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Composition, performance, and mashups

What does it mean to create an artwork? For centuries, we thought we knew the answer. In literature, an author recorded words on a page. In the visual arts, an artist put paint to canvas. In music, a composer jotted down notes and rhythms on a staff as the raw material for his/her creations.

With the advent of digital media, file-sharing, and music production software, the conception of musical composition has changed dramatically. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the mashup, which combines two or more existing musical works to create a new one. As a case study, consider The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, the 2004 mashup of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ “White Album.” Each track uses music from one or more Beatles songs (which Danger Mouse put through the digital mincer, as it were) underneath the lyrics from one of Jay-Z’s tracks. As an example, listen to “Change Clothes,” first in Jay-Z’s original version:

And then in Danger Mouse’s Grey Album version, which fashions a new beat out of The Beatles’ “Piggies”:

Clearly, the Grey Album version of “Change Clothes” is a musical composition. But in creating it, what exactly did Danger Mouse do? Jay-Z wrote all the lyrics. The Beatles composed all the music. But the composition would not have existed without Danger Mouse. Is it therefore accurate to refer to him as the “composer” of The Grey Album, even though he contributed none of the musical material?

The answer I propose is: no. Mashup creation is much more like musical performance than musical composition. In a performance, a musician takes the material of another (the composition) and reproduces it for the listener, according to his/her own emotional interpretation. So it is, I would argue, with The Grey Album; Danger Mouse has re-interpreted each song on The Black Album and rendered those interpretations audible using The Beatles’ music as his interpretive tool. Consider “What More Can I Say?”, which perhaps differs most markedly from the original. This is Jay-Z’s original track:

The beat for this version, produced by The Buchanans, is brash, confident, and boastful. The sampled brass and strings are reminiscent of 1970’s-era Las Vegas, and the listener can imagine Jay-Z in the middle of boxing ring, his arms held out to the sides in the classic pose of victory and challenge. The music, like the lyrics, seems to brag, “I am the greatest. What more can I say?”

The Grey Album version is strikingly different:

For the beat, Danger Mouse used The Beatles’ poignant “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” giving the beat a much slower, introspective quality. For the listener, this brings to mind another way of interpreting the title—not as a boast, but as an expression of quiet resignation. “If you haven’t understood me by now,” Jay-Z seems to ask, “What more can I say?”

The manipulation of the expressive character of a song, such as Danger Mouse has undertaken in the two presented here, is much more akin to the activity of a musical performer than a composer. Danger Mouse’s actions are not creative, they are interpretive. He does not speak through the music; he speaks about the music. In so doing, he challenges us to re-interpret not only the songs that he produced, but also the very ways in which we think about musical creation.

Headline image credit: DJ by Designatic. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Dave Headlam

    Interesting! I’m tempted to say “no-one is entirely original” and place Danger Mouse at one end of the scale, but there’s too many tropes here — Black music / White music, appropriation, authenticity, image, etc., etc., to defy reduction — at least 50 shades of gray, I’d say!

  2. Darryl White

    This is composition. If not, there is no clear line between composition and performance, and the distinction loses meaning. The finished work is other than the sum of the parts; or better yet, the significance of each part is changed in their juxtapositioning.

  3. Jennifer Iverson

    Great work Kyle! Virtuosity is also an important aspect that leans toward performance, I think. Danger Mouse exhibits considerable virtuosity in putting these stylistically and historically distinct beats and tracks together in such a way that they speak to each other: it’s certainly creative, but it’s primarily a display of virtuoso hearing. This aesthetic of performative virtuosity inheres in tons of popular music, especially EDM and DJ styles, and I see it here too.

  4. otisaga

    “Danger Mouse’s actions are not creative, they are interpretive.”

    Is there any such thing as non-interpretive creation? Creation is interpretation of possibilities, whether one note to the other, or one musical movement to the the other, it is always about interpreting and evaluating what is experienced first, recorded next. Mashups hear what others have heard and recorded with relation to each other, it is simply a higher level (or macroscale) composition (com-position, Old French from Latin composition-, from componere ‘put together’).

    So he does speak thru the music, he does not speak thru its traditional ground-up means. In the plastic arts its equivalent would be the cut-outs, whose results were considered original compositions, except of course the the traditional critics who mocked or belittled them on their way to their own grave.

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