It’s not particularly news to say that much contemporary music, popular or otherwise, is constructed through assemblage, put together from pre-existing pieces in what Lévi-Strauss called bricolage (and which he associated especially with mythic rather than scientific thinking) – creating something new out of assorted odds and ends of things already there. This is especially clear with hip hop and its heavy use of sampling previously existing music and sounds, though the use of sampling and re-mixing is not confined to that genre.
To say this is to neither praise nor criticize – it is simply to make a comment on a key quality of much if not most contemporary music. Such musical bricolage can be highly creative (to pick just one example I’m fond of, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian’s “Bird of Paradise (Gone)” from Bird Up – the Charlie Parker Remix Project uses Parker’s “Bird of Paradise” and other musical odds and ends as source material for something that’s really less a remix than a truly new piece of music), tedious (with many hip hop and pop songs, the most interesting thing is trying to remember which previous bland pop song it is that’s being so obviously sampled), and/or an attempt by record labels to cash in on back catalogue material with remix projects (the Bird Up album I mention above is overall pretty good – but it’s also a crass attempt by Savoy Jazz to make more money from a catalogue that’s been marketed many times over).
Musical bricolage didn’t start with hip hop. One of the key antecedents of remixing and sampling in hip hop is Dub, which in the 1970s essentially involved reformulating the elements, i.e. early remixing, of reggae songs.
One of the earliest instances of music produced through bricolage in a popular genre was the work of Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero on albums like Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. What they did on these albums in the late 1960s and very early 1970s was, of course, not completely unprecedented. Structurally, what they did was anticipated by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen – an influence Davis explicitly acknowledged at the time.
What made their work at the time quite different from most everything else done in jazz up until that point was the way in which the final songs appearing on the albums were constructed from multiple takes of different tracks recorded in the studio (as opposed to the standard jazz practice of releasing whole takes, even if multiple takes of a song were recorded, with the best take being the one released).
Even before this, there had been much use of overdubbing in the production of pop and rock recording. Also, in classical music there had been instances of taped material being incorporated alongside conventional instruments in the performance of a musical work. What Stockhausen and Davis and Macero were doing was structurally a bit different.
Conventional overdubbing allows for a finished recording to be constructed from elements recorded in separate instances. However, this isn’t bricolage. The piece of music is pre-planned, a structure is designed and then carried out – i.e. this is an instance of “engineering” (to invoke Lévi-Strauss’ contrast between the engineer/scientific thought and the bricoleur/mythic thought). Overdubbing simply allows a designed structure to be implemented by breaking a task down into constituent parts (a classic “scientific” maneuver) before putting each in its proper place. Earlier classical pieces that incorporated taped material tended to be of the same sort of “engineered” music.
What was different with Davis recordings beginning in the late 1960s was that the tracks that were recorded were not constituent parts of a designed piece. Instead they were freely improvised works in their own right that were recorded with the sole intent of serving as raw material (something that has by no means kept Columbia records from cashing in on all these recordings by releasing them recently in a series of massive box sets – and frankly, much of the material is well worth listening to in its own right, even if it was never intended for release as is), as previously existing odds and ends out of which finished songs were constructed out of bits and pieces from here and there in a true process of bricolage. (If one wanted to qualify, this could be called engineered bricolage, insofar as the oddments for assembly were themselves intentionally designed to serve as such, unlike the found odds and ends of dub producers or more recent remixers.)
There are numerous partial examples of musical bricolage from earlier periods. That’s essentially what musical quotation is, but such wholesale bricolage, where entire works are constructed of previously existing material is fairly new in the history of Western music.
In a variety of his works, Lévi-Strauss drew parallels between the structure of myth and music. One parallel is the co-dependence of the synchronic and diachronic in both myth and music. Myth narratives and musical pieces unfold through time, and without this diachronic element, there is no narrative, whether mythic or musical, but all the while, the experience of the unfolding chain of events is filtered through synchronic structure – there is not simply a random unfolding of events, but things happening in relation to what has happened prior and expectations of what will happen now and in the future, without which there is only noise.
At the same time, Lévi-Strauss strongly associated mythic thought with bricolage. Mythic thinking involves understanding the world through taking the already there and reassembling it. (He was also rightly aware that even at our most “scientific,” we never impose structure on the world without constraint or without precedent.) But here (until recently, at least) a full parallel with music breaks down. For several centuries, western music, especially western art music, worked in an engineering mode. For example, think about the sometimes mechanistically imposed structure of canon or sonata form, or later serialism.
In Myth and Meaning, Lévi-Strauss made an interesting conjecture. He noted that western art music rose to prominence at roughly the same time that mythic thinking was more and more giving way to scientific thinking in scholarship and western discourse generally. He conjectured that some of the organization of experience typical of mythic thinking was transposed onto thinking through music with its new prominence.
Regardless of the value of that conjecture (I’m not sure how to go about proving it one way or another), I think it’s important to note that music and myth are structurally similar in some ways (e.g. the organization of the experience of time), but until recently, the quality of bricolage so typical of myth has not been characteristic of music. What’s new about Stockhausen, Davis’ and Macero’s experiments in the late 1960s and 1970s, dub, and hip hop is the creation of music in a fully mythic mode.