Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Filtering by Tag: aesthetics

Copyright, Creativity & Aesthetics, by way of "Rent"

Does copyright encourage creativity? Or discourage it?

I'm not sure how many people saw this article from the other day, which talks about a director's change to the ending of Rent:

The final scene was missing roughly five lines of dialogue. For those unfamiliar with the musical adapted from Puccini's La Bohème, the character of Mimi dies and returns to life in the final moments of the script.

Director and faculty member Diane Smith-Sadak told that she removed the final lines where Mimi describes her near-death experience, creating a "more ambiguous" ending about Mimi's fate, in order to point toward the savage realities of people suffering from AIDS and addiction in the early 1990s (a time when many of the antiviral drugs that save lives today, were yet unavailable).

via Yung6 at Wikimedia CommonsLet me start by saying I would love to see this production. If you know the story of opera Rent was based on, La Bohème, you know that Jonathan Larson changed the ending of the opera; Mimi does not live in the opera. (Larson wanted to have a more uplifting ending to the show.) This "new" ending is intriguing, and I wonder what different emotions and reactions it would bring to the audience.

But, more to the point, I want to ask what this means for copyright and creativity, and creative control. (Yes, it's *another* copyright blog post from a musician. 2nd in popularity of blog posts, behind the death of classical music.)

Things like this happen frequently in community productions of musicals, regardless of the language in the contracts and licensing agreements. I've played numerous shows with cuts to entire songs, dialogue, and - in one particularly horrible instance - a song that had numerous cuts (to "make it more like the CD") that involved too many page turns and arrows to keep track of where to read. What make this case different is that the cuts quickly turned into "Internet wildfire" and caught the attention of MTI, who directed the university to reinstate the missing lines.

That this happens frequently doesn't necessarily make it right. You can't claim mob mentality as a protection against a law.

But what I find curious about this incident is that this happens frequently in theatre works that are no longer covered by copyright. Think about the Shakespeare plays you've seen: how many of them were set in Elizabethan England? How many were set in a different time or place (Fascist Spain seems to be an overly common setting)?

Or operas. Directors frequently change the setting of the original opera (as Alex Ross mentions in Listen to This). Language is either modernized or translated from the original. Music is added or cut based on the latest scholarship.

This comes back to the question posed above: in this case, did copyright protect Larson's original vision of Rent? Did it discourage creativity by stifling part of the director's vision for her production? If a director can modify Shakespeare, why can't one modify Larson?

Adding another layer to this thought is that the music in Rent isn't 100% Larson. His untimely death led original music director Tim Weil to rearrange some of the music and orchestrations.

I also think this reflects how we view certain works. Some things are set in stone, not to be adjusted. Musical theatre, though going through a constant revision process in early try-outs and previews, is thought to be "set" when it's licensed for groups to perform across the country. Beethoven's music should be played as seen on the page (preferably from an ürtext edition). But a jazz song is meant to be improvised around, to use the composer's ideas as a starting point in creativity. It's almost expected that a director will modify elements of a Shakespeare play.

Is there a way to reconcile copyright, creativity, and - unmentioned until now - aesthetics? Aesthetic value is basically what this all comes down to. How we view music - is it an activity, an experience, a "work" similar to plastic arts? - dictates how we view copyright.

More than the "is art a commodity?" question, I think aesthetics dictate our opinions on copyright - at least, our gut instincts on the topic.

I don't claim to have a solution to the myriad of copyright issues in today's music world. Sometimes I think copyright laws are too draconian; sometimes I think they're fair. I'm sure most people think that way, too.

But think for a moment about what you think about music and aesthetics. Does it - more or less - align with your ideas on copyright? I'm interested in hearing what you think!

NPR Music's Guilty Pleasures

For the past few weeks NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog has been running a series on “Guilty Pleasures,” interviewing regular contributors about music they are “embarrassed to love.”

The stated premise is commendable:

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who know my passion for music have asked, "So, what are you listening to these days?"

It's tempting to respond with something like, "Oh, I'm back in one of my big Mahler phases again." It sounds impressive and it's easier than admitting to what I might be really listening to — which could indeed be Mahler, but could just as likely be some schlocky pop band.

There's pressure on classical people to: a) never admit liking pop music and b) always maintain distinguished taste in classical music itself. Conversely, lovers of pop, rock and other genres might feel bashful about a secret love of Beethoven. So here's where I'm throwing all of these hang-ups out the window — and I invite you to do the same.

Yet, in actuality, the premise of this series seems to be that there are the Great Composers, the ones we all know: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, etc. And there are the lesser composers, the ones who have been brushed aside by music history (or music history classes) or who have – heaven forbid – become popular with a large audience, mainly for their inclusion on concert programs as crowd-pleasing encores, on a “pops” concert, or a “greatest hits” compilation CD.

At least, that’s how it appears to me. In many ways, this is understandable. Many academically trained musicians learn this in music schools and conservatories. As Bruno Nettl writes (in Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music),

In the conversational rhetoric of the Music Building, “great” refers mainly to the largest works. It is no coincidence that in one of the few books about the concept of musical masterworks the first two works mentioned are Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.


The great composer-deities are obviously present. Their inscribed names adorn the building inside and out, six master (four of them German) instructing students assembled for weekly convocations in the auditorium that all important issues of music reside within a 150-year span and nothing else is needed – this is the great music. (He is directly referencing Smith Music Hall at the University of Illinois, but this can be seen in institutions across the country.)

Having this background, it’s understandable that someone might think of Strauss, Rachmaninov, or Tchaikovsky as a guilty pleasure. They’re popular composers, and have traditionally been frowned upon by classical music institutions.

We all have guilty pleasures. It is beyond my scope here to examine why we have guilty pleasures, or what makes us consider them “guilty.” But I strongly recommend reading Carl Wilson’s fantastic book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste and watching his interview on The Colbert Report:



He doesn't come away with a newfound love for Celine Dion, and neither did I after reading the book (and listening to her), but he has great insight into the notions behind our musical tastes and pleasures.

It can be a blow to our egos and senses of musical taste if we are to hear that a respected individual finds music that we enjoy is treated with the impression that it's not supposed to be worthy of enjoyment. Personally, I went through that journey with the music of Gershwin (among others), that wasn’t uprooted until I took a semester-long seminar on him (corresponding blog post here), and I regret the missed time spent listening to, performing, and appreciating Gershwin's music.

I think many people in the classical music world agree that we want that music to be spread to as many people as possible. But can we do that do that by making people feel guilty about enjoying Copland, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Vivaldi, or Strauss? Are people really embarassed by listening to those composers?

The artists who regularly post on NPR's blog, and the blog itself, overall do a great job of expanding audience's education. I’m grateful that NPR started a classical music blog (much as I am for their jazz and indie pop blogs). But they missed the mark with the guilty pleasure series. The "behind-the-scenes" view we get from conductors, composers and performers is great; the out-dated mode of thinking behind this needs to be reexamined.

Watson & The Arts

There have been a few big new items on people's minds, blogs, and Twitter feeds in the last week or so. Aside from protests in the Middle East (and my home state of Wisconsin), two that I was drawn to were the discussion about a column on HuffPost by the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the debut of Watson, IBM's new computer, on Jeopardy!

via www.venturebeat.comIf you didn't watch the shows or read news clips, Watson won over the course of two episodes, against the two highest-scorers in Jeopardy!'s history. In some ways, and in some people's opinions, this is scary. If a computer can do this, how far away are we from artificial intelligence, from HAL? We're probably not as far away as some people may think.

But let's be honest: computers already rule our lives. Aside from the increasingly-rare species of Luddite, most people will check their email, Twitter feed, or Facebook at least once a day. Smart phones are becoming the norm instead of the exception they were only a few short years ago. Cars are now being produced that not only can locate you and assist you if you're in an accident, but can read your Facebook news feed aloud to you as your driving.

And then there's Michael Kaiser's article. The title says a lot, but unfortunately the column is light on substance: "What Is Wrong With the Arts?" I don't think anything Mr Kaiser wrote after that would have satisfied even a simple majority of the people. The answers to "what is wrong with the arts?" are diverse and often well thought-out, but it seems that there are many answers to the problem as there are people asking the question.

I've gotten involved in arts arguments. I've contributed my two cents about what needs to be done to "save" classical music, or the arts in general. I'm getting a little tired of it. Sometimes the pessimist in me feels that this is at least partially a manufactured crisis. But that's a topic for a different post.

What I want to propose here is a simple idea about how we can continue to develop the arts, how we can persuade Obama to avoid cutting funding for the NEA (and Republicans cutting funding for NPR and PBS), about how we can continue drawing audiences into our events, concert halls and museums: by reminding people that art is a human function. A concert is a chance to turn off your electronic devices and become absorbed in something created by humans, for humans, and performed by and for humans. A walk through an art museum offers us an escape from the world of email notifications and the din of the television set.

I'm not perfect. If you ask my partner or my parents, they'll readily tell you that I'm attached to my iPhone. I'm typing this on my MacBook, hoping to send this out into the World Wide Web. I'm a frequent Tweeter. Even a lot of today's art is made using computers, but it's still directed by a human.

But as I'm writing this I'm listening to Maria Schneider's Concert in the Garden and I'm thinking back to seeing her conduct Bolería, Soléa Y Rumba at the UW-Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and how her passionate conducting and her beautiful music moved me to tears. Art has a human connection that, no matter how hard "he" would try, Watson cannot duplicate.

One of my favorite professors in undergrad defined art as

any human creation which contains an idea other than its utilitarian purpose.

I don't agree with this 100% anymore, but it's one of arts' greatest selling points. Art is human, and is unlike so many other human endeavors. We need to remind people of this fact, even more so in our increasingly electronic times.

We might not be able to stop the progression of technology, but we can balance it with art advocacy, education, and enjoyment.

A Question of Musical Boundaries

via suntimes.comI have some questions, and I don't have the answers:

Why is West Side Story a piece of musical theatre, but Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" a piece of classical music? Why is Radiohead rock, but Christopher O'Riley's albums of Radiohead music classical? Just what exactly is John Adams' I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky?

Should we eliminate musical genre terms, as David Lang wrote, partly because they're dictated to us from others? Do they help us fulfill a human desire to categorize? Would it be easier to shop (virtually or in a brick and mortar store) if CDs were organized by artist, regardless of genre (as Christian McBride, I believe, described in a record store in Philadelphia)?

The Musical Work-Concept

For make no mistake: the subject of this book is not the origin of the work-concept. Its subject is the origin of the somber, socially regressive nonsense that people have been spouting about classical music for the last hundred years, a line of propaganda that has - obviously, to all but the spouters - been losing ever vaster tracts of ground since at least the 1970s.

-Richard Taruskin, in the foreward to Lydia Goehr's "The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works"

I just (finally!) started diving into this "essay in the philosophy of music," written in 1991, revised in 2007. It's not easy reading, but I'm enjoying it so far. If you're looking for a philosophy of music that expands beyond the notions of music as an object; for a book on contemporary musical thought; for a rationalization of your thoughts, or to be challenged on your ideas of music ... this is a good book to read.

Smith Music Hall, University of Illinois; By Dori via Wikimedia Commons

I'm hoping to share my journey through this book with you, and I gladly welcome your comments, feedback, and ideas. Share them below, or email me or tweet me!

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