The Weightless Life

Only five short years ago, it was part of my daily morning routine to mentally run through my imminent classes and gather all the compact discs and scores I’d need for the day. I’d stash as many as I could in my computer bag, and sometimes make two trips to the car. At least two days out of three – I don’t exaggerate – I would head down the little lane that leads toward school, turn around after a quarter-mile, and drive back to get something I’d forgotten. I frequently had to get to school in time to run to the library and check out a couple of scores. And then there were hours to spend over the Xerox machine, making enough copies of the relevant selections for everyone in class.

Now, just about every piece of music I’d ever consider teaching is stored on two external drives as mp3s, one drive at school and a duplicate at home. A lot of the music I teach is 18th- and 19th-century, and the bulk of that repertoire can be downloaded as scores on my desk computer from For 20th-century repertoire, I’ve scanned a lot of the music I teach regularly into PDFs, and I’ve traded PDF collections with faculty from other schools (I protect my sources), so I have hundreds of modern and postclassical scores on those hard drives as well. Now I carry no CDs or scores to school at all. It still feels strange to pick up my computer bag every morning with almost nothing but my laptop in it – like I’m going to work naked or something. With a touch more organization I could even leave that at home. If I start to play something and find it’s not on my hard drive (as happened recently when I tried to make an unanticipated foray into Giya Kancheli symphonies), I write myself a note and rip the CD to my computer when I get home. I can always make a class out of the 16,000 mp3s I’ve got with me (it’s a larger collection than Bard’s CD library). If I don’t own a piece I need, I can plug into the internet at school and play it from the Naxos music library service we subscribe to. 

I save a lot of paper by projecting PDF scores from my computer onto a screen, rather than making individual copies for all the students. When I do need to copy something, I print a PDF and run it through the machine, rather than stand there laboriously turning the bound score over page after page. If I need to research something for class, say, find some repertoire for an assignment so obscure that students can’t look up the composer, I do it all on the internet rather than in the library, and spend many more hours at home than I used to. (Of course, students can take advantage, too. I am told of a grad student who was given a take-home test of anonymous pages from orchestral scores to identify as closely as possible by style. Seeing the publisher’s score number at the bottom of each page, he simply Googled each number and correctly identified every piece.)

My extensive PDF collection of 20th-century scores will make it sound like I’m one of the scofflaws responsible for the gradual death of music publishing, but not so. I used to go to Patelson’s in New York and buy whatever attractive modern scores they had, which were never many. Occasionally I would order something, but it almost never came. Now, I scour the internet for scores, and find obscure things Patelson’s would never carry. I’ve been buying more printed, commercial scores than ever, because the internet allows me to find what I need. (And believe me, I’ve done about as much to keep poor Patelson’s afloat as any mere academic could be expected to do.) Many of the PDFs I use for teaching are made from scores I paid for, and if I break copyright laws, it’s usually to get access to music that the music publishing companies somehow can’t manage to keep in circulation – often music that they’ll rent for performance, but won’t sell. Of course, almost all the postclassical scores I have were home-produced by the composer and never entered the commercial marketplace at any level. I get the music legally if possible, but I get it.

And though I seem a little ahead of the curve by musical standards, I’m a Luddite compared to some of my colleagues in other fields. They use something called Moodle that lets them store all their teaching materials on the internet, including letting students upload their papers, which the professor corrects on the browser and reposts. We’ve got professors who walk into class empty-handed, having everything on the computer, and never touch a piece of paper. Of course, for that, you need a “smart classroom” with a computer terminal, which we can’t seem to get in the music building (though I’m first in line every time they’re offered), and for wireless we musicians walk around the halls like we’re dowsing for water, trying to tap into the film department’s wireless next door. Also, our current Moodle system can’t quite accommodate the space-intensive audio files I need. (The year the library offered to put reserve recordings on the internet, my first and legitimate request was Der Ring des Nibelüngen. They balked.)

(Also, imslp, though I’m its biggest fan, is a work in progress. Aside from highly variable scanning quality, I recently downloaded Schumann’s Davidsbündlertanze only to find that imslp’s copy is labeled Davidsblündertanze – David’s Blunder Dances? - right on the music. I tried to leave a complaint, but couldn’t access any page at imslp to do so.) 

But I’m astonished at how much less paper there is in my life, how much more time I spend at home, how much less time I waste searching for objects, how much less it matters where I am, and how many more materials I have access to anywhere I go. Not once this school year have I driven back home because I had forgotten something. Also, I used to, like many composers, show up at any performance with an extra copy of all the parts, just in case. Now all my parts are posted on my web site at non-public URLs. You want to perform a piece of mine, I’ll e-mail you the URL. When I fly around the world to lecture I upload my lecture and examples to the internet, and print them out when I get there, if not simply project them on a screen. I carry almost nothing.

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  1. Ernest says

    Every time I try to track scores down, I either run into a copyright claim on IMSLP, or some third or fourth generation copy xeroxed to hell. At this rate, modern compositions seem to be tightly locked down.
    I wish that more artists would make them available, freely or at least cheaply, without the hassle of going through the channels, in a similar way that music is released online.
    Do you think something like this is in store in the future?
    KG replies: I’m surprised that more composers don’t put their scores on the internet as PDFs, as I do. I’ve traveled places and found people carrying bound scores of my music that they printed out and had bound themselves. I can’t imagine I’m losing anything significant by so doing. Libraries still order bound copies of my music from Frog Peak. If any composers have practical reasons for *not* making PDF scores easily available, I hope they’ll weigh in.

  2. mclaren says

    Modern compositions remain weirdly unavailable. There’s a strange economic subculture going on with modern musical scores whereby the big publishers make beaucoup bucks on loaning out rehearsal copies and the composers themselves make serious scratch off that submarket. As a result, if you try to find scores by someone like Michael Gordon or John Zorn, you’re out of luck unless you contact the composer hi/rself — and the composer invariably declines to provide a score, citing hi/r contract with the big publisher. The problem being that if a modern composer’s scores got out in any form, the ensembles wouldn’t have to pay $300 for ‘em and a significant source of revenue for the composer (and the entire business model of modern musical publishers) would go down the drain.
    You have to remember that the economics of serious contemporary music are bizarre. They have no relationship to the economics of the rest of the music industry. Contemporary composers make their money off commissions, grants, composer-in-residence gigs, and mostly from state-supported jobs like teaching or serving as some NEA-supported functionary. Contemporary composers make essentially zero money from sales of recordings of their work. That’s exactly the opposite of the way it works in pop music, so everything has huge value in pop music is economically worthless in postclassical music (CD sales, mp3 downloads, swag like T-shirts and band-logo-embossed baseball caps, biographies of musicians, etc.) while everything that’s worthless in pop music is the economic lifeblood of postclassical musicians (teaching gigs, grants, commissions, score rentals, etc.).
    Consequently no one can obtain post-1970 musical scores for study purposes, unless they happen to be a close personal friend of the composer (which most of us aren’t).
    Back to the article, though… All this disintermediation sounds great, Kyle, until it hits you. With all the scores and all the textbooks and all the music now available online, and an increasing number of world-class lectures about contemporary music available on YouTube, how much longer till you get disintermediated?
    Colleges haven’t asked this question yet. They should. Take a gander at Clay Shirky’s latest screed — it’ll freeze the lymph in your glands. Because all you have to do is substitute the word “colleges” for “newspapers” and, hoo boy! You can see where that’s headed.
    KG replies: Hey, I’ve been ready for years to get disintermediated (and that term makes it sound like so much fun)! At this point, all I want is my music listened to – preferably *without* mediation. Unless there’s some intelligent mediation around, which is rare.

  3. Paul H. Muller says

    One thing to keep in mind is that digital is not forever. I read somewhere that the lifespan of a CD was between 20 and 40 years – after that it becomes unreadable. Similarly, if the mp3s reside on a server – or several copies reside on several servers – they may be highly accessible but they exist only because it is convenient for the owner of the server.
    The old system, with publishing houses printing paper with copyright and then renting or selling scores, at least had a revenue model that allowed quality works to remain available. I agree that system is breaking down, but what replaces it might not provide as much permanence.
    It may be that 25th century scholars will not actually be able to get copies of all the music written in the 21st century because it was not committed to a more permanent (i.e. profitable) distribution system. People will be pulling things out of attics – like Bach cantatas – and this may be the only way our contemporary music will be known to posterity.
    KG replies: All sobering thoughts, and I do hope this vinyl-to-hard-drive unload I’ve made represents the last summer of my life I spend transferring all my files from one medium to another. But somehow, the older I get, the less I worry about data permanence. I figure mine only has to last another 30 years at most.

  4. Jeff Anderson says

    How do you scan the music in though? Some of the scores I would love to scan in are 300+ pages of a size too big for my scanner. Any tips on that front?
    KG replies: I often end up Xeroxing a score reduced to 8.5×11 first, and then scanning that. And I don’t believe I’ve yet scanned a score more than 150 pages. It ends up being a late night activity, while I’m having a drink and too tired to do anything else. Grad students are good to have around.

  5. says

    I always have that nagging pessimistic voice saying that because I give my music away for free that makes people assume that it’s not worth playing, let alone studying. One of these days, I’ll find a muzzle for that voice…

  6. says

    A few, mostly unrelated thoughts:
    1. Does you giant mp3 library which you use for teaching include any of your personal bootlegs from your Village Voice days? I think I remember you saying somewhere that you used to bootleg concerts regularly so you’d be able to refer to the recording when writing your review.
    2. McLaren makes a lot of good points, but it’s not legally true that “if a modern composer’s scores got out in any form, the ensembles wouldn’t have to pay $300 for ‘em.” Ensembles have to perform from scores they’ve acquired legally, so if your group gets its score because it’s illegally floating around the internet you have a problem. Assuming you get caught–maybe the point was that enforcement is weak enough that it’s a safe bet that you won’t get caught?
    3. I also wonder about what sort of EULAs are possible with sheet music. Could a publisher, for instance, make perusal scores available as a free or cheap download and include an enforceable stipulation that the score is not licensed for use in public performance? It seems likely, and if so I would love to see it, especially with chamber music scores where by not making the parts freely available the publishers could cut down on the piracy problem.
    4. I make all of my music available for free on my website, but that’s because my top priority is getting performances (not that it’s worked so far). I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’m famous and I land that lucrative G Schirmer contract. But I’d like to keep things relatively available somehow.
    KG replies: I used to surreptitiously record concerts back at the Chicago Reader in the 1980s. At the Voice I never quite had enough space to make it worthwhile – I didn’t have enough column inches to justify the length of my potential descriptions. And those few bootleg recordings were on cassettes that are pretty old by now. It took a long time having my scores as free PDFs on my web site, but the performances eventually started to come.

  7. says

    I just blogged about this myself, and have to share a Cage anecdote: in the 1950s, Cage became very dissatisfied with the music publishing system, and wrote to librarians trying to figure out a way to distribute his scores for free to public libraries, for all to see. In one letter to the head of the NYPL, he wrote “I, personally, feel very strongly the obligation to get my own music out of my hands… Satie said somewhere that Beethoven was the first to give his music to a publisher. It would be a pleasure to establish another means appropriate to another time.” That was in 1959.
    KG replies: Great anecdote. I’m not sure Satie (if he said it) was right about Beethoven, though.

  8. richard says

    If music publishers were smart (I know that’s a stretch) They’d make scores available on a subsciption basis that would allow subscribers to peruse them from a computer or some sort of e-book. But I know this is wishful thinking.

  9. says

    @ mclaren
    Good thoughts. But I disagree about the disintermediation:
    Print media (record lables, radio, and TV) previously relied heavily on distribution models. One-way, shove-it-down-your-throat broadcasting/delivery. Their new models will have to make use of volume (possibly via digital delivery) and curatorial services.
    Education is a participatory endeavor. It has nothing to do with broadcasting. It will undergo changes, but for other reasons.
    @ Muller
    Huh? Copy the hard drive every three years. Forever. It’s propagation indefinitely; closest thing you can get to permanence. Are you saying paper and vinyl are the better alternatives? Those are just forms of media, as well, with their own characteristics, etc.
    I think the coolest thing is that, in the near future, students reading music theory books will have the text and music in one place. I mean, reading Rosen’s Classical Style, how the heck can you hear all the examples he cites? Go to the library, and tediously track down each recording, find the measure numbers, etc? It makes for a horrible reading experience and a stunted learning experience. I’m jealous of younger students. They’ll be able to click, hear it, absorb it. Done.

  10. Paul H. Muller says

    Well we have all heard Edison’s original cylinder recordings, and these must be over 100 years old. Digital media would not last that long. Re-copying digital media every few years is fine, as long as someone is willing to do it.
    I guess the point I am trying to make is that to the extent digital reproduction has drained the money out of the music distribution business, eventually there may not be anyone willing to keep works available into the far future.
    But you are right – it is not really about the media. More, I think, about revenue models for distribution that work to preserve good music.

  11. Ernest says

    I have a positive view of different formats; vinyl vs. digital media, I don’t think any of them would fade into obscurity and never be useful again. The trouble though, is making sure there’s capable hardware in the future that’ll be able to play these media.
    MP3s and flac will probably be replaced within the next 15 years, but as long as there are backward compatible players, and hardware for playing “outdated” formats, things should be fine in that respect. With enough computing power, and affordable options, we might not lose anything. So long as there’s a need, I hope.

  12. says

    The point is to have multiple backups in different locations, ideally using different media. With the collapse of the city archives in Cologne earlier this month, that was all brought home again – over a thousand years of irreplaceable papers destroyed, including Heinrich Böll’s manuscripts (which the archive had acquired only 3 weeks earlier), as well as a lot of Offenbach’s.

  13. says

    Surely whatever archive methods are adopted have to be properly structured (remote location backups, error checking, redundancy, etc) No need to worry about backwards compatibility – that’s a much easier problem to solve than dealing with different physical formats and methods of transduction. Bad for record companies, though. (no pity from me)
    Of course, this doesn’t cover primary-document/manuscript issues. Specifically, I’m thinking of the paper and ink dating involved with Ives’s chronology. “Digital” wouldn’t help there, but that’s a separate issue.
    But I think the MUCH LARGER issue at hand here, and what often injects emotion into the discussion, is that the internet and digital media have, to some great extent, neutralized the commodification of music objects. The out of print, limited edition score/LP/CD, so coveted and hard-won, is now floating in a sea accessible to everyone. If it’s out there, cheap, and readily accessible, it somehow devalues the object, in the eye of a collector. It erases the efforts applied to obtain the materials, it obscures the demonstration of cultivated taste. I think it scares and disturbs people.
    One upshot is that it will force a re-evaluation of artistic values. If something *can* be copied so easily, perhaps its true value lies elsewhere. You can’t copy a fine education. You can’t copy a concert experience. (you know, how all the old people cough at the most tender, soft moments, ushering in the specter of death)
    For example, the band Phish. Anyone could record any single one of their concerts anywhere. There’s an entire sub-economy of traded performances, complete with vintages and regions, that would make wine-talker jealous. Yet the band thrived.
    Back to classical, I think this environment gives the tradition of live performance a chance to stand out, and thrive as something continually unique – and consumable to the connoisseur. (And yeah, as a performer, it’s a selfishly inspired idea)
    Another thought; perhaps (general) music education, the crux of classical music appreciation, will have to no longer be the stepchild of musical pedagogy and activity: It’s a service, not a product. It can’t be copied.

  14. says

    Kyle sez: “I’m surprised that more composers don’t put their scores on the internet as PDFs, as I do. I’ve traveled places and found people carrying bound scores of my music that they printed out and had bound themselves. I can’t imagine I’m losing anything significant by so doing. Libraries still order bound copies of my music from Frog Peak. If any composers have practical reasons for *not* making PDF scores easily available, I hope they’ll weigh in.”
    I don’t mind sending anyone a PDF. But they sure as hell have to pay for it. I have to pay for food, and gas, and music is mostly how I make a living. If I don’t charge for my wares, I can’t afford to make them.
    It’s easier, I guess, to give away goods, when you have a tenured teaching position. I do not. I believe in gettaing compensated for what I give to the community.
    The internet has nurtured a generation of consumers who want to get paid for their own efforts, but want the rest of us to just give our stuff to them for free. It cheapens the perceived (and real) value of music in our culture and society when we just give it away. In 21st Century America, many of us are professional musicians. Might be different in Bulgaria, or Korea, a century ago, when some of the best music on earth was made by people who farmed or smithed for a living, and music was a community engagement. It’s not that way anymore. I need to get paid for music, or do something else.
    KG replies: I take your point. I don’t give away for free things that I *can* sell, like my commercial CDs. But it seems to me that composers who put their music with publishers never see any significant money for it anyway, simply making their own scores more difficult to obtain and thus cutting down on performances. If you’ve got a system for making *more* money by selling your scores rather than *less*, it only makes sense to use it.