Música Dispersa. Apropiación, Influencias, Robos y Remix en la Era de la Escucha Digital

By Rubén López Cano. 2018. Barcelona: Musikeon Books. 326 pages. ISBN: 978-84-945117-1-4 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Juan Francisco Sans, Universidad Central de Venezuela

[Review length: 1064 words • Review posted on April 8, 2019]


[Cover ofMúsica Dispersa. Apropiación, Influencias, Robos y Remix en la Era de la Escucha Digital]

The history of Western music might be considered as musical recycling as a whole. However, it is hard to find specialized studies from this point of view. That is exactly what Rubén López Cano tries to do: to explain to both laymen and specialists musical intertextuality in the context of current information and communication technologies. Intertextuality is a phenomenon inherent to every text, regardless of its manifestation, its medium, its genre, style, or historical epoch. Intertextuality is the interaction of a text with its textual world. Every text is constituted upon the appropriation and transformation of previous texts, guiding its reading and understanding.

Intertextuality is a verifiable phenomenon throughout the history of music. Nonetheless, the sound recording and reproduction devices that appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century have profoundly altered our way of interacting with musical texts. These devices rushed substantive changes in the social and cognitive processes associated with the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of these texts. However, our forms of artistic legitimation remain anchored to the old ways of conceiving the musical fact. This seems to be the main goal of Música Dispersa (Dispersed Music): to propose a comprehensive theory of musical intertextuality.

This theory can allow for ceasing to consider recycling the symptom of an exhausted, lazy, and creatively impotent culture. Current technology enables us to have for the first time in history a complete overview of musical culture. Each one of its particular elements can be conceived as "a specific point of an interminable conversation between artists, listeners and producers" (268).

Throughout this book the author strives to detail the complex process through which musical creators (understood in their broadest sense as composers, performers, producers, or listeners) appropriate and manipulate musical texts to generate new music with the resources at their disposal. Mediums such as the microphone, record player, computer, or smartphone are not mere containers or reproducers of musical texts. They determine their sense and meaning.

If the medium is not the message, as McLuhan said, it contributes actively and positively to its construction. The musical text ceases to be conceived as a fixed and immovable entity or as an original susceptible of variants or versions. They are themselves variants of preceding texts, inevitably ascribed to a textual tradition.

The author rescues the old discussion of the ontology of the musical work. But he extends it towards other types and styles of music (jazz, rock, folk, pop, latin, rap, hip-hop, reaggeton, etc.). Thus, the score is to classical music what the record is to rock, the standard to jazz, the palo to flamenco, the song to pop, the genre to folklore, the raga to Indian music, and so on. López Cano does an exhaustive bibliographic review, discussing the different opinions of those who have dealt with this subject, and gives several examples of how the concept of musical work has varied since the Middle Ages to the present day.

However, most of his work focuses on documenting with high accuracy the most prominent cases of loan, appropriation, influence, quotation, allusion, copy, version, cover, recycling, reuse, gloss, rewriting, paraphrasing, plagiarism, or theft. He includes in his examination paradigmatic authors of the classic Western canon like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, or Debussy, where these practices would seem in principle exceptional. López Cano suggests that values such as originality, genuineness, innovation, authorship, legitimacy, or authenticity are not universal concepts, and seeks to demonstrate their essentially historical and cultural roots. Therefore, creation and appropriation do not constitute antagonistic activities as we once believed, but perspectives of the same process.

To listen to music is actually listening to all the music linked to its textual world. Terms such as original, basic song, or dominant version have no meaning outside the recognition that the individual can make of the world to which a given text belongs. The study of intertextuality therefore leads inevitably to addressing complex cognitive processes such as memory, inference, analogy, iconization, or semiotic indexicality, studied by the author in a detailed manner and with precise examples.

The author makes an especial effort to categorize and describe the types of intertextuality that take place in different kinds of music (oral tradition, popular, urban, folk, classical, etc.). He describes a huge number of concepts, trying to define and differentiate them as accurately as possible. Terms like quodlibet, contrafactum, potpourri, pasticcio, patchwork, collage, or medley; or neologisms such as parallax, sampling, remix, replayduction, looping, vidding, fanvideo, mashup, turntablism, djing, crossover, or deconstrumix, are examined and exemplified in detail in this broad panorama of the musical intertextualities of yesterday and today.

Thus, it was necessary to unravel an intricate conceptual skein where "similar practices are often named with different names, or the same term is used to refer to completely different procedures" (231). This enormous taxonomic and terminological effort undoubtedly establishes a new musical philology without explicitly declaring it. It constitutes the most important contribution of the book. Although it is strange that even though the author speaks continuously about intertextuality, he never problematizes the notion of text that serves as a base for the concept. He pays much more attention to unveiling the notion of musical work, which is of a very different nature.

The book leaves us, finally, with the feeling that the changes introduced by new technologies are more superficial than they seem at first glance: today’s intertextuality seems to continue to work in a very similar way to that of the past. The author himself admits that the difference between the technology of pencil, paper, and piano with that of the audio editor and the sampler in using the musical past "seems more of degree than of nature" (271). Walter Ong said that writing is a technology, regardless of the supports and tools it uses. If the alphabet was used in ancient times to write words, it was also used to fix musical notes on stone or on paper. And it continues to function similarly today with new technologies.

Música Dispersa is a fundamental book for understanding the complexities of the musical culture of our time. It is a unique study of its kind; it will soon become a classic. In this sense, we highly recommend its translation into English. Similar works in English are not known. We also would suggest adding a conceptual map that allows surfing around the whole series of concepts in a synoptic table.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.