Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Rights and wrongs - copyright frustration

Joan Didion - The White Album
Words can be an endless source of delight and frustration to a composer. You need a supply of them, if you are to write songs and choral music, but the text needs to match your ideas for the musical piece. This is particularly true, for me, of songs (for choral music I tend to raid the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer) as I find that it is contemporary writers that appeal the most and here the vexed question of copyright raises its head. My most recent set of songs involve the text of a living writer, Joan Didion, and my attempts to get permission have led to frustration.

Not every writer appreciates having their text mauled about in a musical setting, especially as the composer can entirely alter the meaning of the song simply by surrounding the text with extra musical ideas - a prelude or a postlude in the accompaniment can be devastating. A.E. Housman was notoriously grumpy at his songs being set, especially when composers like Vaughan Williams

In 2011 I wrote a set of songs as a present for D, choosing texts which had some significance (one involved the Hoover Dam which we'd visited on our honeymoon). These of course were in copyright, but it didn't matter, the songs were a private thing, and I had no plans beyond that. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) the songs turned out well, very well indeed. So I thought that it would be nice to make more of them, perhaps arrange a public performance. The texts were taken from Joan Didion's White Album and so I approached her agent, only to be told that there was no possibility of licensing the text. Which leaves me left with the songs as a purely private gesture.

This isn't the first time that it has happened. For 2000 (which was also a year of the Dragon) I was commissioned to write a dragon themed choral piece. Foolishly I chose Smaug from Tolkien's The Hobbit. The Tolkien Estate were not unsympathetic, but there seemed to be a general lack of understanding about what creating a new piece of music entailed - they wanted to hear the piece before they would give permission. We did attempt to record it, but my request seemed to get filed away in the square filing cabinet and when prompted again the estate simply refused. In this case, I wrote my own words.

Of course, it is not just living composers whose work causes these problems. Eric Whitacre talks of a similar case in his choral piece Sleep where he originally set Robert Frost's Stopping by woods on a snowy evening which, due to a misunderstanding, he thought was available and it turns out it wasn't (and Frost's work doesn't come into the public domain until 2038). So presented with an unperformable piece, he turned to a friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write new words to fit the existing music.

Some authors are surprisingly long lived, Rabindranath Tagore live to be 80 (1861 - 1941), and Lord Alfred Douglas to 75 (1870 - 1945) which gives plenty of headaches regarding the dates they come into the public domain.

So why bother? Well, essentially I like setting texts of my own time. I find much 19th century poetry too structured and stylised to make a song text. And there is something wonderful about applying music to modern words to create a duality of contemporary expression. And my Joan Didion songs - I think I can feel a transcriptions coming on.
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