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Friday, January 23, 2009

Canned Music

I had discussed the famous “March King” John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) in a previous post, since my grandfather performed in his band. ( http://deconstructing-jim.blogspot.com/2009/01/my-grandfather.html )

It is worth mentioning that Sousa had raised flags of concern over the impact of music recording technology on society. In my mind he accurately predicted the subsequent decline and fall of musical literacy in the modern world as a result of this technological paradigm shift.

In the past century we have seen a social transformation of musical values. By in large, people have gone from being active participants of musical culture to mere consumers of one or more musical products. In fact, the term “canned music” was coined by Sousa, and it’s a label that has stuck. As with the term “canned food,” canned music implies repackaging, mass-consumption, crass marketing, and the supermarket convenience of modern life. It also signals an end of an era when people lived self-sufficiently, valued tradition, and stayed close to the land. When we were an agricultural society we knew how to prepare fresh and healthy dishes using skills that were handed down through the generations. Similarly, songs that grandpa sang, or the bluegrass fiddle tunes that were part of a family’s musical history, fell by the wayside as the new recording industry rudely interceded into modern life.

Sousa's stance against the recording industry was not just talk. He “walked the walk” by refusing to conduct his band if it were being recorded. But the enormous tide of societal change was against him, and his world-famous band was eventually engaged commercially to make recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company - which later became RCA Victor. During these sessions conductor Arthur Pryor served as his surrogate (However, there are some recordings where Sousa does conduct).

Sousa, a man of principals, accurately envisioned the devastating changes that the recording industry would inflict on the culture of concert music and to various long-established businesses of musical commerce: such as publishing, concert performance, conservatory training, and musical instrument manufacturing. He lived at a junction in time when the livelihood of professional musicians was at stake, and saw that it was about to change radically.

We have since seen the aftermath of a musical profession that has been systematically decimated and dismantled. Not only have highly skilled professional musicians become more scarce, but the equally-important culture of music making formerly produced by talented amateurs has all but vanished from the American landscape.

Compared to a century ago, our generation rarely attends live concerts and is barely aware that a classical music tradition exists. Music has become a mass-produced commodity, not unlike frozen food, since recordings only capture a moment from the past. We hardly ever experience music in the freshness of moment, with all of the unique perils and intrinsic excitement of a one-off live performance. One could even argue that once a musical composition is captured on a recording, it is for all intensive purposes robbed of a future life. It dissuades us from performing the music again and kills our incentive to experience it in variation or from the perspective of a different interpreter.

I would even go so far as to make the case that if American jazz of the twentieth century had NOT been recorded, people would still be going out to clubs to hear it live. Jazz musicians would have been better compensated than from the raw deal they got from the recording industry. Our musical culture would have been much better off.

In 1906, at the age of 50, Sousa testified before Congress about his serious reservations concerning the mass-production of music. He not only cites the thorny issues of copyright – which still plague us today – but speaks of a loss of our collective musical voice. It is an interesting piece of history, and I have to wonder what would have happened if the world had listened to him. Is possible that our musical culture would have been stronger today if we had considered his views and heeded his advice?


STATEMENT OF JOHN PHILIP SOUSA to a Congressional Hearing in 1906

Arguments on the Bills S. 6330 and H.R. 19853, to Amend and Consolidate the Acts Respecting Copyright: Hearings before the United States Senate Committee on Patents, and House Committee on Patents, 59 Cong. 23 (1906) (Statement of John Philip Sousa)


Mr. Sousa. Mr. Chairman, I would much rather have my brass band here. I think it would be more appreciated than my words will be. [Laughter.]

Mr. Chaney. We would rather have you, just now.

Mr. Sousa. Thank you.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to quote Fletcher, of Saltoun, who said that he cared not who made the laws of the land if he could write its songs. We composers of America take the other view. We are very anxious as to who makes the laws of this land. We’re in a very bad way. I think when the old copyright law was made, the various perforated rolls and phonograph records were not known, and there was no provision made to protect us in that direction. since the, the talking machines have come out, and the claim is made that the record of sounds is not a notation.

There are three ways for the composer to make a living by his music: By sight or by sound or by touch. The notation of my compositions or the composition of any other composer for the blind must be entirely different from the ordinary, because it must be read by the sense of touch. The notation that is made for a combination of instruments is brought out by sound. The claim that is made about these records is that they can not be read by any notation simply that no method has been found to read them up to the present time, but there will be. Just as the man who wanted to scan the heavens discovered a telescope to do it. No doubt there will be found a way to read these records.

We are entirely in favor of this bill. The provisions satisfy us, and we want to be protected in every possible form in our property. When these perforated-roll companies and these phonograph companies take my property and put it on their records they take something that I am interested in and give me no interest in it. When they make money out of my pieces I want a share of it.

Mr. Sulzer. They are protected in their inventions!

Mr. Sousa. Yes, sir.

Mr. Sulzer. And why should you not be protected in yours!

Mr. Sousa. That is my claim. They have to buy the brass that they make their funnels out of , and they have to buy the wood that they make the box out of, and the material for the disk; and that disk as it stands, without the composition of an American composer on it, is not worth a penny. Put the composition of an American composer on it and it is worth $1.50. What makes the difference! The stuff that we write.

Mr. Bonynge. What is the protection by the terms of the bill that is given you?

Mr. Sousa. That in any production of our music by any of these mechanical instruments they must make a contract with us or with our publishers; that they must pay us money for the use of our compositions.

The publishers of this country make contracts with composers and agree to give them a sum outright or a royalty on sales for each and every copy that they publish and sell.

The companies making records for talking machines take one copy of a copyrighted piece of music and produce by their method a thousand or more disks, cylinders, or perforated rolls. If they would buy one copy from my publishers and owners of my copyright and sell that one copy, I would have no objection; but they take the copyrighted copy and make what they claim is a noncopyrighted copy, sell it, and do not give the owner of the copyright a penny of royalty for its use; and they could not do this if the composer had not written it and the publisher had not published it, and I want to be paid for the use they make of my property.

Mr. Webb. Does this affect records already made?

Mr. Currier. No; it does not affect existing copyrights.

Mr. Sousa. No. That is a sop. I am willing to let it stand for the sake of the future, but I think it is wrong. That is a sop to them, the talking-machine companies, and hereafter they will make money after this law passes on the pieces that I made before the law went into effect.

Mr. Chaney. So that we will get “El Capitan” from the phonographs in various places?

Mr. Sousa. Yes sir; and I’ll get nothing for it; and I am the man that made “El Capitan.” [Laughter.]

I speak in the interest of the publishers and the composers, and some of them asked me to come here because I could talk from the heart, and I do. I am sure of what I say. There may be some interests opposed to the bill for selfish reasons, but these interests know the bill simply gives us rights we are entitled to.

As to the artists, Mr. Millet said that the got $8.75 for one of his pictures. You can take any catalogue of records of any talking machine company in this country and you will find from 90 to 100 of my compositions on it. I have yet to receive the first penny for the use of them.

There is another point to consider. These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy in this town in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. To-day you hear these infernal machines going night and day. [Laughter.] We will not have a vocal chord left. [Laughter.] The vocal chords will go because no one will have a chance to sing, the phonograph supplying a mechanical imitation of the voice, accompaniment, and effort.

On this river, when I was a young man, we went out boating and the music of young voices filled the air.

Last summer and the summer before I was in one of the biggest yacht harbors of the world, and I did not hear a voice the whole summer. Every yacht had a gramophone, a phonograph, an aeolian, or something of the kind. They were playing Sousa marches, and that was all right as to the artistic side of it [laughter], but they were not paying for them, and, furthermore, they were not helping the technical development of music. Go to the men that manufacture the instruments that are nearest the people “the banjo, the guitar, and the mandolin” and every one of them will tell you that the sale of those instruments has fallen off greatly. You cannot develop music without these instruments, the country singing school, and the country brass band. Music develops from the people, the folk songs. and if you do not make the people executants, you make them depend on the machines.

Mr. Currier. Since the time you speak of, when they used to be singing in the streets.

Mr. Sousa. Well, Mr. Currier, I am 50 years old.

Mr. Currier. I was just going to ask you: Since that time, the law has been passed to protect the authors of musical compositions, which would prohibit that. Is not that so?

Mr. Sousa. No sir; you could always do it.

Mr. Currier. Any public performance is prohibited, is it not, by the law?

Mr. Sousa. You would not call that a public performance.

Mr. Currier. But any public performance is prohibited by the law of 1897?

Mr. Sousa. Not that I know of at all. I have never known that it was unlawful to get together and sing.

Mr. Currier. It probably has not been enforced to that extent.

Mr. McGavin. You think it ought to be against the law for some people to attempt to do it, do you not, Mr. Sousa? [Laughter.]

Mr. Sousa. Yes.

Mr. Currier. It is possible that that has deterred the young people from singing.

Mr. Sousa. Would you not consider it a greater crime to turn on a phonograph?

Mr. Currier. I do not consider singing a crime.

Mr. Sousa. If you would make it a misdemeanor, do you not think it much worse to have a lot of these machines going than to have a lot of fresh young voices singing?

Mr. Currier. I think a great many people in this country get a great deal of comfort out of the phonograph.

Mr. Sousa. But they get much more out of the human voice, and I will tell you why: The phonograph companies know that. They pay Caruso $3,000 to make a sound record in their machine, because they get the human voice. And they pay a cornet player $4 to blow one of his blasts into it. [Laughter.] That is the difference. The people, the homes, want the human voice. First comes the country singing school, and next comes the country brass band. Let us do something to help them. You can do it by making these people pay me for everything that I compose. [Laughter.]

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