Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Postcapitalist Musical Economy and the IMSLP

Paul Mason's lengthy article about Postcapitalism in The Guardian got me thinking about the way the new musical economy functions in a world where digital exchange of information has relatively few "real" costs associated with it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I "play" by my own rules. Basically my practice boils down to personal contact. If I show up to play for someone's concert, I expect to be paid. If I decide to donate my services, I consider it a personal gift to the person or organization. If I write a piece for someone, I happily accept payment and consider the payment as something to insure that the person I write the piece for will be the person to give the first performance. Once the piece is performed I like to make it available on the IMSLP for anyone to play.

I no longer send my music to the publisher who holds the copyright on 77 of my pieces because I cannot depend on that publisher to do anything in the way of promotion. My pieces are, for the most part, files on their computer. When a musician buys a piece of music from this publisher (or most publishers) it is printed (nicely) and mailed. The publisher keeps 90% of the asking price (set by the publisher), and I get a royalty for 10%. Sometimes people buy a "mechanical license," which means that they have permission from the publisher to record a piece, if they choose to. Believe me, it rarely amounts to much.

The only measure I have of how many people play my published music is my yearly (sometimes) royalty statement. That measure does not take into account the people who take the music out of libraries (the now-deceased former owner of the music that is now controlled by my current publisher made sure that everything in his catalog made it into the stacks of major music libraries). I like to imagine that those 77 pieces are being played once in a while, but I have no way of knowing if they are, outside of the occasional YouTube video.

Once something is written I do not think of the music itself as a product to sell. It makes me rather nervous when I think of a piece of music being "worth" a set amount of money. When I look at the stats from my Thematic Catalog blog, I see that there have been 7864 visits to my transcription of the Pachelbel Canon. When I follow the link to the IMSLP listing, I see that there have been 19,686 people who downloaded the score.

The value that this IMSLP listing contributes to people who want to play the Pachelbel Canon with their string orchestra or string quartet is pretty great. The value that knowing that people can use the arrangements I make and the music I write (here's the page that has links to the original music I have in the IMSLP) is great for me. It helps me to know that what I do with music is useful and brings people pleasure. I get a great deal of pleasure out of writing and arranging music, and it is great to know that people (thousands of them) get pleasure from playing it. I'm happy to contribute to the musical economy by making accessible music (accessible for people who like to play music that isn't ridiculously difficult to play and to hear) easily accessible to all musicians for free.

But even a post-capitalist musical mindset involves money. The IMSLP, an organization run by a dedicated crowd of volunteers, has to use money to pay for its bandwidth. They have, like every other entity that uses bandwidth, started a fundraising campaign. There is a simple way to become a member (around $20 bucks a year if you make it a multi-year membership), and there are more creative ways. You can even sponsor a composer of your choice (maybe someone will pick me!).

The value of the IMSLP to me as a contributor and as a frequent user is immeasurable, and I'm proud to have done my part to keep it viable.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sally Ann Performed by The Vinegar Flies

[The banjo playing singer is, of course, our son Ben.]

Friday, December 18, 2015

Music, Medicine, and Trust

I find this video interesting on a number of levels. Clearly the doctor is a fine violinist, but I imagine that the "Tennessee Waltz" is not one of the pieces in his usual repertoire. I also imagine that he is not as comfortable playing by ear as the guitarist/singer/patient (who has to jump octaves when attempting to sing because of the key). Observe at the 46-second mark, when the violinist/doctor, following the form of the song, goes into accompanying mode, and the two musicians "dance" awkwardly for a verse, making connections with one another here and there, exposing personal and musical vulnerabilities and strengths along the way. When it's the violinist's turn to improvise, the guitarist seems happy to accompany/support him as he tentatively searches for plausible variations on bits of the tune.

The music may not be within either of their usual idioms, but it functions as a plausible middle ground, and they share some special moments of musical communication with people like you and me who are touched by seeing and hearing the spoils of an unlikely bit of music-making by people who might never otherwise come into musical contact.

There is more to this patient/guitarist/singer that meets the eye (pun intended). And Dr. Sloan, who works on violins in addition to playing them, is very generous with his collection of instruments.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Train Ride

Today would have been my brother Marshall's 59th birthday. Daniele Colombo (a person I do not know) made this recording of Marshall's 1988 "Train Ride," that I thought I would share here to celebrate. It really "sounds" like Marshall. Thank you Daniele!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"A-List" Music and Other Music

Among musicians there is always dialogue about favorite composers and the like. Almost everyone has the same "A" list, and that "A" list intersects extensively with the "A" list of people who spend more time listening to music than playing it (or do not play at all). I do not need to list those composers here: you know who they are.

During the 12 years of my professional life programming music for a radio station, I made a serious effort to treat A-list composers as equals to the rest of the "pack" that was available on recordings. That self-appointed task became rather easy when Marco Polo, a subsidiary of Naxos (a small budget label during the early 1990s) started offering really fine CD recordings of non A-list composers. It didn't hurt that I had been friends with the founders of that label in Hong Kong, so I received the whole library gratis. The Naxos library and the obscure small-label releases I got to review for the American Record Guide moved our library to the cutting edge as far as non-A-list composers. During the late 1980s and through the 1990s NPR stations spent a lot of time playing "greatest hits" by Rodrigo, Pachelbel, Gershwin (non A-list composers) many times per week, and single movements from larger works by A-list composers. I couldn't turn on an NPR station and hear anything I couldn't identify in the first couple of seconds, but my station, which had a library of only excellent performances of music by composers who were often new to me, offered listeners a challenge to listen to all kinds of new music (particularly "old" new music).

It is very easy to hear something that sounds a bit like (Robert) Schumann or Brahms, for example, and consider it "second-rate" Schumann or Brahms. It is very easy to write off that non-A-list composer as someone unworthy of your attention, and in the same breath write off the piece at hand as something less valuable musically than a piece that is by the A-list composer. If you hear it on a recording it is even easier to make that kind of dismissal, because the performance has been reproduced, and will always sound the same. It doesn't get better, though you may become a better listener. When evaluating something negatively we often decide that there is something wrong with it rather than something wrong with our evaluation of it. (In relationship terms it is kind of like the phrase, "It's not you, it's me," which, of course, usually means the reverse.)

I believe in performing well-written music by composers who never made it to the A list (and never will, since the A list is firmly set in the past). I love to practice music by A-list composers because doing so compels me to grow as a musician in order to meet the A-list composer half way. I love to study, play, and listen to A-list composers, but I feel that my "job" performing good music by composers who never made it to the A list is to make the experience of the music as meaningful as possible for the people listening to it, and, in the case of chamber music, for people playing it. If I have to reach a little more than half way in order to "sell" the immediate experience, and to eradicate the necessity for people listening to resort to comparisons with what the piece is not, I have been successful. Perhaps I have to "believe" even more deeply in the music I am playing than I would have to when playing something familiar, but I feel that it allows music to happen in original and unusual ways.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Status Update

I have been keeping my thoughts to myself lately, and I really don't see much harm in doing so, but, if I have faithful readers (it is really difficult to tell who they are, even with a stat counter) who might be wondering what is going on with me, never fear. All is well in my private life.

Last week I took one of my brother's violas out of the closet and put fresh (though not new) strings on it, and I have been using that instrument to play the Nutcracker (two performances down, four to go). The instrument has a longer string length than the Italian viola I normally play, and it has a very different kind of sound. I'm having a great time exploring the differences between the instruments. My brother's instrument is Welsh, and it has a lower register that speaks remarkably quickly. It would fit right in a chorus of miners in Wales, perhaps singing a baritone part, because it can.

I feel that playing this instrument is a way of honoring my brother. It is a very intimate and special experience. An instrument is not simply an object. It is an extension of the body and the mind. Sometimes it even feels like Marshall's "voice" is coming out of the instrument.

I have writing projects underway, but most of them are arrangements for Summer Strings. I also have a Bachian counterpoint project happening, which is rough-going at times. Original musical thoughts don't distract and obsess me the way they once did. I'm confident that they will return when I am ready, and hopefully I will be able to work with them in new and interesting ways.