When drawing from preexisting works, how do you balance legal and moral obligations with the potential to create new art? Noah Creshevsky



Noah Creshevsky
Photo by Drew Tillman

Since I cannot close my ears the way I can close my eyes, I am obliged to hear all kinds of sounds throughout the day. The sounds of our shared environment form a common sonic reality. Sadly, in our rich country, “brother, can you spare a dime?” is legally spoken and heard on our streets, but the phrase itself is the title of a song, and that song is bountifully annotated as “Copyright Warner Bros., Inc. and E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.”

Fortunately, the laws of our land did not allow Henry Luce to copyright “time” or “life” when he named his magazines after these fundamental facts of existence. A number of musical elements are basic to our history and culture. Single tones, major and minor chords, scales and modes, common sequences, and arpeggios are among the building blocks of most of the western world’s music. Contemporary technologies make it possible for all of us to harness the broadest possible spectrum of sound to create an infinite variety of musical palettes.

Irrelevant economic and social considerations continue to limit our conception of what music can be. When a soprano is hired for a concert performance, it is economically and dramatically appropriate that she be called on to perform enough notes to justify a paycheck and her presence on the stage. We must not pay good wages to a live performer who merely sings a 10-second coda at the end of a sonata for violin and piano. That’s bad economics. Additionally, what to do with the tacit singer until her possibly glorious coda presents a dramatic cognitive dissonance. Bad economics and bad drama unite to form a powerful dis-incentive to compose that coda, but the issue disappears when one composes for recordings instead of for live concerts.

The future of music and the future of concerts are not the same issues at all. If nothing else, those of us who sit together with our students, colleagues, and friends at poorly attended concerts of new music have to wonder what is wrong with this picture. At no time in human history has so much music been heard by so many people. At the same time, attendance at most “non-pop” concerts is in critical decline. Perhaps music has lost some of its power through overexposure, but I think that much of the overexposure is related to the steady reiteration of the same 12 notes played on a handful of familiar instruments.

Raised as we are on film and television, our ears have come to expect a new sonic environment for each new show. Why then is it considered reasonable to hear mere variations on the same timbral theme over and over again, through the fixed palettes of pianos, string quartets, wind ensembles, and symphony orchestras?

Visual art embraces an ever-broadening palette that has moved outward from paint to include plastic, metal, newspaper, fabric, etc. At the same time, music departments have quarreled over tenor saxophones, electric guitars, and accordions. These squabbles are particularly foolish in an age in which any sound that can be heard can also be recorded, manipulated, and shaped into viable, natural, expressive musical compositions.

Of course, there is a legal hitch in this otherwise splendid sonic bonanza. It is the hitch of private ownership. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” may not hold much weight in today’s world, but we ought not to give up the spirit of its message without a fight. Performers are surely entitled to be paid for their labor. A major chord is only a major chord, but Emanuel Ax‘s arpeggiated major chord at the end of a movement of a Beethoven sonata is the property of Mr. Ax and the recording company that holds the copyright to that particular performance and recording of that chord. The chord itself is communal property, but its performance is proprietary. Right is right, after all, and it is very difficult to sweep the issue under a rug, no matter how much one might like to do so.

“Open palette”—the concept that music can be made from an ever-changing medley of diverse sounds—is on a collision course with current copyright laws. I believe that these laws need revisiting.

The proper work of composers is the creation of new music. We do not ask our attorneys and legislators to play violins in a public forum, but I hope they will work hard to renovate our copyright laws. Hopefully, our brothers and sisters will come together to “spare a dime,” and another dime, and yet another. Ten cents, after all, is very little, but a collection of dimes becomes something much more. Our ears and minds need nourishment. It will be an ethical and cultural tragedy if composers are not allowed to capture the sounds of our world.