagiarism.

Brubeck, who’d named Kathy’s Waltz after his daughter, brought no lawsuit against John or Paul. Authorship was never that big a deal in jazz. In part that’s because, as in folk, a shared legacy is freely drawn on – witness John Coltrane’s blazing takes of Greensleeves on Africa Brass, 1961. And in part it’s because jazz’s improvisational tradition shifts the creative centre of gravity from pen to performance – from then to now.

A decade later, a third Beatle didn’t get off so lightly. My Sweet Lord sat at number one for weeks in 1970. You could barely get from one end of the street to the other without its gormless lyric invading the eardrum. Inevitably it was picked up across the pond by Bright Tunes Music executives who, having filtered out Harrison’s trademark guitar licks, weren’t slow to detect in the infectious melody line a more than passing resemblance to a song in their own catalogue, the Ronnie Mack creation and Chiffons 1961 mega-hit, He’s So Fine. Not until  1975 did a judge find against George, adding that the plagiarism was in all probability unconscious. The parties settled out of court for an undisclosed sum but Mack was long dead, and in any case wouldn’t have seen a penny. As Paul would later discover in his battle with erstwhile buddy Michael Jackson for the Beatles songbook, authorship and ownership aren’t the same thing. Whatever the size of George’s pay-out, it went to Bright Tunes Music and not the Mack estate.

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In a quite separate arena of creativity a contemporary of Bach and Petzold, a man strange by any standard – one whose commitment to empirical inquiry did not baulk at exploring the back of his own eye socket with a bodkin needle – famously wrote that “if I see further than others it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants”. We might wonder Isaac Newton could see at all but that’s by the by. It’s likely these words, in a letter to arch rival Robert Hooke, were in truth meant as a put down of the latter but history smiles on Newton, whose scientific achievements surely outweigh those of Einstein and perhaps all others, so we too may be kind and take the words at their face-value modesty. That, paradoxically, is where the deeper truth lies.

Which is my roundabout way of saying I agree with the Jarmusch quote I began with. Yes, there are boundaries; of course there are. Like any other worker, creatives have bills to pay; mouths to feed. But those boundaries are further and fuzzier than is commonly supposed; originality is indeed a chimera. Coltrane once said he found his own voice only by emulating those, not all of them tenor saxmen, who’d come before. I know this to be a generalisable truth. In photography classes I used to set my students an assignment where they were to take a photographer they admired and make their own portfolio in the spirit of his or her work. Generally the results were superficial and imitative for the good reason that in the spirit of  implies a level of abstraction it was unfair of me to demand at their stage of development. But we educators play a long game. One day, maybe even while I still draw breath, one of those students will take the photographic world by storm and blame it all on me; on that exercise, and its subversively insistent whisper that all art – and all science too – is love and theft and more than a touch of cryptomnesia.

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