The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Transformation as Authorship: From Igor Stravinsky to Philip Glass by Way of Disney and Beck

As a proponent of combinatorial creativity and remix as a tool of innovation, I am always fascinated by how famous creators think about inspiration, influence, and the origin of ideas, recognizing their combinatorial nature — and how bystander critics often dismiss these creative transmutations with terms as derisive as “recreativity.”

Catherine Opie for The New York Times

In a recent New York Times conversation about their forthcoming collaborative record celebrating the composer’s 75th birthday, Philip Glass and Beck explore the line between mere reworking and originality by way of transformation:

BECK: I love that story you told me, it was the first time we met, we were talking about the remix project. And someone had done a cello piece of yours, and then when you went to go see it, you didn’t recognize it.

GLASS: It was Arthur Russell. And he was a very good cellist. I was doing a theater piece for the Mabou Mines, it was some Beckett piece, and I wrote him a cello piece, and he liked the work and was playing it. And I came back about three months later, and I heard it and I said, ‘Arthur, that’s beautiful, but what happened to the piece?’ And he said, ‘No, no, that is what you wrote,’ and I said, ‘Arthur, it’s no longer what I wrote, it’s your piece now.’ And he thought I was being upset, he apologized and I said, ‘No, no, no, I think we should put you down as the composer.’ He had reached the point of transformation. The incremental changes had turned it into this other thing. I love the fact that he did that. And I love the fact that he didn’t know that he did it.

This notion of iteration and incremental change is, in fact, an essential piece of the history of innovation — and yet it’s much less glamorous and bombastic than the Eureka! myth of ideation, which can lead many to dismiss it entirely.

Glass’s remarks reminded me of something I recently read in Hello Goodbye Hello, the wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters, which recounts a very different reaction another iconic composer, Igor Stravinsky, had to his music being transformed beyond recognition — by none other than Walt Disney.

In 1939, at the height of Disney’s success, Walt met Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at a dinner party. The two became enchanted with each other’s work and the potential each of their mediums of mastery had for amplifying that of the other, and began collaborating on a version of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Mickey Mouse — an idea Disney had been toying with for some time. That’s when Stravinsky steps in:

Disney wants a sequence showing the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and dinosaurs. But what music to use? His researchers can only come up with Haydn’s Creation, but Disney thinks it doesn’t carry quite enough oomph. At this point, Stokowski alerts him to Le Sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky. Disney listens to it, and is immediately gripped. He offers Stravinsky $ 5,000 for the rights, though Stravinsky will remember it as $ 10,000. According to Stravinsky, Disney hints that if permission is withheld he will use the music anyway: pre-Revolutionary Russian copyrights are no longer valid.

Stravinsky accepts; Disney steams ahead. Before long the human inhabitants of the Burbank studio find themselves working alongside animals in cages, including iguanas and baby alligators, with skilled animators studying their movements close-up. ‘It should look as though the studio has sent an expedition back to the earth six million years ago,’ enthuses Disney. He is so excited that he starts free-associating to the music: ‘Something like that last WHAHUMMPH I feel is a volcano – yet it’s on land. I get that UGHHWAHUMMPH! on land, but we can look out on the water before this and see water spouts.’ As he listens to the music, he gets so worked up that he suddenly blurts, ‘Stravinsky will say: “Jesus, I didn’t know I wrote that music!”’

Which, as it turns out, is roughly what Stravinsky does say. In December 1939, he drops into the Burbank studio for a private screening of Fantasia. The experience leaves him with the most awful memories. ‘I remember someone offering me a score, and when I said I had my own, that someone saying, “But it is all changed.” It was indeed. The instrumentation had been improved by such stunts as having the horns play their glissandi an octave higher in the Danse de la terre. The order of pieces had been shuffled, too, and the most difficult of them eliminated, though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.’

So heated was the disagreement and so violent Stravinsky’s outrage, indeed, that when Disney tried to assuage him by pointing out what a great number of people would hear his music, the composer famously grunted:

The numbers of people who consume music … is of no interest to me. The mass adds nothing to art.

Some twenty years later, Stravinsky was still indignant when he and Disney clashed on the pages of The New York Times about the incident, where the composer called Disney’s transformation of his “Rite of Spring” an “unresisting imbecility.”

Granted, as was likely the case with Disney, not every transformation improves upon the original or has creative merit. But modern copyright law — not to mention an unfortunate portion of today’s cultural critique — continues to err on the side of Stravinsky in an era ripe for the Glass mindset. To criticize and criminalize transformative creation and remix is, at best, itself an “unresisting imbecility” and, at worst, an enormous hindrance to creative innovation.

Published October 10, 2012




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