Who Owns a Musical Idea?

So I’m organizing this show about intersections between games and music, a topic I’m currently mildly obsessed with and will probably continue to be mildly obsessed with for the foreseeable future. Among other things, I was very interested in doing a demonstration or performance of John Zorn’s Cobra, since I think it’s probably the most successful and enduring example of the “game piece” genre. As it should be—it’s an amazing work that encapsulates almost an entire musical language in itself.

However, presenting Cobra without the presence of Zorn is…problematic. Zorn himself has said a number of times that a performance of the work is not official unless he is there to oversee it. In theory he left an escape valve, allowing unofficial performances of the work as long as they are marked with a figurative asterisk and clearly designated as “renegade Cobra,” or “outlaw Cobra,” or some other variant.

In practice, though, this mostly means that people are afraid to play Cobra, including me. It’s “bad karma,” as a friend once described it to me. If the planet were about 20x larger, maybe things would be different, but the new music community is just too small and intertwined, and hardly anyone is more than a couple degrees of separation away from Zorn.

What does this mean for the future of the work or works like it?

I recently learned about Blissymbolics, an ideographic writing system invented by Charles K. Bliss. Bliss’s motivations for creating the system were humanitarian, maybe even utopian. After spending time in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald during World War II, he was struck by how the German language was perverted by Hitler and the Nazis for their own ends. Bliss imagined a universal language that would be less susceptible to these distortions, and less prone to misunderstandings. This language could bring about peace between nations, Bliss believed.

Not terribly surprisingly, Blissymbolics did not have the effect or popularity that Bliss imagined. But years later, an educator named Shirley McNaughton discovered that it could be a powerful tool for helping children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities communicate with their teachers and each other. Bliss was initially overjoyed by this development, but soon became dismayed at the additions and alterations that teachers made to the language to make it more useful for their students. This was taking the symbols away from their original purpose, Bliss insisted, and back to the original problem of language. Bliss and McNaughton eventually reached an agreement, but not until after a protracted and expensive legal battle. One of the conditions of this agreement was an exclusive license—in other words, only one organization is authorized to use and publish the symbols throughout the world. The result of this is, arguably, that Blissymbolics isn’t nearly as widespread as it could be or should be.

I don’t think Blissymbolics is entirely analogous to Cobra—I’m not sure I’d call Zorn an idealist, for example—but the parallels are potentially illuminating. Cobra is almost 30 years old and no other game piece since has achieved the same level of significance. Is this because it said all the form has to say, or because development has been stifled somehow? I should mention that I’m sympathetic to Zorn’s point of view. It is extraordinarily hard to “get” Cobra without being taught it personally, and this kind of oral tradition is very susceptible to iterative distortion. Games seem particularly prone to being subverted for ends contrary to the original intent—I can’t help but think of how the socialist-leaning Landlord’s Game became the celebration of capitalism that is Monopoly.

At the same time, these distortions are an inevitable part of living culture. And Zorn is far from the only one to be wary of these distortions. In a way, the entire Western classical tradition, as it’s constructed today, is extraordinarily resistant to the idea of being a part of living culture. Compositions are fixedthe score is the work, differences in performances notwithstanding. Contrasted with most musical traditions, this seems like an anomaly, but composers are trained to accept this as the normal and natural state.

Of course, nothing’s stopping anyone from writing another game piece, but this proposition ignores how creativity actually works, how new ideas are derived from variations on old ones—that very same process of iterative distortion that we’re so scared of. I can imagine a genre of Cobra clones, or Cobra likes, each distinct from the rest. How far from the original would it need to be to be considered a new work? Should Cobra be considered a composition in the classical sense, or is it something different? And if it’s something different, what rules of ownership should apply to it? This is uncharted territory.

One thought on “Who Owns a Musical Idea?

  1. dylan neely

    Great post. On a semi-related note, there’s a cool book by Arika Okrent on constructed languages called “In the Land of Invented Languages” that discusses Blissymbolics among other incredible and quixotic utopian languages. I think you might enjoy it if you don’t already know it.


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