Posts Tagged “performance”

“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

For the past several election cycles, a cottage industry of fact-checkers emerges from their pumpkin patches each fall to assess the credibility of candidates’ claims.  One of most-quoted of these, FactCheck.org, is affiliated with my alma mater.  These groups’ findings are not only cited by the media but are also used by partisans of both Presidential candidates.  And while neither the press nor the candidates are free to plagiarize the articles produced by fact-checkers, the facts themselves are fair game.

In fact (sorry), it seems fact-checkers have themselves become the story. Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning dedicated an entire segment to the role of fact checkers.  It seems these trufflers of truth have become pawns in the political chess game of electoral politics, with each campaign’s spinmeisters trying to use the checkers to “king” their candidate by persuading the voters that their opinions are facts.  In keeping with the non-partisan nature of my posts and this forum, I’ll not comment on which candidate appears to have racked up the most misdemeanors from the fact checkers – but I do have my own opinion!

As it turns out, the late Senator Moynihan is absolutely right from a copyright perspective. Section 102 of the Copyright Act not only states what is subject to copyright, including various forms of musical works and sound recordings, but also sets out many things that are not subject to copyright protection. For example, there is no copyright protection available for any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” And while the statute’s list doesn’t explicitly include facts, the FAQ on the Copyright Office’s web site does state that “[c]opyright does not protect facts…” More importantly, the Supreme Court has said that facts are not copyrightable.

Facts are either ideas or concepts (e.g., 1+1=2) or discoveries (e.g., it’s a fact that the earth revolves around the sun).  So, the candidates and their minions, along with the media and everyone else can freely use the findings of fact-checkers as to what a particular candidate said or didn’t say and whether his proposals are better than the other guy’s.  As I said in my last post, as with fair use, the exclusion of facts, concepts, discoveries and ideas  — as opposed to the individual expression of them, reinforces our First Amendment freedom of speech as nobody can monopolize an idea.

These concepts apply not only to political discourse, but to musical expression, as well.  Section 102 states that copyright applies to “original works of authorship.” It is the individual expression of an idea or concept, not the concept itself, that is subject to copyright protection. So, what does this mean in a musical context? Imagine if C.P.E. Bach had been able to get a copyright in sonata form. Or if Bach and Vivaldi had sued each other over the exclusive right to use a circle of fifths?

It would be absurd to think that Jerome Kern couldn’t use that chord progression  in “All The Things You Are.”  Structural forms (such as a 32-bar AABA song or a 12-bar blues) and chord progressions are among the things that are generally considered to be non-copyrightable concepts or ideas.  You’d probably be justified in having the opinion that they’re musical “facts.” Just think of the all the songs and standards written on “blues” or “rhythm” changes.  Or consider the thousands of symphonies, concertos and sonatas that use sonata form. Steve Reich has copyrights in his works,  “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase” but he can’t prevent another composer from utilizing phasing techniques in their own works. The same principle would apply to performance techniques: there’s no copyright for wind players playing double stops or practicing circular breathing.

So, feel free to marshal as many facts as you can to support your opinion as to which candidate “won” tonight’s final Presidential debate.  Or write and perform a new work on the topic using whatever forms and techniques you like. I only ask that you not post any politically-oriented comments in response to this piece. That said, your opinions as to copyright and music are most welcome, either here or at my web site.

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NEXUS in SoCal Review 3-3-12The renowned percussion group NEXUS, consisting of Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger and Gary Kvistad made a Southern California appearance Friday night before a noticeably full Samuelson Chapel at California Lutheran University. A bewildering array of xylophones, marimbas, bells, cymbals and drums of every description crowded the stage for the two hour performance. NEXUS has been making contemporary music since 1971 and has been a presence worldwide.

The entire first half of the concert was devoted to the music of Steve Reich, starting with his Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. This is performed on tuned wooden claves and is an example of Reich’s process of ‘rhythmic construction’. One player keeps a steady pulse while the others come in at intervals with short patterns that are offset from each other by several beats. The process in Music for Pieces of Wood consists of three sections with patterns of six, four and three beats. The acoustics in the chapel tend toward reflection and there was no trouble hearing the claves, even in the balcony where I was sitting – if anything the sharp crack of the lowest register clave became overwhelming at times, blurring the rhythmic patterns of the process. The finer details in the rhythms were best heard at the lower dynamic levels.

The second piece, Mallet Quartet, is more recent Reich dating from 2009. This was played on two marimbas and two vibraphones. The program notes quote Steve Reich: “The marimbas interlock in canon, also a procedure I have used in many other works. The vibes present the melodic material, first solo then in canon.” A good groove was, in fact, established by the marimbas but at times the sound coming from the vibes overwhelmed the pulse. The slow middle section sounded more coherent and had better definition. The precise playing of NEXUS was almost enough to counterbalance the hall acoustics in the fast outer movements, but dialing back the volume might have produced better results.

The first half of the concert closed with Drumming, a 1971 piece by Reich that was played on a set of carefully tuned bongos. A single steady beat is established by two players and this is built up in complexity as players are added. The precision of NEXUS quickly became evident as the tempo increased and as phasing was introduced into the more complex rhythmic patterns. The higher pitch in the bongo set used here was less affected by the acoustics and the results were gratifying. It was intriguing to watch the players – their arms barely moved below the elbow and the rapid drumming was done almost effortlessly by wrist and hand. This piece has a very African feel and reflects the influences that Reich had absorbed during his 5 week study of drumming in Ghana just prior to composing this piece.

After intermission the second half began with Fra Fra, a piece inspired by the folk rhythms of the FraFra people of West Africa as arranged by NEXUS. A ‘talking drum’ was featured whose pitch could be varied by squeezing the flexible frame surrounding the hour-glass shaped body. Other drums, shakers and panpipes were part of the ensemble – all of which created a strong groove. The panpipes added a melodic touch and sometimes a whistle-like sound that, combined with the strong beat, brought rap music to mind.

Tongues followed, another African-inspired piece arranged by NEXUS, this time from Zimbabwe. Tongues was played on the mbira, an African instrument known better here as a ‘thumb piano’. The mbira produces a soft metallic sound similar to a music box and the peaceful melodies in this piece were a quiet contrast to all the intense drumming that had been heard up to this point. In fact two mbiras were used – the higher Shona mbira and a bass mbira from the Caribbean. These were accompanied by a softly-struck wooden block and a gentle rattle. The overall effect was subtle and serene, a melody that seemed content with its simplicity.

A time of improvisation followed and the only rule was that any player could play anything on any instrument at any time. This seemed a recipe for ear-splitting chaos but improvisation has been a feature of NEXUS concerts for 41 years and the results were impressive. The piece started quietly with various bells, bowls and blocks and developed a sort of zen feel. This morphed into a kind of urban street-scape complete with car alarm. All sorts of items were used: a bunt cake mold was struck and a chair was dragged across the wooden floor of the stage. There was a breath-operated organ that held a long drone, various bird calls and the slow scraping of cymbals. The result was agreeably alien and not strictly percussive – a sort of sonic journey that reminded me of what JC Combs creates. Most interestingly, this piece was greeted by sustained applause from the audience who had clearly connected with the concept.

The concert concluded with a series of ragtime pieces featuring mostly the music of George Hamilton Green, an early 20th century composer for the xylophone. These were expertly played and varied from formal, almost classical-sounding pieces to popular music of that time. A standing ovation followed and an encore of virtuosic xylophone music finished a full evening. That so many people came out to see a contemporary music group and listen to an hour of music by Steve Reich is an encouraging sign for all of us here in SoCal.

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