Musicians pilfer. Always have.
They ape each other's style, riff on each other's tunes. Sometimes they call that pilfering a "cover version" or an homage. And improvising on a well-known melody makes for standard practice in the jazz tradition.
In the digital age, anybody with a modicum of affordable equipment can tinker with — sometimes profoundly — anybody else's music and call it a remix.
That remixing ability always intrigued Austin composer and bandleader Graham Reynolds. And today, Reynolds' intrigue comes to fruition when he releases a pair of new albums — "Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington" and "The Difference Engine" — that themselves riff on the very nature of remixing.
Both CDs are on Minneapolis-based label Innova and distributed by leading classical music label Naxos. And Reynolds and his collaborators play two CD release gigs this weekend.
"Duke" finds Reynolds and his band Golden Arm Trio (which isn't always a trio) of drums, piano, sax, trombone and bass laying down a seven-song portrait of Ellington with such Duke standards as "Caravan" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
Then Reynolds took those seven songs, extracted compositional fragments from each and used those extractions as the foundation of seven different string quartet musical portraits — classically styled riffs on "Caravan" and the like.
But even that repurposing of Ellington's music wasn't the end point of Reynolds' foray.
The cross-genre musician — he's written everything from soundtracks for movies such as Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly" to symphonies to big band music — tapped a handful of his peers with a challenge: Take the band tracks and the string quartet tracks and use any of it to remix into yet another iteration.
Among the remixers: Grammy-nominated guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma, Okkervil River's Justin Sherburn, seminal remix artist DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) and London-based composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev).
The result is a tripartite 22-track musical portrait of a jazz great: Ellington reimagined in three progressively inventive ways.
Quesada's remixes for "Duke" and "Difference Engine" bear unmistakable funky Latin rhythms. DJ Spooky's contributions to both CDs carry his ethereal electronica mark. And Prokofiev? Actually, the thirtysomething Londoner, who's penned the much-heralded Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, regularly invites remixes of his compositions. And his take on Reynolds/Ellington echoes the sounds of his many forays into producing club dance music and electronica.
"I really like collaboration," says Reynolds. "But I liked the idea of seeing what can happen when that collaboration doesn't necessarily take place in the same room, when you take personality out of the equation. (This project) is really a virtual collaboration."
Reynolds points out that appropriating other creative material and collaging it is hardly new in other arts disciplines. Collage emerged as a viable visual art medium nearly a century ago, Pablo Picasso being an early experimenter. And, he notes, rap music has from its beginning woven in music and sounds from myriad sources.
But now that it's commonplace to share musical digitally, remixing is made that much easier.
Reynolds did the same remix adventure with "The Difference Engine," his concerto for 35-piece string orchestra that debuted last year. He handed the tracks of the five-movement composition to others. The resulting CD features both the original concerto and five very different riffs on those movements.
"I love seeing what other musicians can do with my music," he says. "But it's much easier if I'm not the same room (with them). I'm not good at not being in charge if I'm there when my music is being played."
This isn't the first time the composer has manipulated music. For Ballet Austin's "The Bach Project" by Stephen Mills, Reynolds reimagined Bach's Suite in A minor — originally written for solo harpsichord — as music for a percussion-driven big-band ensemble. For another Ballet Austin collaboration in September, Reynolds will do something similar with Mozart music.
Though he'll tour briefly in New York, Washington and Philadelphia with the Golden Arm Trio for the CD release, Reynolds is busy finishing soundtracks for two films due to open at the South by Southwest Film Festival: Steve Mims' and Joe Bailey Jr.'s documentary "Incendiary," about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for arson murder, and Berndt Mader's quirky drama "Five Time Champion." And Reynolds has just signed on to write the soundtrack for Linklater's "Bernie," starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.
Asked where his last releases might end up filed at the record store — classical? jazz? pop? — Reynolds just shrugs.
"I don't hate categories," Reynolds says. "I just don't always easily fit into one."