Friday, July 3, 2015

Remix Blues

A Response to Lankshear & Knobel, New Literacies, Chapter 4

Last week I reacted positively to Lessig's (2008) idea of digital remix as a new kind of "writing" (Lankshear & Knobel p.67). So I was happy to find that Chapter 4 was a thorough dive into just what Lessig was referring to. Lessig's idea, striking at first, is that culture develops and is enriched through a process of remixing, that remixing is a necessary condition for culture (p.67). As a creative person who has been involved in several different "remixing" affinities (a few digital, others analogue), I was very comfortable with Lessig's idea. I'd like to respond by describing one such community.

I had some training early in life with musical instruments, particularly the piano. Though I was regarded as talented (meaning skillful), I knew I was not a real musician. What did I think "musician" meant? I wasn't sure, but I knew it meant more than being able to read written music. As a young adult I discovered the blues and realized that this was what I really wanted to play. The problem? Blues are not written. That is not how one learns the blues. I began to teach myself how to play by ear, and began, tentatively, to experiment. A musician friend of mine was keen to help. We would sit at a pair of pianos and he would show me and have me mimic certain blues moves and lines. Eventually he told me about blues jams, and how learning the blues (and learning how to perform) happens in that environment. My wife and I (she plays bari sax) started attending various jams, at one point going to as many as three per week. It was the most terrifying yet exhilarating experience to learn this way. We made a lot of friends, got invited to gigs, joined bands, and eventually started playing professionally. We were in our mid-forties.

The blues are a perfect remixing medium. In some simple ways, all blues are based on a handful of basic patterns. Improvisation is highly encouraged and regarded, and one is meant to develop one's own approach and voice. This is done bit-by-bit as one's skill develops. A blues jam is a perfect remix community. Everyone gets a chance to play, supported by experienced musicians who are very helpful. The audience at jams is quite special. They come specifically to watch newcomers grow and improve. I remember my wife's first solo. In the terror of the moment, she could only play one note over and over. She did it with style and rhythm, though, and the audience, who knew her by now, erupted in cheers. This is what it meant to become a "real musician."

We could have, of course, taken lessons and classes and had a teacher guide us through the path of becoming performers. This may have been a more efficient learning experience, assuming we had found the right person. Instead we went to blues "grad school," for the nightly price of a beer. And even if we had taken a more formal route, we would still be remixing the blues.

I wanted to emphasize one aspect of the creative act, be it performance or anything else, and it is this: the audience is a crucial part of the experience. As one musician explained to me, it is the presentation of one's art to an audience that completes the creative act. In other words, the presentation of one's remix, one's practice, to other members of a Discourse or larger affinity group completes the "conversation," the ethos of making culture. This is regardless of the contribution or the response.

Note to self: check out the serviceware mashup sites that Lankshear and Knobel identify. I have some programming expertise, so I want to see what is currently happening in this space, even if just for my own purposes (a projective rather than participatory configuration, but who knows?)


  1. Bill - I am no a musician my any means, but I think you nailed Lessig's argument on remixing. Your experience on "learning" and playing the blues is great example to illustrate this point. Artists who play the blues (in my opinion) play from the soul. Sure, they have some skill to play their instruments, but how they play it is what is key. There is a sense of meaning and authenticity in the music here - that reaches to the audience who can sense what the musician feels. Again, great example of remixing.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thank you for your insightful reading response this week. As a non-musician (and non-artist really, I have no discovered talents in the fine arts) I appreciate your perspective on remixing. One question for you, would you consider most music a form of remixing? After reading your response I started thinking about most music, and how it's a combination of different musical instruments and vocals. I understand that some music is just a solo instrument, and I'm not sure I would consider that remixing, would you?

    I read your "note to self". I will be checking out that resource as well as I do have experience in coding.

    Thank you again! I have always wanted to learn a musical instrument and almost picked up the guitar a few years ago but received advice from a musician friend to start with the piano... well I can't afford a piano so that didn't happen! Happy 4th of July!

  3. Even with classical music, where fidelity to a text is important, there is variation in expression, emphasis, and tempo - plenty of room for "remixing." For other kinds of music, it is said that no one plays a tune the same way twice, so that counts as remixing.

    Pick up a guitar! I made a video last semester about this - check it out on YouTube: