When drawing from preexisting works, how do you balance legal and moral obligations with the potential to create new art? Mathew Rosenblum

When drawing from preexisting works, how do you balance legal and moral obligations with the potential to create new art? Mathew Rosenblum

Mathew Rosenblum
Photo by Anna Rosenblum

Appropriation in music and other art forms has been around forever but has become particularly prevalent in the past one hundred years. The re-contextualization of sonic sources, cultural icons, musical styles, and various other cultural artifacts in order to create something completely new can be a very powerful artistic tool. A lot of what is happening in the art world today is about the re-contextualizing of pre-existing material thereby giving new meaning to those references. It seems natural that in 2004 this practice would come to be applied to digital sound sources.

Current copyright and infringement law is unfortunately out of touch with today’s artistic sensibilities and, judging from the recent court ruling, is definitely heading in the wrong direction. I believe that the Fair Use criteria should be expanded rather than restricted. Artists should be allowed to work freely with found materials in the audio domain (digital audio samples) as long as the sampled segment is genuinely being used to create something new, the sample is considerably less than the whole from which it is taken, and the earning power of the original is not put in jeopardy.

Non-commercial "art music" is generally below the infringement radar screen because pursuing infringement cases is most often a financial, not an artistic or aesthetic, decision made by the copyright owners (which, in the case of recorded music, are usually big corporations). When I asked EMI for permission to use the TV Theme "It’s About Time" in my piece 00Opinions, they were happy to allow it at no charge once they heard that it was destined to be inserted in a "classical" new music work that will have limited earning power.

But this is not always the case with copyright owners. Stephen James Joyce is notorious for denying permission to use his grandfather’s literary works in new music or pop music for aesthetic reasons. In my case, he stated that his grandfather had conservative musical taste and "would not have liked Mathew Rosenblum’s music nor do my wife and I" and he therefore didn’t approve the use of a short passage from Finnegans Wake for my piece Maggies. Rather ironic considering that Cage and others have used the Wake in the past. The solution to my problem came when Roger Zahab offered to write parodies of the Wake passages, which turned out brilliantly.

Appropriationist art provides a vital commentary on today’s culture, cultures of the past, and our cultural future. The idea that the courts can place a straight jacket on the development of this practice, and especially on artists that can’t afford to pay corporate copyright owners for those rights, gives me the chills.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.