A few years ago, my friend Ari Vahan asked me to compose two songs on poems she had written in her native Gwich’in (Northern Athabascan) dialect. Ari used these songs at a summer camp to teach young Athabascan children a little of the language of their ancestors.
The following winter Ari traveled out to Bethel, in Yup’ik (Bering Sea Inuit) country. While she was there, she sang one of the songs. A woman who heard her asked Ari for permission to translate the text into Yup’ik and to sing the song at the Naming Ceremony for her daughter. Not long after this, Ari was in Anaktuvuk Pass where someone asked for permission to sing the song in the local dialect of the Nunamiut, the Inuit people of the Brooks Range.
Since then, this little song has been shared with people in other villages throughout Alaska. This has been profoundly gratifying to me. One of a composer’s greatest aspirations is that someone else will make the music their own, that the song will have a life of its own.
In the Native cultures of Alaska, no individual owns land. The land belongs to everyone, and to no one. Songs, however, are somewhat different. Songs are made to be shared. They are gifts.
But the gift of a song can only be given by the person who made it, or by someone to whom the composer has explicitly “given” the song. No one from a traditional Native culture would dream of using a song without asking for and receiving permission. This is a practice of fundamental courtesy and respect, in recognition of the mutual rights and responsibilities of the composer and the community.
The world in which most Western composers live and work today is driven more by commerce than community.
In our mass-market capitalist society, what responsibilities do “consumers” have to the people who create the music that they use? In the new economy of the Internet, what rights should composers have to receive compensation for our work?
Is music a commodity? Is it a gift? Can it somehow be both?
How do we honor both the life of the song and the labor of the person who created it?