The “Custodian of Aural History”?

“The DJ is the custodian of aural history.”

—Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky

There has been a back and forth of influence between popular and serious music throughout the ages. One of the best known examples is the use of the popular tune “L’homme armé” as the basis for over 40 separate “Missa L’homme armé” from the Renaissance.

Going the other direction, much of the progressive rock movement was an attempt to elevate rock to a more credible level via classical influences. Notable examples include King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Soft Machine and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

One of the interesting notions of the 20th century is post-modernism that happened in one way or another in both realms nearly simultaneously. The idea of quotation, or reference, music seems to be pervasive in both worlds to a great extent. A quick glance at composer bios frequently shows comments related to pop, rock or jazz influences that are sometimes very apparent. Composers such as Berio took literal quotation to a whole new level with his Sinfonia with musical quotations of Mahler and text quotations of Lévi-Strauss and Beckett.

References and quotes are almost the modus operandi of the popular realm. Rap and hip-hop would almost be non-existent if it were not for the use of sampling.

DJ Spooky sparks some interesting thoughts with the DJ posed as a “custodian of aural history.” Is that a fair statement? I would say so, with some qualifications. Sampling tends to include music from all realms, including classical. In this sense, it is much more inclusive than much of the classical version of quotation music. Jayson Greene wrote an article in Stylus magazine in which he listed the “Top Ten Classical-Music Samples in Hip-Hop.” Angus Batey referenced this list as he argued that Hip-hop is not inferior to classical music.

The qualifications I suggested would include such matters as the fact that within the DJ realm, all classical music will likely be in reference to popular music, and not the other way around. To me that is a bit limiting. On the other hand, where else can aural history be wrapped up in such a neat little package as Nas’ “I Can” (Beethoven’s “Für Elise”)?

Leave a Comment