On a recent visit to Denmark, I got to thinking about 3D printers. This was, of course, because of Billy Joel, one of my musical heroes. How so? We will return to Scandinavia shortly, I promise, so bear with me.
A Little Thought Experiment
Imagine a sci-fi machine that can scan and reproduce three-dimensional objects in every detail—let’s call it the Mimic-O-Matic. You put in a paper cup, you get a paper cup. You pop in a handful of coffee beans, it makes another handful for you.
So far, so good.
Now crank it up a notch and imagine that you scan Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Mimic-O-Matic reproduces it down to the molecular level. Now you’ve got two paintings on the table that are, in every meaningful way, utterly indistinguishable from each other.
Let’s leave the room for a minute to make a cup of coffee, using the beans and the paper cup we created earlier. By the time we get back, we find that the cat has walked across the table and knocked both versions of Girl with a Pearl Earringdown onto the floor. The paintings are unharmed, but we soon realize that we’ve run into a slight problem: we cannot tell them apart.
What to do? Which painting do we return to the Mauritshuis museum?
If an original is truly identical to its copy, do they even have a mimetic relationship anymore? Are they just reciprocal copies of one another? Is authenticity lost in the process; is it duplicated?
I do not have the answers to these ontological art puzzles, but they did ring through my mind as I made my first-ever visit to… a tribute band concert.
All Hail the Original!
Tribute bands are a funny thing. These performers play other people’s music, often trying to approximate the look and sound of the original artist. They cover the entire spectrum from consummate artistry to inept fanboy amateurism, from faithful reproduction to fanciful reimagining, from slavish copycatting to outright parody.
It’s a bit of a sport among tribute bands to come up with clever punny names that reference their inspiration. Just consider this little sampling:
- Fan Halen (Van Halen)
- Pink Fraud (Pink Floyd)
- Fake That (Take That)
- Oasish (Oasis)
- The Rolling Clones (The Rolling Stones)
- Björn Again (ABBA)
My own little pilgrimage to Denmark led me to the city of Ringsted, at a 40-minute train ride from Copenhagen, where singer-pianist Elio Pace and his ensemble kicked off their nationwide tour of The Billy Joel Songbook.
Not a “proper” tribute band cum funny name then, but more of a tribute concert. And what a concert it was!
The Best-Laid Plans…
There is one little detail of this story that I’ve not mentioned yet. The entire enterprise was a belated birthday gift from my wife, who wanted to take me to a concert by Billy Joel. And she had initially thought that the tickets she bought back in June were to an actual Billy Joel concert. Imagine her surprise and dismay when we soon discovered, as we prepared our trip, that this was “just” The Billy Joel Songbook, courtesy some guy called Elio Pace.
As the gift’s recipient, in all honesty, I didn’t care—it was the thought that counted and a romantic weekend away in Denmark sounded wonderful. Besides, I did a little digging online and quickly discovered that this tribute performance was rated very highly. So it was all good; as far as I was concerned, nothing had gone awry.
A Vermeer Is No Concert
In fact, as an added bonus, the whole experience got me thinking about the Mimic-O-Matic. (Full disclosure: I only came up with that name while writing this piece.)
In our little thought experiment, I could put a painting in the machine and create a perfect reproduction. A painting, drawing or sculpture is, after all, an object. And objects can be made, remade and copied. Even by the artist: Edvard Munch made several versions of his iconic image The Scream between 1893 and 1910.
But as an art form, live music is very different from the visual arts, and even from music recordings. A classic album like Billy Joel’s Piano Man will always be a classic; it is frozen in time. And Vermeer’s famous tronie from 1665 will always be the one and only original Girl with a Pearl Earring. Any other rendering is a reproduction, a copy, or (worst of all) a fraud.
A musical performance, however, follows a different rulebook: it is by definition a reproduction.
For classical music, the “original” consists of notes on paper, as conceived by the composer. There simply is no inceptive performance that counts as an authoritative template akin to a pop artist’s original release or a physical piece of art. The same goes for folk songs, which were written down only after centuries of oral transmission.
Even when a musical artist performs their own work on stage, they can be said to be creating a copy of an original. Not like our Vermeer from the Mimic-O-Matic, but like a pianist playing sheet music. Billy Joel performing Piano Man in 2019 is not the same as Billy Joel performing Piano Man in 1973. His rendering can certainly claim to be more “authentic” than little Danny Finkelmeyer playing the same song at the middle-school jamboree—but it is a reproduction nonetheless.
Flipping the Script
The question of authenticity is problematic in itself: wherein does that vaunted mix of genuineness and legitimacy lie? Being the real deal only qualifies as a stamp of approval if certain quality standards are met.
I remember concert reviews from the latter half of Whitney Houston’s career, when her drug problems were starting to become apparent. They told of disastrous performances where the celebrated singer was incoherent and sang off key. At the time, there were surely other singers who could “do” Whitney Houston better than Whitney Houston herself. In such cases, which version is the most authentic?
My sense is that what the audience looks for in a professional show—be it from the original artist or from a tribute performer—is a respectful recreation of whatever gives the music its essential quality. Perhaps the stage is its own kind of Mimic-O-Matic: one that doesn’t create objects, but experiences.
In this light, the objective of our trip to Denmark was not to see Billy Joel, but to experience Billy Joel-ness. And we did, in spades.
Elio Pace proved to be, first and foremost, a fan like the rest of us. His spirited, high-octane show took the creative spark from Billy Joel’s oeuvre and transformed it into a feast of musical delights. As far as I was concerned, the original was in the room—even if he wasn’t.
As we walked back to the train station, in the dark of night and with a Danish November breeze nipping at our faces, my wife and I didn’t mind the cold. We hummed Just The Way You Are to ourselves and realized that we had spent the evening in the presence of a “tribute” that was an original in its own right.
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