Every Idea is a Remix
Play Fool, Vol. 2, Ch. 1
Welcome to Play Fool, a newsletter about the games we play and the games which play us. This piece is a theory on creativity as a process of reinvention. If you enjoy it, please share this post.
My father is fond of saying that there were only three hundred pop songs which could be written, and the Beatles wrote the first two hundred of them. The same may be true for great ideas. There is little in contemporary thought that cannot be traced back to the Neoplatonists (who lay down the cultural grammar for Christianity), or the Asian thinkers inspired by the historical Buddha, or even more primal, orally transmitted Indigenous wisdom. Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy is a kind of travelogue of these ideas which, having been laid out early in human history, have become destined to cycles of loss and recovery, disappearance and resurgence. Ideas like “The universes which are amenable to the intellect can never satisfy the instincts of the heart1,” or “The way that can be spoken of is not the way2,” might be the philosophical equivalent of the opening four bars of Come Together. If contemporary rock and roll is attempting to create in whatever narrow margins have been left by The Beatles, then perhaps all thought is picking at the empty plate left by Plato, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu.
Believing all the important things have been said makes life difficult for a writer, who is often left wishing others would read more. In the detritus of late capitalism, at times I find myself wondering if the problem isn’t simply that nobody got around to reading the proper texts. The more I learn, the less I feel there is to be said except, perhaps, to gesture lazily back towards the greats and to encourage people to engage with their ideas. That is still largely true: Some of what I hope to do here is to sift through the wreckage of our culture and share those ideas and practices which can make sense of the present moment.
Of course, music didn’t stop with The Beatles. Our lives today are wallpapered with pop music more than ever. The Beatles’ various four-chord gifts have been reinterpreted and reimagined in countless ways, from “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey to “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. The good musician doesn’t need to write something new, only to combine old elements in new ways. The history of contemporary music is the history of the remix.
If there were one hundred songs remaining to be discovered, perhaps one of them was Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Or, more accurately, it was Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s cover of the version the incomplete, evolving version Cohen had written at the time John Cale heard it. Cohen’s original release of Hallelujah took five years to write, and his first producer described it as a “disaster,” and one commentator said it was “so super-serious it was almost satire.” It sold fewer than 10,000 copies at the time of release. John Cale’s cover approached the version we’re all familiar with today, but it was still a soppy closer on a tribute album. The version we know today only came into being when Jeff Buckley heard John Cale’s version while housesitting. He performed his own version the following night at a tiny bar in the East Village, where a producer from Columbia Records happened to chance upon it. Buckley’s version—resonant, ambiguous, bittersweet and swaying between redemption and crucification—is the version we all remember, and it was a cover of a cover, a remix of a remix.
What is the proper way to think about the iterative process by which artists re-imagine each other’s work with new influences? A helpful metaphor might be the idea of an object and a lens. A lens gives us a particular perspective which accentuates, diminishes or productively corrupts elements of the original object. This could be described grossly (Led Zeppelin as the ‘lens’ of rock and roll on the ‘object’ of the blues) or with more nuance, such as the way an artist brings an entirety of a lifetime to a work, as Buckley seemed to do with Hallelujah. This kind of lens may be thought of as a kaleidoscopic lens, with fragments of known and unknown influences arranged in fractal shapes. We crank the lens with the intentionality and precision of a safe-cracker. We keep turning and twisting until the right fragments glimmer together and reveal something previously obscured.
When we think of the practice of making music, we think of the rehearsal—an essentially known song that we successively move towards by refining the skill of performance. Rehearsal is a matter of repetition and refinement. When a song is being written, however, we don’t know what the right notes are yet—here, we don’t so much rehearse as improvise. Writing a song is a process of improvising for iterative discoveries, which are gradually engrained into the ‘final’ song. In jazz, each note is improvised based on the preceding notes, whereas in written music, each version is improvised based on the preceding versions. Each version of a song gestures towards—without ever fully specifying—the next version. The professional artist finds the tune by humming it first. When they do find it, finally, they release it as a new object—making it available, once again, for reinvention and reinterpretation by other artists.
This ongoing cycle of creation, re-creation, release, and interpretation confuses our ideas of what bounds a cultural artefact, what constitutes completion and how we might ascribe ownership to it. Buckley may owe something to Cohen, but Cohen owes something to a millennia-spanning choral tradition. In Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult, the signature cowbell beat was an after-thought, dubbed over after the final track had been recorded. The cowbell makes the song: it is like a jaunty march towards death3. Where the cowbell came from—who ‘owns’ the right to that section of the song—seems like a silly question. Even the members of Blue Öyster Cult can’t seem to agree on who came up with the idea.
As a writer (or someone who writes, at least), we must be content with this painstaking process of incremental experimentation. All creation is improvisation, just at different and sometimes overlapping timescales. I never quite know which word I’m going to write next. I have only a scent of the next paragraph. When I revise, I may revise at the level of the word, the sentence, the paragraph, or the entire piece. The next piece, I trust, will reveal itself to me in time, as clouds inevitably, but not predictably, part for sunlight.
Writing is another way of acknowledging our limited locus of control and our limited authorship. If I happen to stumble on something insightful, it is a credit to some influence tumbling around in my psychic kaleidoscope. Depending on the care with which I reference what I read, I may or may not be able to credit the original author (perhaps a better term would be the ‘immediate preceding’ author). Indeed, the “at times I find myself wondering if the problem isn’t simply that nobody got around to reading the proper texts,” line above I mentally attributed to Eugene Thacker, author of Infinite Resignation and Cosmic Pessimism, but I cannot find those words in either of those books. Do I owe those words to Eugene?
I write not to create new ideas but new combinations, new reinterpretations—improvisations from earlier suggestions. Much of the improvisation takes place before I publish, largely as a kindness in respecting your time as a reader. However, some writers insist they publish only when a piece is finished, whereas I perhaps reject the idea that a piece is ever finished. A piece is only ever good-enough-for-now. A piece is published when I think it is fit for reinterpretation or productive usage, when it is more than flotsam on the sea of the internet. This good-enough view may not be the spirit of a great writer, but I suspect it is the spirit of all good writers. I don’t aim to write history, only to help history to continue to circulate. Ideas are living improvisations carried out in the medium of culture.