Friday, December 26, 2008

Closed Musical Societies

The is part II. Read Part I.

In an age of digital delivery of nearly everything, it is easy to forget that the economic and technological means for universal distribution of printed matter only became the norm only a century and a quarter ago. Competitive editions of Gregorian chant were circulating all over Europe and America, as published by many different firms and printing companies. The encyclical Tra le Sollecitudini set off furious work toward standardizing the chant, recovery what was lost during the Renaissance and producing editions for the entire world.

It was an inadvertently related development that the issue of copyright also vexed the production of the new Graduale Romanum in 1908. The Solesmes monastery was using new rhythmic signs as a unique feature of its editions, even as the Vatican edition, produced under the leadership of the past Solesmes chant master, rejected the use of these signs. The battle played out in a mutual and highly confusing dispute over intellectual property. After the 1908 Graduale from the Vatican, there would be no more editions from Rome, leaving the monastery as the sole producer of chant. It was an institution that had become unusually protective of its exclusive use of its markings and therefore its editions.

In time, the incredibly brilliant volume called the Liber Usualis would become the world standard for use in parishes and cathedrals, and it was produced by the monastery in cooperation with Desclee printers in Belgium. Periodic litigation broke out in the early years that established a precedent that stuck for many decades: there would be no copying of the chants. Even the fonts that went into making the chants were held as proprietary, under the laws of France, which had to be respected in the U.S. due to new international copyright conventions. The result that no one in particular intended but that nonetheless undeniable: a system-wide limitation on dissemination set it at the very moment when the chant should have achieved universal availability.

What was the alternative to the Gregorian repertoire? In the effort to provide one for choirs who couldn't handle the demands of the full repertoire, publishers got busy and produce a variety of options, the most common of which depended on Psalm tones. Of their public domain status, there was no doubt, and hence no fear associated with publishing them, singing them, copying them, and disseminating them far and wide. If we understand something about the relationship between open- and closed-source materials, it should not surprise us that Psalm-tone propers became the norm for sung Mass. They were easier, of course, but, just as importantly, they were open source and non-proprietary.

In his book Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? (1993), Thomas Day, in passing, notes that the Solesmes monopoly on chant created an "undercurrent of bad feelings," which he suggests might have contributed to what happened to Church music in the 1960s and 1970s. The new music of the folk composers was completely open source. There was a thrill associated with overthrowing an entrenched establishment. Their music was new and fresh, and its means of delivery was entirely different. It was not copyrighted or even published in the conventional way. It was written by hand, and commonly mimeographed and passed parish to parish, and also transmitted by ear.

This was part of the cache of the music itself, and central to the idea that this was "folk" music even though it obviously was not folk music in the sense that the term was used. However, it was folk music in the same way that chant had been: its distribution was informal and its dissemination was controlled not by a marketing apparatus but rather by word of mouth.

What gave rise to the new music were the needs of the moment. What inspired the compositions were the tunes that were in the air at the time, from all sources but mostly secular ones. What led to its spread was the desire of the people for something different, more organically connected to the social context they knew. In this way, there is a sense in which the "folk music" of the 1970s had more in common with the early chant music—speaking institutionally here—than the "sacred music" of the establishment of that day.

After the promulgation of the new Mass in 1970, it would be fully four years before Solesmes, which by now had been charged by the Vatican with maintaining the Church's chant book—would come out with the Graduale Romanum for the new Missal. It was expensive and in a language hardly anyone knew. Its appearance made no dent whatsoever in new trends in Church music. An English-language version didn't appear until 1990.

Already by the mid 1970s, however, the conditions were in place that were planting seeds that would lead to the current reversal in the fortunes of sacred music. What happened is what everyone knows about today: the folk music pioneers found new publishers, who applied all the existing rules concerning "intellectual property" to their music, and a lucrative and large new publishing establishment grew up around this music. Old publishers died and a new establishment came into being. Litigation followed, as spies for the large publishers started entering parishes and riffling through there music collections, discovery photocopied works everywhere that violated copyright terms. Judgments followed, some in the multi-million dollar category. The open-source folk music of yesterday became the closed-source establishment music of today.

Today every parish musician knows about the copyright quagmire, which rivals and exceeds anything that existed in preconciliar times. Parishes pay for expensive licenses. Publishers brag about their immense collections of copyrights. No one dares publish a hymnal without jumping through the intellectual property hoops, and this can take many years. Even more absurdly, publishers themselves go to great lengths to publish new and strange arrangements of traditional public-domain tunes solely for the purpose of re-copyrighting them in an attempt to recoup ever more in the form of royalties. These days we can't even imagine a profitable Church publishing firm without the dominate revenue stream being generated by licensing fees.

That it is a thicket is beyond dispute. What is not often understood is the big picture: any industry that enters into this thicket will, over time, find itself artistically stagnating and dying. Why is that? Because the music published can no longer benefit from the critical source of dynamism and life within art: imitation, widespread and people-driven dissemination, and innovation without the context of an existing milieu. There can be no art without these forces working, vibrantly and constantly.

Intellectual property regimes operate on a premise that is a complete myth: that of the lone creator who finishes a work from top to bottom that is a masterpiece hermetically sealed off from all outside influence. Every work that is newly printed and copyrighted as an original composition that no one may "steal" presumes this model. But then there is the reality of a tired establishment, legally sealed off from an important source of life and dynamism, which goes a long way toward explaining how it is that something so spectacular and beautiful throughout history—the music of the Catholic Church—could be so frozen in time, almost like a repeating loop of sound that lulls the whole Catholic world into a stupor.

There has never be a time in all of human history in which the dispersal and dissemination of music for Catholic worship has been so easy, so inexpensive, so efficient. It is a striking irony of history that mainstream music today is caught up in a legal thicket so complicated and entrenched that it has not been able to take advantage of the new environment. On the contrary, Catholic music publishers have taken a cue from the established film and music publishers and waged a war on piracy, which is really a war on the great vehicle of artistic creativity.

To be continued...

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