Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Special Type of Thief

Recently I started the process of trying to get one of my musical compositions published.

It’ll be a long process – the wheels of the publishing industry grind slowly, when they grind at all.

But one of the steps in the process, where this particular composition is concerned, has to do with getting the okay to use someone else’s creation within my own.

When I put it that way, it does sound like I’m trying to retro-fit some insidious thievery, or to assuage my guilty conscience.

Actually no such thing. Previously in this space, I chronicled the process of creating a Christmas cantata, which was a set of eight compositions for choir and instruments. I had decided to set some poetry by Christina Rossetti and Madeleine L’Engle to music.

Ms. Rossetti had long since passed away, long enough ago that (according to any research that I had done) her work was in the public domain. So, no legal concerns there.

I used to teach my middle-school general-music students, when we studied copyright and intellectual property issues, that a work of art doesn’t enter the public domain until something like 75 years after its creator passes away (at least under United States law). I used to write on the chalkboard “DEATH PLUS 75” before class started, and watch the kids try and figure out what in the world that meant!

Sorry, kids. It only gets gory if the artist’s lawyers come after you.

Ms. L’Engle passed away in 2007. Legal concerns here.

So, I had contacted Ms. L’Engle’s estate, and explained that the usage of her poetry was for a one-shot project. Their legal people were very friendly, and expressed their thanks that I had made the effort to secure permission. They gave me their permission … and I didn’t have to pay a dime. And I’d been prepared to do so. Remarkable.

This week, I had my first eMail exchange with those lawyers having to do with this phase of the project. It’s a slightly different negotiation: this effort to get those compositions published means that (with luck) money will change hands. Royalties may be a reality, both for me and (if I do this fairly and ethically) for the creator of some wonderful poems.

It’s partly a money issue; but it’s also partly an issue of respect for an artist and her creativity. Bible says: thou shalt not steal.

 

Meanwhile, this week, the fine Canadian rock singer Neil Young posted a note on his Facebook page. It rambled, but here’s the excerpt that interested me (gently edited by my Grammar Police Elves):

Yesterday my song ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ was used in a announcement for a US presidential candidate without my permission.

A picture of me with this candidate was also circulated in conjunction with this announcement but it was a photograph taken during a meeting when I was trying to raise funds for Pono, my online high resolution music service.

Music is a universal language. So I am glad that so many people with varying beliefs get enjoyment from my music, even if they don’t share my beliefs.

But had I been asked to allow my music to be used for a candidate – I would have said no. …

I do not trust self-serving misinformation coming from corporations and their media trolls. I do not trust politicians who are taking millions from those corporations either. I trust people. So I make my music for people not for candidates.”

The candidate was real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Ordinarily I would avoid giving Mr. Trump any more press than he deserves, which is exceptionally little to begin with. The man is a circus act. The columnist George Will, with whom I do not customarily agree, recently called him a “bloviating ignoramus” … and if you saw the train wreck that was his candidacy announcement earlier this week, you would be hard-pressed to refute either the noun or the adjective.

In this case, there’s a larger issue – and it isn’t even that either Trump or one of his staffers dropped the ball, in the process of setting up that event, as regards a very basic procedure for a public figure.

Trump has a net worth of anywhere between a quarter of a billion and eight billion dollars (who knows? who can tell? who will tell? not him). The guy can afford to lay out large sums of money to acquire almost any tangible thing he would like to acquire.

 

If Mr. Young’s assertion is true, the guy and his political organization appropriated a piece of music (and apparently the image of its composer, too) without bothering to investigate the acquisition of proper permission from the song’s composer. There was time to do that. And there was money to do that. The amount of money that would have needed to change hands is peanuts compared to Trump’s fortune … or, frankly, my fortune.

If Trump failed to do that … or if (as I think is more likely) he didn’t even consider it necessary to get permission to appropriate somebody else’s property, intellectual or otherwise, then it’s a symptom of a larger issue:

Trump cares about himself and his image more than anything else or anybody else in the world.

If he truly cares about his image … he should know that with regards to this particular anecdote, his current image amongst people who care about the livelihoods of artists is that of thief.

Even before you examine his political positions or governing experience, that ought to tell you everything you need to know about his run for public office.

June 20, 2015 Posted by | arts, current events, Famous Persons, music, news | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practice What You Preach, Part IV

When last we left our aspiring composer type, he staring down the barrel of a deadline, albeit self-imposed. The situation was by no means hopeless … but it was starting to look like all those research papers of his life: in spite of all possible preparation, he was going to be typing till midnight the night before it was due.

With three days of a summer vacation remaining before I had to dive back into the world of faculty meetings, lesson planning and lunch duty, I had written five songs. My plan had been for seven. So, three days and two songs. No problem.

Which is, on its face, a pretty absurd statement. No, I wasn’t going to be writing the equivalent of the Pathetique Symphony – perhaps a Pathetic one! – but it’s over-the-top to expect to whip off a decent anthem in a day. Which, I reminded myself, is why we sleep on it and the next morning we edit. Hard.

Right. To the poetry pile! I looked at what had been written so far and it was severely lacking in shepherds and angels, which is of course one of the fun parts of the Christmas story. Many years ago I imagined writing a piece that properly conveyed what the shepherds might have felt. I don’t care who you are: if you are suddenly set upon, in the middle of the otherwise quiet wee hours of the morning, by blindingly-lit supernatural figures that claim to be angels, you are terrified right down to your regulation sandals. But back then, I imagined a much less contemporary-music-sounding thing, and frankly it was probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for the Offertory music slot at the local Methodist church.

Two things happened almost simultaneously. First, I recalled having thought that it would be a fun experiment to write a tune based around one of those four-guitar-chord riffs that go around and around and around and are in fact the entire harmonic structure of a Green Day or a Michelle Branch tune. Especially since at one point way back when, I remember mumbling, “well THAT’S not very creative.” I was a Gershwin snob, I think.

And second, remarkably, a poem hurled itself at me, out of the Christina Rossetti catalog, that started out, “Shepherds watch their flocks by night…”

Well there ya go.

And after a morning and an afternoon, and then another morning of polite but ferocious editing, I had a song in 6/8 (up to that point I hadn’t gotten into compound meter, and was beginning to consider the monotony of having most of seven songs in 4/4), driven forward by a pair of ’90s pop guitar riffs. Not my usual. Kinda fun.

The other element of the Big Story that was still glaringly absent: Wise Men of any kind. And again … I don’t know who exactly was choreographing this wild poetry-goose chase, but amazing! This time the Madeleine L’Engle catalog stepped up and delivered a curious poem, written in the first person, from the perspective of the three kings. Its structure was intriguing: each of the six stanzas had a six- or seven-syllable line, followed by a pair of very similar two-syllable lines, followed by a last eight- or ten-syllable line. So? Tenors and basses sing the longer lines, punctuated by sopranos and altos interjecting the short lines, and we potentially answer the question “so, are the men going to have any melodies in this collection of songs?”

And possibly the question “how much Philip Glass -grade repetition can a choir stand before it throws up its collective hands in frustration?”

And possibly the question “can I get away with overlaying a piece with a stereotypically Lawrence-of-Arabia, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ percussion ostinato?” Well? They traversed the desert, after all … and we’ve got a couple of fine percussionists in the congregation (one is seven years old, one is a recent college graduate, and both rock-solid), so of course we utilize!

Is our hero finally finished? Do seven songs actually equal one complete work? Will our hero step back and admire, or will he perpetuate his irritating habit of writing a lesson plan ahead of time and then straying from it halfway through the class? Find out … in the final installment of … “Start Rehearsals Already”!

August 30, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Practice What You Preach, Part III

When last we left our musician-with-a-fledgling-composition-gig, he was thrilled with having two anthems in such shape that he didn’t hate them, even the next morning. He was also giving a faint edit/update to that “Part II” post, thanks to a stray paragraph that got copy/pasted incorrectly. He was also recognizing that all he had to do was find five songs just like the first two.

(Theme music UP, then fade DOWN. Narrator speaks.)

I’m still trying to decide whether writing two pieces out of a total of seven … and then spending two weeks on the road, away from a computer or piano keyboard … is a BAD idea (you’re on a roll and you stop?!) or a GOOD idea (give the material an opportunity to marinate inside the brain; step back and get some perspective). But it’s what I did. Went on the road with DMA, and to visit various friends, over the course of 15 days – give or take a 36-hour stop home to do laundry and not much else.

So I had what I felt were solid bookend pieces … and needed to fill in the guts of the Large Work. Piece o’ cake.

 

Back to the poetry of Ms. Rossetti and Ms. L’Engle, as has been previously discussed to death. I found a poem by Christina Rossetti that began, “This Advent moon shines cold and clear, these Advent nights are long…” and for the first time, a musical idea leapt to the forefront and demanded my attention. Thus far, I had finished [1] a sort of slow, straight-ahead opening song (don’t honestly know how else to describe it, other than perhaps “your choir will shine with this pensive Advent text treatment”) … and [2] a showy, funky final movement that was trying not to be a disco song. Early on, I’d wanted to have something swing out a little bit, since a few years ago I wrote an Easter anthem in the style of an Ellington big band original (Just Not As Good! … I am still humble) which kinda caught on.

Weird, I thought, to have a song swing out when the only loud part of the Advent story is usually the angels carrying on about peace on earth, goodwill to men (and women). BUT that first line of text transported me musically to the land of Guy Noir, Private Eye. I refuse to write a Christmas Pageant script with a Philip Marlowe-style narrator … but I did hear a muted trumpet wailing in the distance; I sensed Manhattan Transfer-esque choral harmony with lots of stray ninths and 13ths; and I felt a slinky, slightly desperate swinging of eighth notes coming on. At the very least, it could cause people to sit up and scratch their heads.

I will now admit that shortly after that tune got into some next-to-next-to-last-draft form, another poem wandered in front of my eyes that caused me to teeter on the edge of musical composition mimickry. This past spring, I heard a choral piece that knocked my socks off. It was slow; it was written specifically for a large number of voices, in four parts, emoting in a contemporary gospel genre (not the classic spiritual style, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, so much); and it was a monstrous hit with the audience of which I was a member that night. I admit … I’m not for plagiarism; and I’m trying to be original here … but I really wanted to write something that would have a comparable effect.

The poem I was looking at, describing the newborn baby Jesus, had relatively few words in it. Perfect for a slow tempo. Problem: as is often the case with Christina Rossetti’s poetry, it was basically in hymn form. So, no refrain to hit the listener over the head with … to put a big pretty bow on the package … to be the earworm that listeners can’t get out of their heads.

Solution? Simple. Re-visit Latin class.

Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te … and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, for good measure.

(‘Twould have been truly odd to have a Large Work, written for Advent and Christmas, without that line in it. Phew. Rescue!)

There was one more item that would come out of the week following the fortnight of my Mid-Atlantic Summer Tour. A Madeleine L’Engle poem called “The Glory” turned out to be a text that I really liked, a text for which I immediately came up with an appropriate idea for a musical setting, and a text that with a lurch I realized had to be presented prior to the text that comprised my current “opening song”.

Hmm.

I had written that opening song, and especially the beginning of it, to be absolutely the beginning of the Large Work. Two quotations of that aforementioned four-note motif, like a call to prayer from a minaret (use your imagination; go with me on this one, for the moment). Brilliant. And now, the high General Effect score might have been in danger from the actions of its own composer?

Yep, pretty much. The new opening song was lots more contemporary-sounding than the old opening song, and probably laid out that element of the Large Work much more effectively. But I was still a little deflated. Wish I’d seen that coming before. Ah well.

 

So, a productive week following the Summer Tour. Then, a productive week following that – just not productive in the service of the Large Work. A brief, previously-scheduled trip to Cape Cod … and then the few days that remained between my Cape return and my re-immersion into School Teaching (oh yes! –my day job) were going to have to be pretty productive. I had no illusions: once the school year kicked in, accompanied by the beginning of the regular church-gig program year, composition time was going to be sparse…

Will our hero finish two more anthems before the giant stone door slams down and leaves summer vacation on the other side of it? Will the basses finally get something melodic to sing? Find out … in the next exciting installment of … “Humility Takes a Holiday”!

August 24, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment