The Hyper-Alexandrianism of the Virgilian Centos and Girl Talk's Mashups

On April 9, I will be delivering a paper at Rutgers University as part of their Classics department's graduate conference All Roads Lead From Rome. My paper, "The Hyper-Alexandrianism of Virgilian Centos and Girl Talk's Mashups," compares the practice of reusing exact quotations—or "sampling samples"—in both patchwork forms and suggests how our experience of listening to mashups can bring us closer to the listening-reading experience of the late antique audience.

Due to time constraints, I needed to limit the amount of poetry and music in the presentation. On this page you will be able to read and listen to the examples from my presentation at your leisure.—Patrick J. Burns, Fordham Classics

Although separated by many centuries, a similar artistic impulse can be observed in the centos of Luxurius and Ausonius and recent mashups by laptop DJ, Gregg Gillis aka Girl Talk. The centonist dissects and reassembles hexameters of Virgil refashioning the discrete elements of the original into a genre-bending montage. Girl Talk mutatis (multum) mutandis dissects and reassembles samples from pop music into a similar genre-bending montage. As Scott McGill's recent work on intertextuality in the Virgilian centos argues, Luxurius's wedding cento, Epithalamium Fridi may have quoted material from Ausonius' earlier wedding cento, Cento Nuptialis. Similarly Girl Talk often samples songs which are themselves built upon samples, and while the listener's initial impression is that of random assembly, there are places in his work which appear to comment on their sources. In this paper I will look at loci in works from both forms where the artist engages in "sampling samples," a sort of hyper-Alexandrianism. Second, and not without a degree of caution, I will read Girl Talk's practices back onto those of the centonist. For the most part the songs used by the DJ are “hits,” often part of the listener's daily experience, and filled with the kind of stylistic nuance that can only be absorbed through constant exposure. The listening-reading experience of the cento audience, steeped in Virgil's poetry and aware of the rules of the cento "game," may be unavailable to us and, while we can never fully recover their intertextual world, by rehearsing these details on our contemporary material, we may recover some small part.

Mashup Sources

  1. In the Girl Talk song "Smash Your Head" (1:20-1:46), we can hear the mashup aesthetic: a drum sample from Nirvana's “Scentless Apprentice” slips into an organ riff from Pharcyde's “Passin' Me By,” which in turn alternates with a sped-up sample of Elton John's “Tiny Dancer”. Gillis then passes the mic to the Notorious B.I.G., who will rap his rags-to-riches story, “Juicy,” over the classic-rock piano arpeggios. Note especially the Pharcyde sample, which itself samples two songs: the backwards hi-hats from Jimi Hendrix Experience's “Are You Experienced?” and the organ vamp from Quincy Jones' “Summer in the City.” (The fact that Jones' track is itself a cover of the Lovin' Spoonful leads us further down the intertextual spiral, but I will leave that aside for now.)

    [For a full sample list of "Smash Your Head," see this post.]

  2. In her article "The Problem of Reference in Musical Quotations: A Phenomenological Approach," Jeanette Bicknell (following Vernon Howard) calls attention to ideas of both containment and reference in musical quotation. In the case of "sampling samples," containment is obviously not in question. Reference however is debatable.

    • In the first example, it is clear that Girl Talk's mashup "Friday Night" contains a sample from Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize," and as a result contains Herb Alpert's "Rise". I would argue, however, that in this case, the sample only refers to "Hypnotize".

    • In this example from Girl Talk's "Once Again," a better argument can be made that the sample of the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" both contains and refers to the Verve, and contains and refers to the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of the Rolling Stone's "The Last Time". This sample is one of the most notorious examples in this generation of the intersection of the rights of those who sample, the rights of those who are sampled, and the law. Its placement in the first 30 seconds of Night Ripper makes it a nearly programmatic statement of Girl Talk's modus operandi and the gesture comes off as even more provocative (both to the Jagger/Richards and to the Verve) considering that the sample is mashed up with the obscene braggadocio of the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)".

  3. In an online forum at, Gillis says in defense of his style: "DJs play plenty of music containing samples. DJs can play MARRS' "Pump up the Volume" and it's not weird at all." "Pump Up the Volume" is an interesting choice here, because Girl Talk samples the songs several times on Night Ripper. The song is a mashup in the Girl-Talk sense consisting entirely of samples. In this way, the relationship of Girl Talk, M|A|R|R|S, and James Brown is similar to Luxurius, Ausonius, and Virgil. Both Girl Talk and Luxurius come at the far end of their traditions of allusive poetics and oocupy an advantageous position of being able to comment on their tradition from within. As Seneca writes to Lucilius: "Condicio optima est ultimi: parata verba invenit, quae aliter instructa novam faciem habent.—The position of those who come last is best: they find the words already prepared, word which when put together in a different way have a new look." (Sen. Ep. 79.6, quoted in Hinds 41.)

  4. As an interesting analogue to the educational background of cento production can be found in the work of Double Dee and Steinski who built their reputation on a series of “Lessons” in the early 1980s. The choice of an educational metaphor establishes the DJs as the teachers of how this type of music is supposed to be made and are the clear progenitors of Girl Talk's mashup style. “Lesson 2”, if great things can be compared to small, practically establishes James Brown as the Virgil of hip-hop, as samples from Brown become an inescapable part of the DJs vocabulary from this point forward. “Lesson 3,” subtitled “History of Hip Hop,” found a worthy student in De La Soul's Prince Paul who imitates and samples the lesson on the track “The Magic Number,” a wonderful early example of the meaningful sampling of samples.

Cento Sources
  1. Luxurius' Epithalamium Fridi 61-65. I have cross-indexed the cento pieces to their original places in the Aeneid: click on any part of the cento to see its original Virgilian context.

    1. illa autem (neque enim fuga iam super ulla pericli est) |
    2. cogitur et supplex animos summittere amori |
    3. spemque dedit dubiae menti solvitque pudorem. |
    4. illum turbat amor; | ramum qui veste latebat |
    5. eripit a femine et flagranti fervidus infert. |

    A quick five-line tour of the Aeneid from Luxurius' Epithalmium Fridi: Hercules overpowering Cacus in book 8 (61), to a pair of Dido sightings from book 4—first her profession of humility in service to love as she watches Aeneas sail from Carthage (62), then a flashback to the effect of Anna's words on the doubtful queen early in the book (63). We move ahead for half a hexameter of Turnus addressing Amata in book 12 (64a) before continuing to the underworld of book 6 as the sibyl reveals the golden bough to the Stygian boatman (64b). Lastly, we are given Aeneas drawing his sword on Mezentius just struck by his spear in book 10 (65). Luxurius martials all this epic language and intertextual playfulness to describe a sex scene.
Select Bibliography/Further Reading
Bicknell, J. 2001. “The Problem of Reference in Musical Quotation: A Phenomenological Approach,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 59, No. 2: 185-191.
Hinds, S. 1998. Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry. Cambridge.
McGill, S. 2005. Virgil Recomposed. Oxford.
Metzer, D. 2003. Quotation and Cultural Meaning in Twentieth-Century Music. Oxford.

Select Discography/Further Listening
De La Soul. 1989. 3 Feet High and Rising. Tommy Boy.
Girl Talk. 2006. Night Ripper. Illegal Art.
————. 2008. Feed the Animals. Illegal Art.
M|A|R|RS. 1988. “Pump Up the Volume”. 4AD.
Steinski. 2008. What Does It All Mean: 1983-2006 Retrospective. Illegal Art.

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