June 14, 2006

Out of Context?

Just how do advertisers find the music that accompanies their work? Recently, I've been witness to "Mack the Knife" accompanying a shrimp promotion and "I Think I Need a New Heart" being used to hawk dog food. I can only imagine the conniptions that Brecht and Weill are going through, but I hope at least that Stephin Merritt's dog will never go hungry again.

These recontextualizations make me wonder how much of a piece's meaning is defined by its use. The "True Crime Stories!" (mit alienation effect) angle of "Mack the Knife" was thrown away to focus on the music's swinging sound. Really, any piece with a swing and added 6 chords would've worked. My initial reaction to the ad was "How can they not get it?!?!" Still, I can't help but be amused by the song's slippery history: agitprop to jazz standard to memory of a jazz standard. For all we know, an industrious sampler has isolated some fragment of a recording of the tune and is using it to jumpstart a new genre of dance music (it's happened before).

As performers and listeners, we are responsible for bringing the notated music back to life with each performance. By participating in this process, are we not entitled to a few small acts of re-creation along the way?

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