1. Bang on a Can.
In Berlin, at a friend’s apartment, I was pleased to hear a familiar piece of music wafting through the room: Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. But although the notes were in the right places, the record sounded different: more acoustic, resonant, physical, imperfect, detuned. “Is this the Bang on a Can version?” I asked. “No,” said my friend, checking, “I’m pretty sure it’s the original.” How odd. Could Eno have remastered it at some point, making it sound more real, more orchestral? Could the inventor of “possible worlds” have engineered some kind of organic compositional process by which Music For Airports actually alters itself over time?
2. Pierre Menard.
Borges’ 1939 short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote imagines a French author who has rewritten — somehow regenerated line by line — several chapters of Cervantes’ novel. The story’s narrator, a critic, asserts that this ingenious fragmentary duplicate is superior to the original, made more remarkable by its mode of composition and the altered context. In 2006 the artist Pierre Huyghe made and exhibited a book of the exact fragments described in Borges’ story. A fake fake Quixote was, in this way, made into a real fake Quixote.
3. Appetite and glamour.
Anyone who’s truly in love with culture would have to agree with Borges’ critic: things get more interesting the more they accumulate the rich patina of context, reference, heritage, interpretation, backstory. There’s also an accretion of desire: things get copied because they seem to incarnate something glamorous and good, something successful and enviable. Things are worth copying because they invoke appetite in both (re)producers and consumers. The act of copying is an act of theft, but intellectual property is not a zero-sum game; the original still exists. Nothing is ever really stolen. Something new is always made.
4. What’s interesting is getting things wrong.
The saving grace of every copy is that it gets the original wrong, and therefore becomes original itself. Even — as Borges points out — a work which reproduces a work correctly in every detail will get something wrong: it will come from a different place than the original, which will add interest. A fake Prada bag sold on a bridge in Venice by a Senegalese vendor keeping an eye out for the police is, arguably, a much more interesting cultural artifact than the original it’s based on. It also leaves much more cash in your wallet, money you’re free to spend on interesting experiences.
5. Mount Everest in flip-flops.
I spent 2014 making cover versions of songs by David Bowie and Howard Devoto for a cabaret at London’s Cafe Oto. Trying to cover Bowie’s Sweet Thing was like climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops. Singing and arranging an epic like that helped me to understand from the inside how Bowie worked in the 1970s, at the peak of his powers. It also made me understand that I could never match that, and should just get used to flip-flopping around in the foothills.
6. Für Elise.
The cover version of which I’m most proud is my minimal version of Beethoven’s Für Elise, recorded with bicycle spokes and a Fijian bone-whistle. You can find it on YouTube set to pinkened grabs from the Straubs’ film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. My father used to play Für Elise repeatedly — failing each time — on the family Bösendorfer. I like to think that my cover is more a photocopy of his failure than of the original itself, because failure is what redeems a copy. Success tends to the fascistic, the stale, the repetitive. Failure can be something tentative, hesitant, unique, and cautiously new.7. Takashi Nemoto’s record covers.
I saw an interesting exhibition
last year at Osaka’s Pulp Gallery. An artist called Takashi Nemoto had visually “covered” famous record sleeves, adding all sorts of inappropriate imagery, mostly featuring genitals and seafood. Not only did this “wrong” detail freshen the over-familiar covers, helping to make them visible once more, but it served as a reminder that the musicians involved were probably doing something very similar: making inaccurate and respectfully disrespectful new versions of the music they loved. Nothing was in fact more appropriate than this “inappropriate” imagery.
8. Full circle.
It turns out that the version of Music For Airports I heard in Berlin was actually the Bang on a Can cover. But by telling me that the cover was the original, my friend did me a service: she conjured up a parallel world in which everything was inverted. Eno, in this speculative world, recorded the music with a small orchestra, live in Düsseldorf Airport. Several years later someone made a smoother, more ethereal synthetic version in a studio, using procedural principles borrowed from John Cage, Norbert Wiener and Stafford Beer. This “wrong” history is interesting for the same reason that a cover version is: by turning things on their heads you often cause a lot of hidden things to fall out of the pockets.This article — Notes on Copying by Nick Currie — appears in the summer edition of Mousse magazine, Mousse #49.