I have written here before about sampling, remixing, and mashups as art. I have admitted to liking a few sample-based tracks, and I have enjoyed some particularly clever mashups. But I have also said that I don’t believe either sampling or remixing is art on the same level of actually creating something that has never been heard before, from scratch.
The problem with that, of course, is the idea of “scratch.” The concept of creating from scratch presumes that creativity begins with a page that is utterly and completely blank—but it doesn’t. Nobody who sets out to perform a creative act does so in a vacuum. Everything is a product of influences, to varying degrees. The art of even the most protean creative figures, like Dylan and the Beatles, can trace its genesis to someone and/or somewhere else. Everything that an artist has experienced, heard, read, felt, right up to the moment he or she starts to work, is a sort of raw material. Whatever the creation turns out to be will be influenced by the materials at hand. (If you have a bunch of scrap wood, you can build a birdhouse or a bookshelf, however the mood strikes you.) In addition, the materials must either fit the purpose, or the purpose must fit the materials. (With that pile of scrap wood you can build a fine birdhouse, but a terrible car.)
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that in the past, when I have denigrated sampling and remixing as a lesser form of creativity, I’ve been flat-out wrong. It’s simply another form of creativity. It took an artist I have followed longer than almost any other to make me see it clearly for the first time.
A few years ago, on a trip to Australia, Elton John got acquainted with Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes, who call themselves Pnau. They’ve enjoyed a fair amount of success under Elton’s tutelage, both as Pnau and as Empire of the Sun. Earlier this month, they released an out-and-out collaboration with Elton called Good Morning to the Night. They took vintage studio tapes of Elton’s work from the 70s and transformed it, creating entirely new pop-dance numbers based entirely on samples. And the stuff has blown my mind.
Here’s the title track, which is made up of remarkably short samples from eight different Elton songs. Three of them stand out, but the others are mighty subtle. Even I, an Eltonophile of 40 years’ standing, haven’t found them all yet.
The five songs on which “Sad” is based are easier to pick out. “Sad” has the advantage (for me, at least) of being based largely on “Curtains,” one of my favorite Elton songs.
These new songs represent a textbook example of what I mean by creating with the materials at hand that best fit the purpose. Although based on familiar music that’s in some cases more than 40 years old, this stuff does not for a moment seem derivative, just as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “She Loves You” didn’t. I’m not ranking it with early Dylan or early Beatles, only suggesting that it’s similarly the product of its influences. Littlemore and Mayes considered the kind of music they wanted to do today, in 2012, through the prism of Elton John’s 70s material, and what they created as a result is plenty damn brilliant.
Good Morning to the Night is billed to Elton John vs. Pnau. The album is #1 in the UK this week—Elton’s first UK #1 in 22 years. Read a review of it here. The three artists sit down for an explanatory interview here. You can visit the project website here.
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