Archive for December, 2006

Happy Holidays to all. I feel that the issues we are facing right now as composers are so overwhelming as well as exciting and disturbing, that I am introducing Strange Wisdom, an interactive reality forum that focuses more on how people feel about what is happening and what their own reactions are, rational or not. You may use a pseudonym to protect your privacy. Email Strange Wisdom with a question, issue, discussion topic: elauten@yahoo.com, or post your comments.

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Paul: At the movies, my friend remarks: the credit music sounds kind of like a piece of yours, doesn’t it? I heard it too. It is really, really close to a piece I wrote some years back and released on CD. What shoudl I do about that? I have a lawyer friend, so I call him and explain; I buy the soundtrack for the film (an award-winning picture), find the section that sounds like my piece, and I put both on a CD for my lawyer to listen to – he is not particularly musically inclined, but that’s a good test. He agrees that it sounds similar. He sends a letter to the record label, hoping to get at least some credit and maybe a little cash for the sampling or imitation. It takes a long time, but they get back to us with a letter from a musicologist who analyzed the two pieces and pointed out that there is some minor degree of difference between the tracks (one note on the modal scale). We drop the case – hiring another musicologist to prove otherwise by pointing out all the similarities, which I am sure could have been done, is not in the budget. However, I still don’t think that was a fair resolution. Time and time again, my music and/or musical concepts are plundered and used for other people’s profit while I am continually struggling.

Strange Wisdom: I know, Paul, it really sounds like exploitation, doesn’t it? But thinking in those terms – which I have done myself occasionally – only leads to conflict and despair. I order to maintain my peace of mind, I have to try and think otherwise. I am sorry to say, you may have to be content that your music was attractive enough to be plundered…and we may all soon have to give up individual ownership of our music. The new trend is to create pieces collectively while exchanging the materials on the internet: one person starts the piece, sends it out into the world, another person uses that draft and adds to it, transforms it, sends it out, and so on, so forth until the piece becomes a kind of evolving creation that none/all of the participants can call their own. Music-making is now free from the tyranny of the single composer, or, being a composer has become so popular that nearly everyone wants to do it – and is enabled to do so because new technology makes it accessible without years of training. This could make us ‘individual’ composers of the past. It’s like giving up the ego for the second time. Being a composer in the traditional sense already entails so much giving up of the ego, in dealing with performers, institutions, media, etc., but this is about giving up the very identity of composer. It seems that our identities, initially reinforced by the internet through web visibility, ultimately get lost in the process. Of course, you can copyright your material until doomsday but that will accomplish nothing unless you have thousands of dollars to invest in a battle for ownership. I’d rather spend the money on recording another piece!

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Alison: The use of peer panels reflects the system’s maintenance of the status quo. There is an inherent conflict of interest in having a competitor judge my work. I’d just as soon accept a lottery system.

Strange Wisdom: I agree, it is essentially a faulty system, and you are utterly frustrated, but if you can actually send out A LOT of submissions, usually something comes back – call it luck or the law of averages or whatever. The only real problem is the amount of time required to prepare and send out grant submissions. I always have a toss-up between the time I would spend on the grant submission and time to actually work on a piece. If I can get a job, I use my own money for funding my projects – sometimes they have to be put off for a while until I have a block of time available to focus on the music. This definitely affects my productivity, but quantity is not necessarily quality. During the fallow periods I do more thinking and develop new ideas that will come into play in later work. That’s a more organic process, like during the winter the earth rests, for a flowering in the spring and summer. So my advice is, use the fallow times to refresh and renew and wait for the next break to occur – and it does, when you manifest faith. I was nearly in tears when I read in an article by Belinda Reynolds on Newmusicbox that in a church venue the musicians shared the proceeds with the homeless… that’s what we are essentially, homeless with a home, not far from what the Japanese call Kawarakojiki, beggar-artists.

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Michael: Everyone seems to lament the demise of Tower Records. On the other hand, throughout the 20-some years they have been selling my CDs, I haven’t seen a penny come back to me from Tower since New Music Distribution Service closed back in the 80s. What a friend of mine used to do is go there and surreptitiously put his own CDs in the bin so that they would be available. That might have been actually easier – and cheaper, no shipping – than going through the cumbersome process of distribution, while the return on investment would have been the same!

Strange Wisdom: I can relate to what you are saying. The industry has changed. The distribution of CDs is going to be virtual. I have some inkling that setting up a web site where people can purchase the music directly from the composer could be the ideal solution. The problem with distribution has always been the middle men who pocket all the money along the way. However, there are a lot of internet middle men nowadays, and I am somewhat leery of them. I believe that you have to be the legal and sole owner of your music, and your own publisher, if at all possible. Then you can turn the tables and be master of your own game – on whatever scale that may be, or decide not to sell your music, which is also an option. It is neither difficult nor expensive to set up a payment system through PayPal or other similar hosts. So why not go direct, paying special attention to the links.

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Not one, but two important premieres will take place this winter: at the Met, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor; at LaMama, Concrete, by Robert Ashley. Uptown, downtown, each with its own hero. In passing, Meredith Monk just had a performance of her Book of Days, Panda Chant and Astronaut Anthem in Montclair, NJ at the Kasser Theater. The Robert Ashley piece promises the usual participants: his son Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Tom Hamilton and himself. This will have five performances from January 17 through 21. Tickets are $15 and $20, box office is 212-475-7710.

Tan Dun’s The First Emperor is a very important event at the Met – they don’t usually present more than one new opera each season, even though I keep saying they should do more… This series of performances features Placido Domingo himself. It is a co-production with the Los Angeles Opera. The live broadcast is scheduled for January 13, so that’s a date for your calendar… A logical choice, Tan Dun will also conduct his opera. He not only wrote the music but collaborated on the Ha Jin libretto as well. The production is staged by the acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou.

I loved Tan Dun’s Marco Polo for its use of Chinese instruments and elements of Chinese opera, and I expect to hear some of his surprising orchestrations including Chinese and Western instruments. I only wish that the subject of the opera was about the Chinese king who finalized the I Ching while in captivity (well maybe that’s more of a subject for me –I have only been using the wisdom of the I Ching for some 40 years) Interestingly I met a number of young Chinese people for whom the I Ching was very obscure… not ‘in’ the culture, obviously, for the living Chinese. Anyhow, the libretto for The First Emperor is a piece of Chinese history and I am sure it will be more interesting that Turandot. For tickets and information, call 212-362-6000.

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