Tag: plagiarism

Self-Plagiarism and the Evolution of Style

I recently set a poem for SATB a cappella chorus that ended in the word “sun.” This music should have come easily to me, but I’d already set another SATB a cappella piece that ended in the word “sun” just a few months ago. Both sentences used the word to end their respective poems in an uplifting, redemptive gesture. They called for similar music, but I didn’t want to write the exact same music twice.

To what extent, as a composer, are you allowed to plagiarize your own music? Sometimes, of course, we do this unconsciously, realizing only belatedly that we’re repeating ourselves. How do we know when this is a terrible idea, and when it’s a great one? After all, there’s a long history of composers ripping off their own music, borrowing ideas and recycling whole measures—or sometimes whole movements. Even Bach did it. But given that repeating our past ideas can read as flat-out laziness, when, if ever, should we self-plagiarize?

Hitchcock once said, while defending the repeated use of certain filming techniques within his work, that “self-plagiarism is style,” and I think his philosophy holds the answer to when and how we should imitate our past compositions.

Some composers write in a style so recognizable, we need only hear a minute—or even a measure—of their music to know exactly who wrote it. Musicians occasionally criticize these composers for writing music that “all sounds the same,” but it takes skill to settle on a style that works consistently. A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.

A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.

In the evolution of artistic style, there’s a crucial distinction between “self-plagiarism” and “plagiarism.” Replicating the specific elements of gesture and orchestration that define another composer’s style is a tricky matter; do it without identifying your source material, and your work may be written off as derivative. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the most distinctive indicators—unless expressly doing so in homage—and to seek out whatever will come to define our own work.

There’s a difference between realizing you’re organically writing music similar to what you’ve done in the past versus purposefully trying to recapture the style of your previous work, too. The few times I’ve tried to write a piece similar to one of my older pieces, I’ve found it absolutely maddening; it’s impossible to recapture who you were and what mindset you were in when you wrote an older piece. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s nearly always easier to forge ahead with a new work rather than intentionally re-create the style of an older one.

Are we responsible for creating our own “style” or should we simply write the music we want to write, let it evolve naturally over time, and allow others to decide what defining factors unite our complete body of work? On some level, our own style may always remain unknowable to us, recognizable only after we’ve written everything we’re ever going to write. We are, though, in charge of how we choose to imbue our music with meaning. Here’s where I think “self-plagiarism” does define style: rather than imitating old ideas or forcefully repurposing them into new pieces, we can view a creative lifetime as a chance to create our own musical vocabulary.

Consider a few moments in Thomas Newman’s film scores that sound similar. In several films Newman has scored—including American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and White Oleander—Newman favors a sparse orchestral texture, with sustained strings and a simple melody in the piano. He uses this approach in so many different films that the repeated use of this texture must be deliberate. Often, these similar themes highlight moments in each movie when the presence of beauty creates a stark contrast to darkness or death. By writing similar themes for each of these different films, Newman strengthens the purpose and value of each individual theme. This music is recognizably written in his “style,” yes, but beyond that, it functions as a sort of life-long leitmotif within his work.

Even outside of film scoring, it makes sense for composers to use similar music to underscore parallel moments within different compositions. I considered this as I wondered how to set a second poem ending in “sun.” I’d already solved this musical problem once; if I solved it the same way again—with a different approach, but the same harmonic progression leading up to the final “sun” chordthat moment could effectively link both pieces together.

Applied to a life of composing, this intentional repetition could create a library of motives, gestures, and orchestration that defines our work. As we encounter words and dramatic moments similar to ones we’ve scored in a previous piece, we can purposefully link these pieces with the same vocabulary—adapted so that it will reflect whatever surrounds it—so that anyone who encounters both pieces will hear these pieces linked across time. For listeners who take the time to know our body of work, these moments will feel almost like an inside joke: a reward for speaking our language.

The Best Laid Plans

I had planned to talk about bassists this week, especially about the upcoming Interpretations-sponsored performance by John Eckhardt at Roulette on Monday, October 11, but it has finally come to pass that my priorities have veered so far toward the banal that I must appeal to the universe for guidance. Here are the particulars:

I had made plans to attend Brianna Thomas’s engagement at ZEB’S in the Chelsea district of Manhattan (actually two blocks away from the 28th Street location I described in my post about Tin Pan Alley). I had mentioned Thomas in last week’s post as one of the excellent vocalists I had the pleasure of accompanying in a concert where a problem of authorship arose around a composition, “Solar,” that was misattributed to Miles Davis. It turns out that I had first heard Thomas sing at a recital for Janet Lawson’s class at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2010. Although I was very impressed with her singing then, I didn’t remember the incident until long after the event that we played together, possibly because our contact there was limited to one on-stage rehearsal and the concert itself. We only spoke with each other for a total of two minutes and that was pretty much limited to a discussion of how we would play Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone,” a piece that Ellington did compose (with lyrics by Milt Gaber), but as a new melody to the chord progression for Harry Williams and Art Hickman’s “In Sunny Roseland” (a. k. a. “Rose Room”).

I emphasize the authorship of “In A Mellow Tone” for two reasons: (1) to show that the practice of remelodicizing chord progressions of popular songs didn’t begin (in case anyone was wondering) during the bebop era, although it was raised to a high art then; and (2) to bring up a point about misattribution in Duke Ellington’s musical output. It seems that Ellington was in the practice of claiming authorship for the music created by his sidemen. Although it was a limited practice, he, nonetheless, did engage in what I will call “contractual plagiarism.” The best-known example of this was with his long-time collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. In this model, Parties A (Strayhorn) and B (Ellington) would agree that a certain work or certain works created by Party A will be attributed in part or whole to Party B, who wasn’t actually involved in the creation of that work beyond hiring Party A to create it. In copyright terms, a “work for hire.” This is a different situation than the one I cited regarding “Solar,” Miles Davis’s plagiarism of Chuck Wayne’s “Sonny.” A case that is somewhat similar to “Solar” is raised around the very popular “Creole Love Call.” The song’s melody was brought to Ellington (who took a co-composer credit) by one of Ellington’s saxophonists, Rudy Jackson, who claimed it as his own invention. King Oliver, who had recorded the melody of the song as “Camp Meeting Blues” some years before, sued Ellington, who won the lawsuit but was so upset that he fired Jackson. But Ellington’s “contractual” misattributions worked both ways, which is clear in his relationship with Irving Mills, who, in return for supplying Ellington with many lucrative performing engagements—including the long-term stay at the Cotton Club, was granted ownership over half of Duke Ellington, Inc. This resulted in many of Ellington’s best-known works being credited to Mills as a co-author.

The case of Ellingtonian misattribution is an example of professional symbiosis where both parties have something to gain from the obfuscation of authorship, the sort that only deceives the public and whatever higher power(s) might have something to say about it in the hereafter. It appears to have been a fairly common practice. I was recently corrected by jazz historian Scott Yanow about what turns out to be an entirely unsupported claim on my part about the music of Paul Whiteman. I once posited that the music he composed and considered to be jazz was “drivel,” but it was pointed out to me that Whiteman actually never composed anything, that he got his name attached to the copyright of a song in return for having his band record it. While it seems a somewhat overly simplistic way to be excluded from any criticism based on aesthetic criteria, Mr. Whiteman’s compositional acumen is now vindicated, since he had none. But that leaves the question of whether or not contractual misattribution is morally right or wrong.

While I believe that anything done between consenting adults is not morally wrong, there is the problem of whether something agreed to vis-à-vis economic coercion is actually a matter of mutual consent. The contractual misattributions of Whiteman and Ellington are prima facie examples of win-win situations once agreed upon. But what if they weren’t agreed upon? Would Ellington have become a household name or even been able to keep his band together as long as he did if he didn’t agree to give Mills equal partnership in his organization? It’s difficult to say. I believe that Ellington would have managed to become very successful without the influence of Mills. In fact, it was his success, or the obvious promise of it, up to then that attracted Mills in the first place. But consider how often the refusal to hand over one’s intellectual property has led to obscurity and financial struggle for a musician. Such was the case of trumpeter and territory band leader Don Albert, who refused to agree to the terms Joe Glaser offered (to reduce Albert’s band to ten musicians from fourteen) and thus lost the lucrative market of New York City as a place to include on his itinerary. (Details can be found on pages 331-33 of this article.) It isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to see how this becomes part of the current trend of underpaying (or not paying at all) musicians for their performances. It seems that there is a misconception that professional musicians are actually hobbyists who play music in their spare time for a spare dime or that musicians should be happy to get a chance to be “exposed” to the public. This translates into a state of affairs where an artist’s best chance of financial success is to not need to work at all! Artistic expression then becomes proportional to class status and rare is the case where a musician of limited means can develop his or her art.