Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sad, Lonely Weeping

by Dale Cockrell
Note: Our sister Society for American Music held its 2015 annual meeting in Sacramento, 4–8 March. Among the featured events was a concert by Anonymous 4 with guest instrumentalist/vocalist Bruce Molsky, titled 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War. The pre-concert lecture was given by SAM past president, Dale Cockrell. All this took place at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Arts at the University of California, Davis—about 12 miles from downtown Sacramento. The following is adapted from Prof. Cockrell's remarks.
The United States was then a nation of surprising musical literacy, owing in large part to the role played by singing schools. One manifestation of this musical literacy was a large and developing sheet music publishing industry. In 1861, industrial technology, money, and the muse joined within three days of the firing upon Fort Sumter, when George F. Root published “The First Gun Is Fired! May God Protect the Right!”

Many Civil War songs were intended for home consumption and not necessarily the battlefield. This was largely the result of the economics of publishing, for publishers only profited by selling for use in American parlors, where pianos were available to accompany. Parlor song offered a powerful means of expressing identity: to sing or play “John Brown’s Body” or “The Star-Spangled Banner” told of allegiance on the issues of the day, as did, from another place, the singing or playing of “Dixie” or “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

And music had the power to tell people how to feel. Take, for example, “Weeping, Sad and Lonely” (or, “When This Cruel War is Over”), from 1863, with music by Henry Tucker and a text by Charles Carroll Sawyer. This was probably the most popular song to come out of the war years.
Dearest Love, do you remember, when we last did meet,
How you told me that you loved me, kneeling at my feet?
Oh! How proud you stood before me, in your suit of blue,
When you vow'd to me and country, ever to be true.
This is sung to what must be called a nondescript melody, but then comes the memorable chorus:
Weeping, sad and lonely, hopes and fears how vain!
When this cruel war is over, praying that we meet again.
If the music here feels operatic in its exaggerated emotionalism, it is, for the melody contains more than a touch of Bellini. The war-weariness, from the perspective of the one at home thinking of the one on the battlefield, is manifest, and the title page notes says as much: “Inscribed to Sorrowing Hearts at Home." But “Weeping, Sad and Lonely” was banned from some camps because it supposedly eroded military morale.

Songs like “Weeping” were not generally consumed as sheet music by the common soldier. Sheet music was a big, expensive packet of heavy paper with piano accompaniments, none of which was appropriate for a soldier’s knapsack. Rather the lyrics of songs came to the campground in broadside or songster form. Broadsides—single-sided pieces of cheap paper holding the text only—were sold by the millions during the nineteenth-century. A single piece of sheet music cost 25 cents, but one could buy a single broadside for one penny, or a songster with lyrics to perhaps sixty songs for 10 cents.

Wars reshape both the political and social landscapes. In the heat of battle, the man on your right is neither rich, poor, urban, rural, Irish, German, or from Illinois; to some extent in the American Civil War, he was neither black or white, for lest we forget, 36,000 black soldiers gave their lives during that struggle. The cultural landscape gets remade, too. Before the War, the categories of American musical expression were fairly discrete: hymns were hymns; popular songs were popular songs. Afterwards, it was more complicated. “In the Sweet By and By” (1868) is a sacred text but set in a musical idiom clearly derived from the Stephen Foster style.

More significantly, just as American political union was dictated by the outcome of the Civil War, so too was musical union. The cultural spoils of war went to the victors, and what resulted was a musical union based upon styles and sensibilities associated with and developed by the music publishing industry of the North. Southern styles and sensibilities stood by, waiting for later embrace.


Anonymous 4's album appeared in January 2015; track 1 is  “Weeping, Sad and Lonely.” The disc completes a trio of American offerings that also includes American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption, & Glory (2004) and Gloryland (2006). The 1865 recording and tour conclude the ensemble's 30-year tenure.

Dale Cockrell is Professor emeritus of Music at Vanderbilt University and former director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. He is the author of Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and their World (Cambridge UP, 1997) and editor of The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (MUSA 22, 2011).

Friday, March 27, 2015


by Joanna Demers

Los Angeles County Courthouse
The Williams v. Bridgeport [i.e., Bridgeport Music, Inc.]  decision, which orders “Blurred Lines”-co-writers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay $7.4 million in damages to Marvin Gaye's three children for copyright infringement, has elicited immediate and contradictory reactions. On the one hand, the verdict is a wrong turn for music copyright because it leaves the door open for frivolous lawsuits that will attempt to render “vibe,” “feel,” or other synonyms for style into property. On the other hand, the judgment is not entirely surprising. Plaintiffs Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams arguably brought the trouble on themselves after Thicke bragged of intentionally modeling “Blurred Lines” on Marvin Gaye's 1977 track, “Got to Give It Up.”<1> When Gaye's children then sought a settlement with Thicke and Williams, the latter pair sued the Gayes preemptively. Thicke has since blamed Williams, claiming that he was too high and drunk during the studio session to know how closely they were imitating Gaye's song.<2> Both Williams and Thicke participate gleefully in a music video for “Blurred Lines” featuring models who, in the non-rated version, dance naked to lyrics suggesting that a woman's “no” really means “yes.” The picture that emerges from this case is of two entitled pop stars who don the mantle of a deceased hero of American music.

Now that these initial reactions have somewhat cooled, what leaves me and others so flummoxed is that this decision departs radically from what we all thought were the unwritten rules of music copyright. However objectionable we might find Thicke's behavior, Williams v. Bridgeport is a copyright case, not a case involving moral rights or sexism or, for that matter, good taste. And no matter how unethical we might find Thicke's and Williams's deliberate copying of the style of “Got to Give It Up,” this sort of copying (or appropriation or homage, however we choose to label it) is a daily occurrence in the music industry. From high-charting pop hits to barely-noticed commercial jingles and scores for film and television, deliberate imitations of recognizable compositions are the stock-in-trade of our trade. Before Williams v. Bridgeport, most musicians, lawyers, and industry observers thought that the laws governing such copies were clear. Melody and lyrics cannot be copied without permission, we thought, except in the case of cover songs, which are enabled thanks to the compulsory license provision for non-dramatic musical compositions. Rhythm, harmony, and style are all subject to copying, we also thought, because legal precedent seemed to say as much. So why have the rules changed?

They have not, in fact. Section 102 of US Copyright Law states that "musical works" count as works “of authorship” protected by copyright.<3> But at no point, either in Section 102 or elsewhere, does the law indicate which parts of a composition are to be protected. Meanwhile, case law from the past hundred years has generally treated melody and lyrics as the only distinguishing characteristics in a musical work that warrant protection.<4> This practice makes sense if one imagines, say, five songs composed independently of one another in the space of a year that all feature the same fashionable characteristic—a rhythm or harmony or timbre. Most intellectual property experts would privilege that which sets each song apart from its cohort, and usually, that distinction has resided in the melody and words that sit atop rhythm and harmony. The idea that copyright only protects melody and lyrics, while situationally true, is a thought-fiction, a crutch that over time has helped us to bypass a messier truth: copyright law says very little about what in a musical composition it protects. This fiction has been repeated without qualification or nuance to the point that it has become a myth. Hence the incredulity with which so many have responded to the Gaye family's victory.<5>

What we should conclude from the “Blurred Lines” verdict, if it is not overturned, is not that it is an anomaly but rather the logical (if ill-advised) result of trends already in full-swing. There are two types of copyright protection for music: that for compositions, and that for sound recordings. Before Williams v. Bridgeport, composition copyright had been interpreted rather permissively, frequently allowing for stylistic imitation and explicitly facilitating cover songs. Sound recording copyright, on the other hand, is exceedingly strict thanks to the Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films appeal, for which the court wrote, “Get a license or do not sample.”<6> The Bridgeport decision has ensured that any sound, regardless of its content or duration, is afforded copyright protection. Not coincidentally, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in Bridgeport v. Dimension decision was none other than Richard Busch, who also represented the Gaye family in Williams v. Bridgeport. With “Blurred Lines,” Busch has succeeded in applying the draconian language of sound recording copyright to copyright for musical works. We could wax philosophical at this point, and conclude that the ubiquity of sound recordings as today's musical commodity of choice no doubt explains why laws that should only apply to recordings now apply to compositions as well. But stoic resignation is complacency. Style, the silent victim in the “Blurred Lines” confrontation, is what surrounds that which is central to a musical work. The center used to be melody and lyrics, but Williams v. Bridgeport suggests that the center is now everywhere, and thus nowhere. If we afford equal copyright protection to all aspects of a musical work, we have effectively accorded property status to that which we used to call style. That is tragic, for style has served as an alternative economy where musicians could borrow freely from commonly-held musical cultures. Robert Burton wrote that “style betrays us all,” serving as the calling card for our intentions.<7> If Williams v. Bridgeport is not overturned, we in turn will have betrayed style.

Joanna Demers is Associate Professor and Chair of Musicology at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California (webpage HERE). She has published two books: Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford, 2010), and Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity (Georgia, 2006).  Drone and Apocalypse: An exhibit catalog for the end of the world is forthcoming from Zero Books.
See also “Five Questions with Joanna Demers.” One of the answers:
One formidable challenge [for musicology] is the same one facing the humanities at large, and probably the university at large as well: how to navigate between the need for a canon, and the legitimate desire to have diverse representation of styles, genres, and histories. This has at times taken a venal turn at some colleges and universities, where historical music surveys are being entirely replaced with buffet-style options catering to popular genres. Musicology can and must engage with pop, jazz, and non-Western genres, but it should do so with an eye toward a large-scale pedagogical goal, rather than simply filling seats.
<1>Stelios Phili, “Robin Thicke on That Banned Video, Collaborating with 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, and His New Film,” GQ, 7 May 2013.
 <2>Eriq Gardner, “Robin Thicke Admits Drug Abuse, Lying to Media in Wild 'Blurred Lines' Deposition,” Hollywood Reporter, 15 September 2014.
 <3>17 U.S.C. §102 (2012).
 <4>David J. Moser and Cheryl L. Slay, Music Copyright Law (Boston: Cengage, 2011), 28.
 <5>Sterling Whitaker, “Keith Urban Says He's 'Shocked' By 'Blurred Lines' Verdict,” Taste of Country, 13 March 2015.
<6>Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 401 F.3d 647 (6th Cir. 2004).
 <7>Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: New York Review Books, 2001), I, 27.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Great Escape

on Normandy’s coast a century ago, Claude Debussy fled the war
and composed his final piano masterpiece

by Sudip Bose
This essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue of  The American Scholar and its on-line version, vibrant offerings of the honorary fraternity Phi Beta Kappa, established 1776. We are grateful for the kind permission to reprint it in Musicology Now. 

By the time he began composing his monumental set of 12 piano etudes, 100 years ago, Claude Debussy could look back on his body of work and know that he had attained a place among the greats. And yet, at the outset of the summer of 1915, there was little indication that he had any more masterpieces in him.

Increasingly melancholy and reclusive in the last decade or so of his life, the composer only rarely ventured beyond his home overlooking the broad Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. Relations with his second wife, Emma, had long been strained, and he suffered almost constantly from hemorrhages and hemorrhoids, symptoms of the rectal cancer that had yet to be diagnosed. Always something of a penniless bohemian with wildly expensive tastes, he had been sinking even further into debt. He was also finding it difficult to compose—burdened not only by the weight of his past success but also by concerns of his place in a musical world upended by the emergence of Igor Stravinsky. Germany’s declaration of war on France in August 1914 brought greater hardships. Seething with anger, plummeting deeper into depression, Debussy was unable to write at all—nine months passed without a single piece of music. His personal motto, toujours plus haut—“always higher”—had resulted in such works as the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and the symphonic poem La Mer, but now his Paris study became, as he would later recall, “a factory of nothingness.”

Monet: Cliff Walk at Pourville
Art Institute of Chicago
Then came an opportunity for escape. A writer Debussy had met at one of the Tuesday night soirees hosted by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé offered the composer the use of a villa in Pourville-sur-Mer, a town he had visited before, a hundred miles away on the Normandy coast. Debussy happily accepted, and on July 12, 1915, he set off with Emma and their nine-year-old daughter for a three-month sojourn by the sea. He was 53 years old at the time, with not much longer to live.
The environs suited Debussy perfectly. He loved the villa’s tangled, rain-soaked garden, which provided a view of the English Channel, the soothing zinc-hued water making him almost forget the distant horrors of war. Soon he was dreaming of purchasing the villa—if only he had the money. It wasn’t just the tranquil setting that won him over. He felt a sense of gratitude to this place where he had discovered himself again. “I am relearning about music,” Debussy wrote from Pourville, hardly an overstatement considering the inactivity of the previous year. He was an ardent Parisian—hating to leave the capital for any reason, missing it intensely when he was away—but now the thought of going home, he wrote, sent “shivers up [his] spine.”

Debussy was a slow worker. He could spend hours getting a single chord or phrase just right. But in those three months by the sea, probably the most productive of his life, he composed, in his words, “like a madman.” He completed the suite for two pianos called En blanc et noir, as well as the first of what he hoped would be a series of six instrumental sonatas, this one for cello and piano. But it was the remarkable Douze Etudes, begun on July 23 and completed on September 29, that would go down as one of Debussy’s greatest achievements, and one of the seminal works of the 20th century.

Etudes and scales, scales and etudes—just the thought of them can conjure up memories of routine drudgery in anyone who has played an instrument. But the etude is a necessary building block in the education of every young classical musician, an exercise focused on developing a particular instrumental technique. (In French, the word étude means “study.”) Still, even pieces meant mainly for instruction can rise to the status of great art—as J. S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti proved in the early 18th century. Not until Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt began composing a century later, however, did the etude really come into its own, both as a piece that could test and develop a pianist’s abilities, working the muscles and stretching the hands, and as a Romantic vehicle, filled with poetry, pathos, playfulness, and virtuosity. To play Chopin’s Etudes, opus 10 and opus 25, requires not just dexterity and skill but sensitivity, intelligence, and above all, a beating heart. The same is true of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes and 12 Transcendental Etudes, which also contain many poetic passages while pushing the bounds of what is physically possible on the keyboard. These works were meant not for the stuffy confines of the practice studio, but for the grand perch of the concert stage.

Debussy extended the possibilities of the concert etude, reinventing the genre for a new century. He had written successfully for the piano before—his two books of Preludes, composed with “the betterment of the pianistic race in France” in mind, contain some of his most beautiful and evocative music. But the 12 etudes present different kinds of challenges: the continuous passages in thirds in the set’s second piece; the joyous, tumultuous, brash octaves in the fifth; the frenetic, acrobatic passagework in the sixth; the bumblebee-like seventh, its buzzing lines demanding both accuracy and a delicate touch; the rapid, repeated 16th-note triplet patterns in the ninth; and the driving onslaught of chords in the 12th. When his publisher, Jacques Durand, admitted to having trouble with many of these obstacles, Debussy responded, “I may say there are certain passages which sometimes bring [my fingers] to a halt too. Then I have to get my breath back as though I’d been climbing a flight of stairs … In truth, this music wheels above the peaks of performance! It’ll be fertile ground for establishing records.” Debussy acknowledged that it took “the most implacable patience” just to copy out some of the etudes. Simply looking at the score—the dizzying blur of black notes surrounded by accent marks and clusters of sharps and flats—can be tiring.

Here and there are the influences of Stravinsky (the propulsive, rhythmic 12th could not have been written by a composer unfamiliar with the ballet Petrushka) and of Chopin (not surprising, given that Debussy had been working on a new edition of the Polish master’s piano works). Yet these pieces are all unmistakably, inimitably Debussy. It’s all here, the languid atmosphere, the vaguely Eastern temperament, the feeling of transience. Anyone familiar with Debussy’s music will instantly recognize the shimmering sounds of the second etude, or the hazy sensuousness of the eighth, with its feeling of free improvisation. The third etude, composed almost entirely in fourths, recalls some of Debussy’s earlier Preludes (especially La cathédrale engloutie, which depicts a sunken cathedral rising out of a tidal flood) as well as La Mer, the composer’s great ode to the sea. In another etude, the eighth, lovely undulating lines seem to evoke the rising and receding tide, and in one place in the score, Debussy has even written, “supple and wavy.” It’s not hard to imagine him taking inspiration for these pieces from the high vantage of his back garden, as he gazed upon the watery expanse, absorbing its many moods.

The pianist and writer Charles Rosen has argued that Debussy’s etudes are “as much exercises in composition as in keyboard technique; in many of them one may say that the composer has posed a problem for himself and, in solving it, has presented the pianist with another.” Consider the fourth etude, its harmonic structure cleverly based on only one interval: the sixth. Just as inventive is the second etude, where the highly chromatic passages suggest where Debussy might have gone had he lived longer, coming to atonality in his own idiosyncratic way. He knew he was breaking ground, both harmonically and in terms of sonority: “unheard-of things” is one phrase he used to describe the sound world of his etudes.

Debussy was a complicated personality, to say the least—a spoiled misfit who acted on his many impulses, insufferably grumpy, yet charming when he wanted to be. All his life, he made and lost friends with seemingly equal ease. And though he did not treat the women in his life very well, he was mad about his daughter, Chouchou. (Her given name was Claude-Emma.) He found her endlessly enchanting and took as much delight in her toys and games as she did. Playfulness was the most endearing characteristic of this grand enfant, and it should not come as a surprise that Debussy’s music is shot through with many moments that make us smile. The etudes are no exception.

“I’m sure you’ll agree with me,” Debussy wrote to Durand, “that there’s no need to make technical exercises over-somber just to appear more serious; a little charm never spoiled anything.” There’s humor from the very beginning. The first etude starts with a simple C major scale, four notes up, four notes down, calling to mind some mundane childhood exercise, but as these scales continue, they are punctuated by a series of rude, percussive A flats, and this battle between order and petulance continues amusingly as the music speeds up—to the point of nearly coming undone—until the piece turns into a rollicking affair, with the pianist’s hands flying up and down the keyboard. It’s almost as if Debussy is saying, Look at what I can do with eight simple notes and the wink of an eye.

Music was changing in a profound way in the early part of the 20th century. When compared with Stravinsky—not to mention Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg—Debussy was more old guard than new. Yet his 12 etudes point prophetically to the future, anticipating György Ligeti, whose own piano etudes, composed between 1985 and 2001, would imbue the genre with even greater imaginative possibilities.

Debussy left Pourville with his spirits revived, though his underlying concerns about his health must have remained. Before the end of 1915, his cancer would be diagnosed, and three years later, with German bombs falling not far from his bedroom window in Paris, he would die. How lucky, then, that he was able to get away during that summer a century ago, when all had seemed so bleak, to produce this late masterpiece. And if pianists haven’t quite embraced the etudes the way they have his earlier work, the supreme difficulties of these later pieces must have much to do with that, even if the virtuosity is never on show for its own sake. These pieces should be played more often. Full of imagination and daring, as fresh today as they must have sounded when first heard, they communicate a wide range of feeling and mood in harmonically inventive ways, while giving the pianist a supreme workout. “Everything sacred which wishes to remain sacred shrouds itself in mystery,” Mallarmé wrote. The reward for any musician who masters Debussy’s etudes, and for any listener willing to embrace them, is a peek beneath the shroud.

Sudip Bose is a prolific writer and Managing Editor (and longtime Fiction Editor) of The American Scholar. You will also enjoy his essays “In Praise of Flubs” (1 December 2003), “Vibrato Wars” (1 March 2009), and “Boy Wonder” (6 September 2014, on Lorin Maazel).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Birthday, Handel and Haydn Society!

by Teresa M. Neff

March 24, 2015, proclaims the Mayor, is H+H Day in Boston, just one part of a year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1815.

Today is also the opening of the H+H Bicentennial Exhibit at the Boston Public Library, Central Library in Copley Square. Open through September 5, 2015, the exhibit features historical objects from the H+H archives and interactive music exhibits, including a recreation of H+H’s 1815 performance of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. A free smartphone app is also available to explore the H+H archives and take a walking tour of H+H in Boston.

Photo: James Doyle
The Handel and Haydn Society was founded on March 24, 1815, when several men met to discuss the feasibility of forming a singing society in Boston, Massachusetts. The meeting was held at the home of Gottlieb Graupner, a professional musician born in Halle, Germany. He had come to Boston by way of London, where he had played oboe in the orchestra that premiered Haydn’s symphonies written for that composer’s first trip to London in 1791-1792. In Boston, Graupner opened a music shop, gave concerts, and founded the Philharmonic Society, a group of sixteen men who met on Saturday evenings to play Haydn symphonies. At their rehearsals, members of the Philharmonic Society often discussed the idea of forming a choral society.

After the meeting on March 24, 1815, events moved quickly, and by the end of April, forty-four men approved the Handel and Haydn Society’s constitution, which outlined the organization’s goal of “improving the style of performing sacred music, and introducing into more general use the works of Handel and Haydn and other eminent composers.”

The first concert, on December 25, 1815, at King’s Chapel, Boston, began with selections from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation followed by arias and choruses from Handel oratorios and several English anthems. There were 100 singers, (ninety men and ten women) accompanied by an orchestra of thirteen, performing for an audience of 1,000. This first concert was so successful that a second was scheduled for the following January. 

When the Handel and Haydn Society was founded in 1815, Joseph Haydn was the composer of the “new” or contemporary music, built on the compositional rules of earlier generations, represented by the popular choral music of George Frideric Handel. That underlying idea of new and traditional has been at the heart of H+H for 200 years..

For more about the Bicentennial:

Teresa M. Neff is the Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow with the Handel and Haydn Society and a lecturer at MIT.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Pillage of Europe's Bells

Plundered bells on the Hamburg dock in Germany, August 1945
National Archives and Records Administration
The centenary of UC Berkeley's landmark campanile (formally Sather Tower) and carillon was commemorated in late February by a sobering centennial lecture entitled “Bells in the Cultural Soundscape: The WWII Pillage of Europe's Bells and Post-war Reconstruction.” The speaker was Carla Shapreau, a noted specialist in art and cultural property law, whose research involves music-related losses during the Nazi era.

Shapreau treated the Nazi confiscation (as scrap metal to be resmelted for armaments) of some 175,000 bells from the bell towers of Europe during World War II—one of the greatest losses of its kind in history. A report from Berkeley continues:
Ms. Shapreau stressed the cultural importance of the bells and the tremendous efforts made by occupied countries to preserve these symbols of cultural heritage, comparing the responses of several governments including the Netherlands, Belgium, and France to Nazi demands.
She also praised the concerted effort made by arts and musical communities in the U.S. and Britain to identify and protect important precious cultural objects during and after the war. Ms. Shapreau also discussed the complexity and difficulty of recovering confiscated bells despite good documentation. The restitution process caused multiple cases of complaints among nations, particularly between the Russians and Western Allies, and how even many of the recovered bells never returned home due to complicated issues of ownership and politics. She concluded that the stories of bells in war-torn Europe teaches us a great lesson about the importance of protecting culture through the tragic loss of these valuable cultural symbols.
A press release, in the form of an interview with Shapreau, offers further details, for instance that “of the approximately 9,000 bells in the Netherlands before the war, an estimated 6,500 were seized, with approximately 1,840 returned after the war. The Third Reich shipped the bells to several German refineries; two of the largest were in the Hamburg area. The newer bells were the first to the smelter. Wartime bell losses were tallied after the war for Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the USSR and Yugoslavia. Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and much of France evaded bell confiscations. 
The lecture was preceded with a centennial recital by the university carillonist, Jeff Davis, who had composed a memorial work, Tocsin, for the occasion. He writes:
Among life's savageries is the plundering of bells to make cannon. Music, which is praiseworthy, is sacrificed to war, which is damnable. I imagined the bells themselves sounding the tocsin to warn each other. The (mis)quoted fragments from Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck's De Profundis are solely my responsibility. Out of the depths I cry to you Lord, Hear my voice. Incline your ear to my supplication.
credit: ZNode 2005
And the lecture—substance of a chapter in a book-length monograph in process—was followed by a tour of the 61-bell carillon.
  • Carla Shapreau in the news, from Berkeley Law, HERE.

Carla Shapreau, a Senior Fellow in the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley, an attorney, and a violin maker, also teaches art and cultural property law at Berkeley Law (web profiles HERE for IES and HERE for Law). With Brian Harvey, she is author of Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft, and Lawsuits in England and America (2nd edn. Oxford UP, 1998). She is currently working on a book regarding music-related losses during the Nazi era.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Blurred Lines, Ur-Lines, and Color Lines

by Robert Fink

Nothing puts musicology in the headlines like a big, juicy verdict in a musical copyright case. And they don’t come much juicier than the 7.4 million dollar judgment handed down last week by a federal jury which, enabled by extensive musicological expert testimony, decided that Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s hit song “Blurred Lines” is substantially similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” and thus infringes on its copyright.

What is (Forensic) Musicology?

Most reactions to the verdict have focused on the specifics of the case and the implications, if it is upheld on appeal, for the creative future of popular music. But one ethnomusicologist has come out swinging, criticizing harshly the role that musicological “expertise” played in the trial:
It seems to me that [this trial] has impaired, rather than bolstered, any reputation or value that musicology might have had in the popular imagination…Collectively, [Ingrid] Monson and [Judith] Finell’s testimony was presented by the Gayes’ attorney as objective data that, based on their expertise in music, proved a decisive similarity between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” Musicology was positioned as a science — a clear misrepresentation of a discipline that straddles the boundary between the Humanities and the Social Sciences.
As much as I support Gregory Weinstein’s vision of a thoroughly cultural musicology (“Elements of a musical work only have meaning to the extent that they are heard and understood by people with particular cultural positions and values”), I take a slightly more equivocal view.

As a sometime forensic musicologist, I understand that “musicology” is a term of art in copyright proceedings. It refers to a type of practical expertise that we in the academy would recognize as basic to our training in music theory: the ability to recognize, parse, and compare musical structures, and then communicate, with some degree of precision, their structural similarity. When Judith Finell, the Gaye family’s forensic musicologist, testified in court that “The musicologist’s job is to understand the important and unimportant parts of a musical work,” she was making a claim with which many professional music theorists would resonate. (They might prefer the less loaded words “structural” and “non-structural,” but the distinction is the same.)

And on these terms, the outcome of the “Blurred Lines” case was undoubtedly a public win both for musicology-understood-as-music-theory, and for a certain kind of structural listening.

A “Constellation of Similarities”

The victory is all the more impressive because it was snatched from the jaws of defeat. The Gaye family suffered what seemed like a crippling reversal early in the case, when a judge ruled that, since “Got To Give It Up” was released in early 1977, nine months before the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect, the case would proceed under the fantastically antiquated provisions of the Copyright Act of 1909. The jury would not be allowed to compare the two songs as recordings; they could only consider the notated version of Gaye’s song on file at the Library of Congress.

Thus musicological analysis was critical to the case; Finell and Monson needed to get the jury to hear similarities between the two songs in the abstract — to, in effect, teach them how to listen structurally, under the pressure of an adversarial process where everything said was subject to cross examination. They needed to convince jury members that, even though the authors of “Blurred Lines” were well aware of the existence of “Got To Give It Up” and would have been very careful to avoid surface coincidences that were easy to hear, the songs were, at a deeper level, substantially similar in melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure.

The jury’s massive financial judgment shows how completely they were willing to sign on to Finell and Monson’s analytical claim of a hidden “constellation of similarities” between the two songs. Would that I could have convinced skeptical colleagues, or at least a room full of restive undergraduates, to swallow so easily my own most gnostic readings of the constellations of subliminal detail that (I thought) tied musical artworks together! This little figure over here connects to this one over there, can’t you hear it?

Objection, your Honor. May I approach the bench?

Idea vs Realization

One incorrect lesson observers are drawing from this verdict is that it means you can be sued for copying the “feel” or “vibe” of an existing song. Nothing could be further from the truth. The argument was ostensively made, and ostensively accepted by the jury, only on the basis of similarities that could be captured in musical notation. For those of us working in forensic musicology, though, this is just as destabilizing.

Here’s why: When musicology enters the world of forensic expert testimony, it must, for the most part, leave behind conceptual modes of thinking fostered by academic music theory. In forensic work, you follow the copyright law, which distinguishes between an idea, which cannot be copyrighted, and the realization of an idea, fixed in a given work, which can. This mode of argumentation does not reward abstract thinking. A particular melody at a particular place in a particular work, considered as a specific sequence of notes, each with a specific duration, in an individual relationship to an individual set of chords — that can be copyrighted. A chord progression in the abstract, or the idea of a gapped scale, or even the inspiration to drop a fuzzed-out guitar riff into a rock song that sounds like a horn — that cannot. (Sorry, Keef.) Weinstein is correct to note that when Ingrid Monson adduced the use of a ii-V-I turnaround progression as a “similarity” between the work of Gaye and Pharrell/Thicke, she crossed a line. It’s not only the line between the common and the unusual (although that line is legally important as well); it’s the line between an idea (the chord progression) and its realization (the actual notes, rhythms, and simultaneities of the songs in question).

The “problem” is that academic musicologists are accustomed to move seamlessly between idea and realization, blurring that epistemological line, as they do their work. What we learn to do as music theorists is to abstract hypothetical musical ideas from musical realizations, evaluate those ideas for elegance and internal consistency, connect them with other ideas, and then use the connections made to validate other musical realizations by ascribing to them a similar elegance and internal consistency.

The ideological implications of this sometimes slippery process have been thoroughly explored, some might say debunked, by several generations of musicologists. And that may be why I have found the clear lines within which I have had to work as a forensic musicologist to be refreshing. I’ve rediscovered there a “just the facts ma’am” phenomenology of music, stubbornly shallow and literalist, yes, but also free from what Susan McClary and Robert Walser once called “the hidden ideological claptrap of musicological training.” You can try to push the boundaries a little, to strip away some layers of “unimportant” decoration to show how two melodies are “really” the same; but you will be confronted at every step by trained cross examiners whose practical understanding of the difference between music and musical ideas is sharpened by the money at stake.

This is why the “Blurred Lines” verdict worries me. In the continuing battle between music-theoretical abstraction and the phenomenology of copyright lawyers, musicology just captured a large swath of disputed intellectual territory. The web of connections spun by Finell and Monson, once accepted by a jury as “real,” greatly enlarges the grounds upon which a musical copyright holder might claim infringement. And it does so without even addressing — as at least one perceptive pop critic has noted — the parametric imbalance in existing case law that privileges (white) melody and harmony over (black) rhythm and feel.

Hard Cases Make Bad Law

Or does it? I suspect that one reason the jury was willing to be led down the musicological path by Finell and Monson was that, in this case, allegiance to structural listening offered a way to punish an unsympathetic pair of defendants and right, at least by proxy, a whole history of unfair appropriation. An old legal maxim states that “hard cases make bad law,” by which it is meant that when one side in a dispute has suffered what seems to be an extraordinary wrong that existing statutes do not fully address, it’s tempting but wrongheaded to reinterpret the law so as to relieve one’s moral indignation.

Copyright cases don’t get much “harder” than this one. Not only did Thicke and Williams embarrass themselves in court; they did it going up against Marvin Gaye, perhaps the tragic example of how African-Americans have struggled for artistic freedom within a music industry built on the systematic exploitation of their labor and creativity. And if Gaye’s story is but one example of the pervasive (love and) theft that created American popular music, music itself is just one of the American crops that black folk have planted, nurtured, and harvested — only to see most of the cultural and economic capital accrue to the rulers of an economic system built on white supremacy.

So — imagine you are on that jury. You know that the two songs are almost identical, deliberately so, with respect to those parts of pop music — groove, feel, vibe — that you viscerally understand and love. You think Thicke is an ass, and Williams a slippery liar. You want to rule, and rule hard, for Marvin Gaye’s family, to strike a blow against musical appropriation and, in the end, against racism itself — but the judge has told you, thanks to some idiot technicality, that you can’t consider anything but the precise notes and chords on some random sheet of music paper from 1977, which, unfortunately, aren’t really the same, note for note, as those in “Blurred Lines,” and so don’t support a claim of copyright infringement as the law has been explained to you.

In this context, the elaborate musicological arguments presented at trial by Finell and Monson would be almost impossible to resist. Just agree to hear it their way, slide across the line between idea and realization, and you are freed up to Do the Right Thing. As I noted above, analytical techniques that purport to uncover musical “deep structures” are inherently slippery in just this way. They can be used to provide a quasi-objective rationale for musical relationships we can’t really hear, but in which we want, for ideological reasons, to believe. The courtroom used to differ from the seminar room in that it enforced a somewhat higher standard of proof on such structuralist fantasies. But those lines are blurred now.

Got To Give It Up

It should be evident that I think this case makes bad law, and I doubt other judges and juries will follow its precedent. That fact does nothing to diminish the real hardships that the musicological experts and the jury in this case were trying to redress. But intellectual property law is a blunt instrument for social change. Is the only way to honor black creativity to monetize it? Do we need to mortgage the future of popular music to repair the injustices of its past?

It seems to me that the true tragedy of this case is not, as Gregory Weinstein believes, that musicology represented itself poorly; it is that in its moment of triumph, musicology, despite its best intentions, was an accessory in another enclosure of the musical commons. Structural analysis may be deployed at trial, as it so often is in the academy, to pinpoint influence and thus defend the priority of the genius in music history; but it provides thereby intellectual justification for fencing off more of our shared heritage of sounds, grooves, vibes, tunes, and feels from the people who need it most.

Turning music into property is not our job.

We’ve got to give it up.

Robert Fink is Professor of Music at UCLA, where his work examines music since 1965. A popular lecturer on campus and off, he is author of a study of minimalism called  Repeating Ourselves (University of California Press, 2005). The—wonderful—working title of his next book is  Beethoven at the 7-11: Classical Music in a Post-Classical World.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


OK, we confess to finding the following, from this morning's LA Times, to be the most perplexing (“confusing,” the students would say) passage about musicology we remember reading:
Because laws when Gaye wrote the song allowed only the sheet music composition, not the sound recording, to be copyrighted, jurors heard short snippets and a stripped-down version created by Thicke and Williams' musicologist with just Gaye's vocals over a bass line and chords on a keyboard.
 [By sheer coincidence, the curator's music criticism class—all 140 of them—arrives today, last class, at Mr. Thicke and Ms. Cyrus and you-know-what. The rubric [medieval meaning] for the week is “But Is It Music?”]

Stay tuned. We've sent down there for commentary.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dr. Sarmast's Music School

Ahmad Naser Sarmast
We learn from multiple sources of the continuing recovery of Ahmad Sarmast, the Afgahni / Australian musicologist and educator who was injured in a suicide attack in Kabul on 11 December 2014.

During a theatrical production (“Hearbeat: Silence After the Explosion”) of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, given in the auditorium of the Institut Français d'Afghanistan, a teenaged Taliban agent succeeded in gaining entry and detonating an explosive device. There were 15 injuries and one death, according to police reports; Sarmast sustained head and torso wounds from shrapnel and possible hearing loss. The institute is co-located with the historic Lycée Esteqlal, founded 1922.

Cathy Graham of the British Arts Council, as reported by Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc, forwards an e-mail from Sarmast of 11 January: “In spite of everything, I am more resolved than ever to continue in the important work of making sure music, arts, and culture are available to all Afghan children and youth.  It is ever more clear to me the importance of education, and especially music education, in our society to combat extremism and give hope to vulnerable children.”

An Afghanistan Youth Orchestra from the National Institute of Music toured the US in February 2013 (see NY Times, 1 February 2013). In May 2013, Sarmast was named an International Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS tribute HERE). The school is the subject of a documentary film by Polly Watkins and Beth Frey (2012):

Ahmad Naser Sarmast holds the BA and MA in Music from the Moscow State Conservatory and the PhD from Monash University (2005), and is author of A Survey of the History of Music in Afghanistan (2009). That same year he established the ANIM in Kabul. ANIM biography HERE.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Harvard Calling

Deborah Borda
We applaud the good sense of Harvard University in engaging Deborah Borda, and of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in granting her a “sabbatical”—she says she's pausing to reflect on her first 15 years with the LA Phil, so the math doesn't quite work—to assume the post.

Borda, CEO of the LA Phil, will serve four months (September–December 2015)  as Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Center for Public Leadership of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her portfolio will include cultural entrepreneurship, arts leadership development and mentoring, and exploring the role of the arts in contemporary and future society.

As musicologists write and re-write the history of the American symphony orchestra, Borda's work in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles keeps coming to the fore as exemplifying how the concept of philharmonia was meant to work from the start: not only in such accomplishments as her inaugural double-whammy in Los Angeles (Disney Hall / Dudamel), but also in such projects as Take A Stand, where the Longy School of Music, Bard College, and the Phil—considering the ideas behind El Sistema—ask the question “What can a conservatory, a college, and a world-class orchestra do to enhance the social footprint of music and education in the United States?” (Answer: conferences, regional workshops, and a Master of Arts in Teaching program.)

Elsewhere I described Borda as “a new superstar of orchestra affairs, armed with a strong
education (Bennington College and the Royal College of Music in London) and serious orchestral experience. ... Her great success in bringing the musicians, conductor, public, and venue into unparalleled resonance has made [the Los Angeles Philharmonic]  the success story of the epoch.”