Friday, October 23, 2009

The Big Rip, Part One: Musical Influence and Imitation in Film Scores

Type into any search engine the words “John Williams” and “plagiarism”, and you'll end up with dozens of pages. They mostly consist of rants against the composer for taking this and that. The odd court case or two may show up in the search. Pick another major film composer and substitute their name with Williams'. Chances are you'll get similar results.

YouTube offers a few videos comparing various bits of “classical” music to selections from Williams' career. Music from Stravinsky, Debussy, Hanson, Holst and Tchaikovsky are nestled in between parts of Star Wars, E.T., Jaws and Home Alone. Most of these are posted to smear John Williams' name, to label him permanently as a plagiarist. Many of these comparisons are done in a very negative way.

The point of any discussion should be to arrive at a singular truth, in a fair and courteous manner. The truth this particular essay is after is whether or not John Williams or other film score composers are plagiarists. I would like to examine a few thing while doing so, namely, the nature of plagiarism, the concept of influence and the art form that is cinema.

The Webster dictionary defines plagiarism as “an act of plagiarizing”. To “plagiarize”, according to the good dictionary, is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (another's production) without crediting the source”. If I, for example, had not listed the Webster dictionary as the source of the definitions, I could be guilty of plagiarism.

There is another possibility. An example would be this; I read the Webster's definition put it into my own words. To plagiarize is to steal something created by another person and take credit for it. This definition could not reasonably be described as being plagiarized, even if they do share certain similarities. It is clear the two definitions are different.

I could write another definition; “to steal and claim credit for another person's ideas and/ or creations”. This particular definition is much closer to the Webster's version. Even with more similarities, this definition is still different from Webster's, and should not raise any red flags in the legal department.

With the third version, “to steal and pass off (the ideas and/ or creations of another) as one's work: to use said work without crediting the source”, Webster would have a stronger case for plagiarism. Only one or two words have been modified; the bulk of the definition is the same.

Musical plagiarism follows the same idea. One famous case is that of the “performances” of Joyce Hatto. After releasing hundreds or recordings, it was eventually revealed that many of her later recordings were digitally altered performances by other artists. Her widower eventually admitted to perpetrating the con.

The Hatto case is an unusually clear example of musical plagiarism. Most often, the examples are more ambiguous than this. This is due, in part, because of the complexity of music. Music encompasses a wide field of differing practices which coexist and are dependent on each other; theory, composition, and performance are but three examples. Because of this, music has a larger gray area between inspiration and plagiarism than with our simple dictionary example.

Perhaps it would help to mention three examples, much like our previous dictionary dilemma. We will focus on composition rather than performance.

(End of Part One. Next time...Part Two)