Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hovern Engan III: When Artists LIE

Did Peter Gabriel plagiarize?

By that I mean, did he take someone else's work or arrangement of a work (steal), and then claim it as his own (lie)?

Did a famous rock star accept Grammy and Oscar nominations for an album and make millions of dollars off it, all the while touting himself an advocate of world music and its artists, when in fact significant creative musical work on the album was actually done by others, scantily acknowledged if indeed acknowledged at all?

In my opinion, and as I understand the semantics,

And, yes.

I've written two previous posts on this issue: "Hovern Engan," which I posted on March 1, and "Hovern Engan II," posted on March 4.

To summarize, in brief: the first post describes how I came to realize that the melody in the first track of Peter Gabriel's album Passion - the soundtrack to the movie The Last Temptation of Christ - is actually, note for note, the Armenian folk song entitled Hovern Engan, which according to one source is about a mother receiving news of her martyred son.

In the second post I explore the music further and suspect that not only did Peter Gabriel do little more than add percussion on top of the duduk player's arrangement of Hovern Engan, but also he took musical ideas from that arrangement and used them in his instrumental embellishments. (I was unsure at first if Gabriel echoed the dudukist or the dudukist echoed Gabriel, but seeing as I found out recently that the dudukist is DEAD, and in fact died before Gabriel's album was produced, I thought it unlikely that he be echoing anything Peter Gabriel might have composed.) I also include in that post a recording of the dudukist's arrangement of Hovern Engan and a Youtube video which features Peter Gabriel's version.

It would have been fine with me if Peter Gabriel had in fact billed his track as a VERSION of Hovern Engan. But see, this is not what he did. He took someone else's RECORDED arrangement of the piece, tacked on some drums and synthesizers, gave it a new title ("The Feeling Begins"), then included it in an album with a tiny footnote that says the melody being played by dudukist Vatche Hovsepian is an Armenian melody, " The Wind Subsides," from a recording directed by Robert Ataian and published by Ocora Records. Obviously Hovsepian AND Ocora were okay with what Gabriel did. I'm not.

It just so happens that I have obtained a copy of this recording. Or at least, I'm pretty darn sure it's this recording. The cover of the LP is pictured above. The back lists the song exactly that way, "The Wind Subsides," though there seem to be many other ways to translate the phrase, as I explained in my original post. I have listened to this track. I am no sound engineer, but as far as I can discern, it is IDENTICAL, I mean EXACTLY THE SAME, as what we hear underlying "The Feeling Begins," leading me to conclude that Peter Gabriel took this very recording, embellished/added to it without altering the arrangement done by SOMEONE ELSE, and claimed it as his own work. That is, although he marks this track with an asterisk and alerts us that asterisks "denote selections from existing recordings of traditional music," he also announces in the CD booklet: "Compositions by Peter Gabriel with the exception of" those marked with a cross or double cross. "The Feeling Begins" is not marked with a cross or double cross, even though he in fact did not COMPOSE it but rather added percussion and synthesizers to someone's established, recorded arrangement of a pre-existing composition.

This is what Peter Gabriel had to say about the project (from page 10 of the CD booklet): "We recorded some of the finest singers and soloists in the field of world music and set the score on a backdrop of traditional North African rhythms and sounds. It was a wonderful experience working with such different and idiosyncratic musicians. They came from Pakistan, Turkey, India, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Egypt, New Guinea, Morocco, Senegal, and Ghana. For many of them working with this material was something quite new and they were very enthusiastic [emphasis mine - I found this sentence condescending]. The soundtrack is full of the spirit of their performances."

Not just the spirit, my friend. I'd bet the composing/arranging talent as well, very concretely. And where, in this rhapsodic but patronizing accolade, is the mention of the one country whose music is lifted and used as the SIGNATURE PIECE of the film's trailer and indeed its entire soundtrack? Where, in this generous list, is ARMENIA?

By some interesting coincidence a Youtube member going by the name Yavalia posted a couple of videos, one on March 23 and another on March 28 of this year, paying tribute to Armenian dudukist Vatche Hovsepian and pointing out the glaring but tolerated act of plagiarism by Peter Gabriel. I have embedded the March 23 video below but would like to quote some text from the other:

"Take out the duduk and the tune, and what would remain is an ordinary drumbeat noise just like today's trance or rave music..."

Good point, Yavalia.

In the music community use of folk songs in compositions is considered fine. Things that are legal, even if artistically unethical, are somehow accepted. But this is more than that. This is cultural imperialism and blatant theft under the sheep's clothing of advocacy of world music artists. Even if this were legal, which it shouldn't be, it would be morally wrong. Somehow people can get all hot and bothered about fake memoirs* (e.g. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, Love and Consequences by Margaret Seltzer, and Misha: a Memoire of the Holocaust by Misha Defonseca), though actually written by their respective authors (but lied about), but not get all that upset about plagiarism, which involves both lying AND stealing.

Call me stubborn and judgmental, but I think people should respect and GIVE CREDIT TO the creative and/or musical talents of others and be honest and clear about their own contributions.

*On the subject of these fake memoirs, I was struck by a review of one of the memoirs posted by Timothy Y. Liaschenko on Amazon and wanted to share it here: “The argument could be made that people deserved to be deceived to a certain extent. The reason Seltzer's book sold was essentially prurient interest in the lifestyle of gangs. The same exact thing happened with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. He attempted to sell it as fiction to a couple dozen publishers under the genre of fiction to no avail. When he remarketed it to them as a memoir they had a bidding war for the rights to publish the book and when it was released it got great reviews, just as Seltzer's book got good reviews. When the books were revealed to be fakes, critics then turned against them and called them awful. Why is this? The story, diction, and syntactical structure remained the same. The only thing that changed was that the events hadn't happened to a real person. In that case it seems that the enjoyment of the book did not come from anything that the author wrote, but the reader's enjoyment of knowing these awful things happened to a real person. In such a case who is the worse person: the author who misrepresents his work or the reader who delights in schadenfreud? At the same time I can see why James Frey acted as he did. After having spent years writing a book only to have it rejected as fiction and then salivated over as memoir reveals more about the American publishing business and the reading public than it does of him. He spent untold time and energy creating something only to have it arbitrarily rejected, not because it was no good, but because in the capitalist system the publishers didn't think they'd make enough money on it. Yet when Frey turned the tables and exploited the system to get his due he is labeled the bad guy, while everyone else wags their fingers and cry, 'For shame!' ”

My question is, why is it considered ok for musicians and composers to lie, but not for writers?


Anonymous said...

So busted!

T. said...

Perhaps, anonymous, but I think I may be the only person I can think of to whom this matters.

When I was explaining the story to our Armenian-American ENT surgeon, one of the scrub techs in the O.R. said (cordially), "Who cares? I have more important things to think about!"

Point taken - some stranger's lack of artistic integrity is a far lower priority than, say, making sure my kids are fed, clothed, schooled, sheltered, and attended to, certainly...but I also want them to grow up learning that despite the world's pressures, being true is more important than looking good.

Lee said...

I don't have a problem with using cultural material in any form - culture is by definition 'plagiarism' - but not when commercial use is made of it. Acknowledgement,of course,is courteous.

I believe in the gift economy regarding art. What you give as a gift can't be stolen from you.

T. said...

I agree that works of art as gifts - but as such they should thus inspire gratitude and a desire to honor the presenter, rather than any sort of sense of entitlement on our part (not to imply that you at all suggest the latter, of course - just thinking "out loud").

I do see your point about shared cultural connections, but I also think authorship and accessibility/generosity are two different issues entirely.

I think the commercial gain only adds insult to injury; absent that, I would still find plagiarism morally wrong and in every sense WEAK. I just don't believe people should ever claim they did work - very often, especially in the arts, hard, emotionally grueling, time-consuming work - that they did not do.

If I were teaching a writing class and someone submitted something relatively "obscure" to me, claiming to have written it and smug in the assumption that I wouldn't recognize or be able to track down the source, I would "rip that person a new one" for sure and lose both respect for the individual AND all trust that the person would (or could) work genuinely in the future.

The truth of the matter is, some people can write well and some can't no matter how hard they try or how long they work. Some people can compose music and some, despite much effort and study, cannot. Some can act or dance and some cannot. It's called having TALENT, and if you have some, good for you - but if you're NOT capable of producing something or wish you could or wish you HAD, I really don't think there's any excuse fo saying you DID, if you didn't. Someone else did? Good for them, and good for us that we have that gift to enjoy. That person deserves the respect of our recognition that he or she was the one slaving over the empty page or experimenting on the piano or guitar for hour upon irretrievable hour.

T. said...

I talked to my brother-in-law the sound engineering professor today, and he reiterated what has been said before:

-there's a long tradition of using folk music in other compositions, or reworking old music into new;

-the practice is universally accepted/acceptable in the music world;

-even the spare acknowledgements given in the CD booklet are sufficient and probably take care legally and financially of the arranger and his estate.

He also made a great point that I should have acknowledged more strongly: if a musician adds to an existing piece such that the piece is transformed into an entirely new experience for the listener, he is in fact creating something new and artistically valuable. "The Feeling Begins" is definitely this and allows us to experience "Hovern Engan" in an incredible, unprecedented way.

So, while still dissatisfied that things are acceptable simply because they've been accepted, and considered right simply because of a long-standing tradition, I must in the end fall back on why I have such strong feelings about this music: I love the piece, and Peter Gabriel did enable us to share the gift of Hovsepian's arrangement in a wonderful way - albeit without the transparency with which I would want a world-class artist to approach his work.

Lee said...

This is an ongoing debate, and particularly relevant in the electronic era. You (and your readers) might enjoy this piece:

But be sure to read through to the very end or you'll miss the punch.

Lee said...

OT: Sound engineer, eh? My elder daughter is finishing up her degree in sound engineering (and is making her first full-length indie film). She has very strong views on the continuum of sound and music for the screen - and probably rips all sorts of stuff like birdcalls (but I may be maligning her ...)

T. said...

Lee, what a GREAT link. Thank you so much! It not only presents timely discussion points on the topics of creativity and attribution but also uses that clever device revealed at the end (and in the title - but also at least tries to give credit where credit is due!). Marvelous.

I can see the "beauty of second use," truly - no one can be a lover of great music or literature without appreciating that - but I also find most people far too permissive in their attitudes about doing their own work versus borrowing from others. I guess it's partly due to my own temperament and system of values...