My teenage son recently introduced me to the world of fanfiction. For those to whom this is a new concept: the word refers to usually short pieces of fiction written using characters, themes, or settings from established authors’ published works, TV shows, or movies. For obvious copyright reasons, fanfiction is never commercially published. I believe it has existed since the days of mimeographs, but it has taken on a new and very burgeoning life in the era of the Internet. (Occasionally one sees licensed novels based on characters from other works, such as successful movie franchises or even successful novel franchises. These are not the same thing.)
I’ve been hearing about this for years, and it has always seems to me to be a reasonably suspect area of human endeavor; why would anyone with creative talent want to waste his or her time on other people’s materials? And, indeed, Sturgeon’s Law probably applies (usually rendered as “90% of everything is crap”), although this is also true of ostensibly more original efforts. But, at my son’s insistence, I finally dipped a toe into something he had been talking about for weeks: a novel-length opus called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. This piece takes the original character set and the premise of the Harry Potter series, but steers it in a different direction with the assumption that Harry is a budding scientist.
The effect is… startling. And, eventually, quite engaging. I would not have guessed when I sat down to read it that it would turn out to be as much of a page turner as the original series. It is obviously part of the 10% not covered by Sturgeons Law. And yet — you can’t say that it stands on its own. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality could not exist without the original Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. The pace is all wrong for a novel; the author relies on the reader’s experience of the original series to substitute for exposition. Somewhat like the original tune of a standard in a jazz improvisation, the original is always lurking behind what you are reading.
Why is there no fanfiction in music? Or… is there? The analogy to sampling in recent pop music is pretty clear. And for some strange reason that has even been declared a fair use of copyrighted material. But what about classical music? (With all of the usual caveats about what the term “classical music” means.) Pop music is again a great user of older “classical” material, as illustrated in this list of 10 modern songs written by classical composers. Okay, but what about classical composers using other classical music?
They do, of course. “Composer A’s variations on a Theme by Composer B ” turns up century after century. In more recent times, postmodern composers have raided the vaults of antiquity for materials to use in their own works. Usually they use fragments, however, rather than appropriating themes and making a whole new piece. The only piece I can think of that repurposes its source material quite as thoroughly as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality does is the third movement movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, in which the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony is quoted at such length that one could be forgiven for thinking the movement consisted of the Mahler original. And then, of course, there is John Cage’s Cheap Imitation, which takes the rhythmic structure of a piece by Erik Satie as the basis for a new piece of music.
What would a real classical musical equivalent of fanfiction sound like? I can imagine, perhaps, taking a secondary theme or piece of transitional material from a well-known opus and making that the basis for a new piece of music. (Playing in Broadway pits, I have often had the urge to take that insistent little piece of inner melodic material that no one in the audience ever hears and use it as the theme for a piece.) Still, the culture of reverence surrounding the “masterpieces” of classical music is such that I doubt such an effort would be looked on favorably by most aficionados. If someone were to use the opening two bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and then write a completely different piece based on that same motive— a reasonable equivalent to the Harry Potter fanfiction discussed above —I would expect it to be taken as sacrilege.
There are many ways to base a piece of music on other music (as opposed to on an extramusical impulse or an abstract one). I am in the middle of writing an Alleluia which includes the Dies Irae as important musical material. The Dies Irae has been quoted by many, many composers, but I’m not aware of any piece that takes it as the primary theme. I guess I’m a fan of whatever anonymous medieval monk wrote the piece; it’s a terrific tune. So that makes this Alleluia…?