A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Yesterday I mentioned that the "We Are All Mozart" schedule had been falling behind over the late summer and early fall -- but that staggering slowness was not only due to a huge engraving job that came in the door, but also because during September there was a video for the annual Vermont Grocers' Association "Retailer of the Year", a grant application for the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, the ever-futile grant application to the Guggenheim Foundation, an anniversary trip to Montréal (at least that one was fun), and a trip to California on assignment to look at some high-tech audio boxes -- during which I took in Tom Peters's magnificant premiere of Morning in Nodar. That kind of stuff eats into any composing schedule.
The end of October included two more pieces. In Search of the Seven Blue Stars (who wanted to say "Pleiades" or "Subaru" again, after all?) was written for viola solo, commissioned by friend, composer, actor, violist, and skin-crackingly dry humorist Robert Bonotto. I wanted this piece to slip in time, and wrote it in 17/16, with lots of silence. Here, look and listen, which might help make that clear. The plucking almost sounds like an old Morton Gould piece, but the repetitive single note in the demo is actually a string scrape that I didn't emulate. The piece rolls out into a kind of stuttering minimalism, that extra sixteenth note undermining the stability one expects from the style. It slows and then dives into an arco section. Without the pizzicato, that extra fractional beat suddenly seems to fit into the pattern, which overlaps the measure edges. It gathers a wryness, expands and slows (a tempo, though), and brings itself to an uncertain conclusion. I could hear more to it, and the opportunity presented itself twice.
The first opportunity came two days later, writing the October version of Lunar Cascade in Serial Time. Seth Gordon had suggested that instruments other than tenor guitar could be used, and perhaps even more than one. Wny not write a self-standing piece that also formed a duet with a section of Seven Blue Stars? Yes! And so an arpeggiated guitar piece developed, creating a clearly tonal but degrading meditative shape. The alternate line could be played on the viola, as it was derived from that piece, or it could be -- as suggested in the score -- hummed by the guitarist. By October I'd stopped hearing from Seth, and even today he's dropped from sight -- but he's a busy guy, so he'll have to be chased down. I love this piece. There is a score here and a demo here.
Rushing to catch up, I jumped to write Reena Esmail's energetic piano piece, finishing it ahead of schedule on Halloween. Reena, another young composer, wanted a highly charged piece that would challenge her. There are mental challenges and technical challenges, and this had both: an elusive modality whose changes were hidden inside the music's architecture, and devilish and constant octave passages in the left hand with shifting modal scale passages in the right. There is a score and a demo of In Search of an Exit (yes, being in search was my modus operandi for these last weeks of the year!). The aural result of these shifting modes and slamming octaves should be an almost player-piano bluesiness. And once again, I liked this piece so much that it became a partial source for another.
Re-using material is commonplace among composers, whether that means lifting whole passages or merely hinting at a past work. This interests me because the topic has come up in terms of appropriating other work for one's own, whether sound samples or musical passages, on NewMusicBox, the American Music Center's web magazine. Those of you who follow copyright issues will recognize the increased vigor with which 'violators' are pursued. That's in scare quotes because this idea of 'violation' makes no sense to me. Perhaps it's because I believe in a society where ideas are shared even if their manifestations -- the works of art themselves -- have authors.
The discussion began with Carl Stone's questions about appropriation of others' work, and he posted a video of Lawrence Lessig -- copyright lawyer and Creative Commons activist -- demonstrating that new works created from extant ones are as original, as unique. It's a good defense, but not a great one, because it takes Lessig out of context. I wrote that trying to understand Lessig's thesis based on one talk doesn't get at his extended books, articles and talks about intellectual property, intangible property which derives from the commons and returns to the commons. I agree with Lessig. Ownership of the manifestation of an idea is a fiction given legal status to improve the circulation of improved ideas into the economy. It confers protection on those who take risk in distributing those manifestations. In other words, the rudimentary concept is that you own what you make, possess, trade for, purchase. If it's a pretty decorated urn, that's it -- a pot. If it's a manuscript of music, that's it -- paper and ink. The pot I got; making more à la Star Trek's replicators isn't here yet, and maybe then physical property will be redefined.
Despite a tradition that now feels like it, though, there is no absolute ownership of the results of mental effort (except, perhaps, for those encased in the brain that forgets and dies). A play or a song is infinitely replicable, even if the CD or the DVD aren't. It floats in the mind, in the culture, in online versions, as paper artifacts. It becomes transformed and rethought. Fragments become other artworks. In fact, most of any creative effort draws from the ideas of others and mashes them up, whether for music that mashup includes harmonies and melodic progressions or sound samples. It's critical to recall that this ownership is all legal sleight-of-hand, however deep it may be ingrained in the present-day idea of creative productivity that there is even such as thing as intellectual property. Fiction it is. Grasping this reality is what sets in motion the madness that the copying of manifestations of the mind is equal to theft. It isn't theft in any tangible sense, and depends entirely on social graces and legal protection for its definition. I won't argue against protection of the manifestations of the mind; good law, such as that in the U.S. Constitution, balances the good graces of limited protection to encourage more creativity against the expectations of a society from which those ideas were drawn and to which they return.
Copyright doesn't protect ideas, only the product of those ideas. Ideas are drawn from the commons, from society, from others -- an 'approved' theft, if you will. The law has expanded so much because replication of these manifestations, once difficult or costly, has become inexpensive and the tools to replicate in fact invite doing so. The owners rush to copyright their buildings so they do not appear in video; an actor blurting out a tune fragment in mid-sentence has the clearance department hopping; promotional logos on t-shirts suddenly become 'samples' requiring legal documents and royalty payments ... a double-dip for the companies. Families inherit the fruits of their ancestors' creative efforts for nearly a century, and do nothing creative with them. The treaty of commons to individual to commons is abnegated.
Society's economic machine hasn't come to terms with the infinite replicability yet. We are in the legal jackboot stage, where every perceived infringement is stomped down in the name of the law. But the law as expanded and injected into artistic relationships is being ignored (a recent informal survey pegs it as credible to only two percent of those under 30), which is a sign that it is dysfunctional.
Lessig's example is crude but clear; but I recommend instead "Grayfolded" by John Oswald as an example of a monumental composition, with a score of cues as carefully prepared as any symphony, yet with all the samples drawn from the Grateful Dead. Although it is built from them, it is not the samples that are the source of "Grayfolded" itself -- they only suggest their original sources as one might suggest Handel's Messiah with little snips (in "Yes, We Have No Bananas" -- only three notes of this entire melody are original, taken as it is from four older tunes). The Grateful Dead borrowed in sound and style and even melody; and from their sources were borrowings. Oswald continues the creative re-imagining of those distant, lost sources. Carl Stone, author of the article that began the discussion, is also a sampling composer. I don't hide my unabashed thrill every time I hear his Shing Kee, which I consider the singular (and most musically gratifying) achievement in music drawn from samples. And yet not a single acoustic source of this creation originated with Carl. How is his creation in any way wrong or immoral or unethical -- even if its sources were "illegal" (they weren't)? Such thinking is nonsense. The creativity of art is about reframing extant ideas, ideas from the society which raised and nurtured us, and protecting their manifestation is a courtesy. One way or another, those manifestations return to the society that is their true source.
The distinction between the appropriated sample, whatever its length, and the source influence is what stymies the law. One is bad, says the law, the other good. But without reassessing the role of the pool of ideas out of which all creative people draw and reframe their mental 'products', that law (and its technological children, such as Digital Rights Management) will inevitably fail.
Which brings me back to appropriating from myself. I believe that all artists are aware of their sources, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm too analytical. My own awareness is often retrospective, but I can see it. Sometimes it's prospective, as in knowing I've got more to say with an idea or would like to appropriate someone else's concept or material. The latter is very conscious, the former not so much. When someone says my music sounds like 'me', are they saying I use the same material? That I have a distinct style? What is that style that identifies it as 'me'? What are its components? When David Gunn and I play 'drop the needle' (which hasn't used a needle in twenty years, but never mind), it is the mix of elements that allows us to shout out "Mahler!" or "the real John Adams!" or "Varese!" -- the weight of the orchestration, the interlock of the pitches, the discourse among players. But being intimate with my own music, I can't hear those distinctions; it's just how the music goes, its internal inevitability.
The desire to finish ideas in longer form was pushing me by the beginning of November. Most of the commissions had been relatively short -- a few minutes, and no Grand Symphonies in four movements. But I hungered to write longer pieces, or at least spin out ideas in multiple ways. And so the calendar started to become jumbled; some music was pushed toward the end of the year, other pieces brought forward. That would mean self-appropriating, and also letting them settle.
Up next was a composition for percussion commissioned by Bill Sallak. This was a palate-cleanser for me. Bill didn't specify his requirements, but told me he was flexible and might like something with found instruments -- not professional percussion instruments, but whatever came to hand. His MySpace site confirmed his skills, and included performances from composers in different styles. What hadn't he done, I wondered? And then the idea came: a found-instrument rap, with optional 'customer' backup chorus! I lined up an ensemble of instruments: five metal 'tin' cans, three frozen juice cans, a Hershey's syrup can, a tea or candy canister, three glass jars, two plastic milk jugs, seven cat food cans, three plastic yogurt containers, three wax paper sheets, and four metal coffee cans. Over this array -- played with a slowly developing faux-rap rhythm -- came the text:
I didn't hear from Bill for a while, and when I did, despite having left the piece's concept and design up to me, he rejected the piece. The only rejection of the WAAM project. So I promised him another, but this time I asked for specifications.
Next time: Continuing with songs, more self-appropriations, and more pans (the tenor kind, not the bad review kind).
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