Freewheelin' and Freeloading in the Digital Age

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It seems that every few days, a new layer in the Jonah Lehrer fallout emerges. The former New Yorker staffer resigned last Monday following the discovery that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his newest book, Imagine (and originally lied about the fact to Tablet’s Michael C. Moynihan, who broke the news).

This news followed earlier evidence that surfaced in June, suggesting that Lehrer had repeatedly self-plagiarized his own material, often using same paragraphs in articles and blog posts for various publications. After that came the deluge: Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, accused Lehrer of having “[t]he arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater, or a little easier for himself."

Others were more sympathetic to the plight of the 31-year-old Lehrer, who published his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, at 26 and seemed to be buckling under the pressure of being a wunderkind. Jayson Blair, who left the New York Times in 2003 after a similar scandal, told Salon that Lehrer’s story had “striking similarities” to his own fall from grace.  Writing for the same publication, Roxane Gay placed some of this cautionary tale’s blame on the system itself, writing: “There is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.”

During the initial discussions of self-plagiarizing and recycling old material back in June, all I could think of was Handel. Mozart. Rossini. In Handel’s time, writing 42 music dramas in a period between 1705 and 1741 (that’s 1.167 operas per year) wasn’t about creating 42 distinctive works. It was more about bringing one’s music to as wide an audience as possible. Silla, written in 1713, would later feed 1717’s Amadigi di Gaula. The melody for the aria “Lascia ch’io pianga,” perhaps best known for its use in Rinaldo, was an Asian dance in Almira and an aria in the composer’s oratorio Il trifono del Temp e del Disinganno.

In the absence of mass communications and recording technology (the same sorts of advances that would ultimately lead to Lehrer’s undoing), recycling one’s work was par for the course. That famous overture to Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia? It was written for an opera about Queen Elizabeth. From that same opera, you hear a tenor aria in the final act that was also recast as a mezzo’s eleven-o’clock number in La Cenerentola. I’m hard-pressed to think of any tenor or mezzo who takes issue with this.

The other side of self-recycling is self-referencing, done more deliberately, and offered as a wink to the audience. In the party scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an onstage band plays a number of tunes popular from the time of the work’s 1787 premiere. Giovanni and Leporello comment on Mozart’s own version of the iPod Shuffle as they catch snippets of Martín y Soler’s Una cosa rara and Sarti’s Fra I due litigant, works that probably would be best recognized by modern listeners thanks to their inclusion in this opera.

Audiences in the know get an extra laugh when the band finally strikes up with “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s own Le Nozze di Figaro, as Leporello deadpans “This tune sounds familiar.” Mozart probably would have gotten a kick out of hearing his Queen of the Night aria sampled in singer-songwriter Kelis’s “Like You” or the same done to his Requiem in rapper Young Buck’s “Say It to My Face.”

The very genius that Lehrer writes about in Imagine – genius to which Lehrer told Mashable we should aspire to in excess has also been applied to both Mozart. Like Lehrer, Mozart was recognized as a genius very early on in his life. With such a staggering canon to his name upon his untimely death, Mozart’s own trustworthiness has also come into question to varying degrees of fanaticism.

In 1997, musicologist David Buch discovered a score for The Beneficent Dervish, another project from Emanuel Schikaneder (Mozart’s librettist for The Magic Flute). According to Buch’s research, the work predated Flute, and while primarily attributed to composer Benedickt Schak, it’s believed Mozart may have had a hand in it.

A recording from 2002 shows that it may have been more than a hand. In an article that year for Slate, writer Adam Baer noted that an aria sung by Mandolino bears a striking rhythmic and thematic resemblance to Papageno’s first aria in Flute. There are also the plot connections, a product of the period’s fancy for fairytale or otherwise enchanted operas: Mandolino is the Papageno of the sea, he teams up with a Tamino doppelganger to find a princess, and in the end wins a Mandalina.

But does the implication that Mozart may have dabbled with this work to forge his own Flute make him any less of a genius? Baer thinks not; I’m heavily inclined to agree. So then where, in contemporary times, does that leave the likes of popular composers such as John Williams and Andrew Lloyd Weber? Williams has allegedly borrowed from composers like Holst to write the score for Star Wars while Lloyd Webber has been said to mine Puccini in The Phantom of the Opera (Weber)?

There was even more discussion surrounding this idea this past winter when accusations of plagiarism were leveled at composer Osvaldo Golijov and his nine-minute piece Sidereus. Commissioned by a group of 35 orchestras, it contains a significant chunk of music from a 2009 work by Michael Ward-Bergeman, a close friend of Golijov’s. Like Lehrergate, the incident was reported on widely and with varying levels of outrage and sympathy. James McQuillen, who wrote the program notes for Golijov’s Sidereus, the piece in question, later wrote that he felt "suckered" by the revelation.

Ward-Bergeman maintained that this was a conscious appropriation, consensually agreed to between the two composers. The rest of this particular story should therefore have been a nonstarter. That Golijov has dabbled in pastiche before was, however, a fact that was widely Google-able in the days following the break of this story. Every Tom, Dick, and blogger came up with YouTube comparisons, occasionally ignoring context for content. In a way, it was like Lehrer fabricating Dylan quotes to fit his thesis on imagination and creativity. In another sense, it was like the manifold stories over the last seven days that have been published against the freshly unemployed Lehrer.

As Richard Guérin wrote on the topic of Golijov, “Even if such a piece of pure music did exist in a vacuum, it would exist in the listener's mind against the context of all the other music in the history of the world.” In music especially, with only so many notes available to a composer in a Western scale, there are bound to be elements of songs we’ve heard before heard in new works – deliberate or not. Even Mohammed Fairouz’s Akhnaten, recently premiered by the Houston Symphony, brought to mind—of all things—the commercial jingle for Meow Mix.

And often, as Guérin also notes, it’s the scandal attached to a work or composer that sticks out long after the dust has settled, often influencing how we’d perceive the art itself. There is, of course, a clear-cut difference between Lehrer’s actions and those of Golijov (or any number of composers before him). But it does suggest that, in a period of great and frequent cultural shift, a new definition of “plagiarism" may be needed. Perhaps it’s worth redefining the meanings of "originality" and "genius" too.