Why use original text?

A few music directors who have programmed my music for their choirs have asked the same question: Why do you choose to compose to original text?

Apparently this is uncommon in the choral composition world.

Here’s why I write my own text: A few years ago, before I’d ever written a piece, a friend of mine, also a composer, wrote a fabulous fantasy piece featuring an “intergalactic cetacean”.

It was set for choir, and based on the original poem of a poet she had contacted. The poet had granted her approval to write the music – she had done everything by the book, completely above-board and legal.

The piece of music was awesome. I still think, over half a decade on, that it is one of the best pieces of music she has ever written. It was funny, groovy, clever – and the choir and audience loved it.

Unfortunately, the poet, for reasons of his own that I do not understand, did not love the piece. After giving the go-ahead and approving her work, he renounced approval and retrospectively put a lid on the piece, refusing her permission to use his text.

This effectively meant the piece, and another work she’d written based on his poetry, was dead in the intergalactic water, so to speak.

That friend of mine is not the only composer to have had difficulties with copyright.

I was reading just the other day how Eric Whitacre had difficulties over his lovely work, Sleep, which was originally set to the Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

When Frost’s estate denied Whitacre permission to use the work of the long-dead poet (gotta love the way copyright benefits people who had nothing to do with the creative act itself!), he approached poet Tony Silvestri, with the request of writing a new poem that would replace the Frost poem in form, feel and meter.

You can read the full story of what happened here.

Not everyone has Whitacre’s resources and can just grab another top class poet to write text for them. But luckily for the world, Whitacre’s beautiful work did not end up getting shelved, and Whitacre and Silvestri have gone on to further collaborations. So I guess it ended well.

In my case, I’d rather just write my own text. I’m never going to deny myself copyright permission. I’m not going to pull an artistic nasty. I can write whatever I want, and skip or add words if I need to. I’m my own boss in every sense and meaning.

Very occasionally I’ll use the text of a very, very long dead poet – I’ve used Shakespeare and Hopkins – but most of the time I just won’t take the chance on anyone else.

I’ve seen people get burned, and I’m not about the stick my fingers in the fire just now.

Copyright laws need changing. I believe that copyright should die with the artist, and that only individuals should be able to copyright, not corporations.

6 thoughts on “Why use original text?

  1. Hi Leanne,
    if memory serves, there were four individual poems set to four separate pieces of music, and it was one of the other settings that upset the poet; but not content with asking the composer to alter or withdraw the one piece, he disallowed the entire set. That’s pretty majorly uncool.
    Fortunately things were partially recovered by pulling a similar trick to Whitacre/Silvestri, and the composer supplying her own texts to replace the problematic ones. (The arrangement of the cosmic cetacean for brass/saxophones/guitars was pretty cool, too, but the recording seems to have vanished without trace.)

  2. Love your comment about corporations and copyright. I wanted my womens choir to sing William James’ “Bush Night Song” this year. The piece is years out of print, but not yet out of copyright (James not having been dead for long enough yet), so I got AMCOS to send me details of the current copyright owner and contacted them for permission to make photocopies – usually a straightforward process. Permission was denied. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that three corporations had competing claims to the copyright on this piece, and for that reason no one could get rights to the piece until the competing claims were resolved. So what was once a very popular Australian composition disappears from the repertoire altogether for possibly the next forty years, because of three warring corporations!

  3. Hi Philip – Thanks for confirming details on the issue.

    I’m still upset about it, as the particular piece I referred to in my post I would have liked to recommend to several choirs I have been involved with, and have been unable to do so, thanks to the (as you put it) “majorly uncool” actions of the poet.

    I don’t even want to think how upset the composer in question must be, especially considering she did everything *right*!

  4. Hi Simon – Copyright is out of control. I think this is the main reason that piracy is also becoming out of control.

    The case you mention is insanity gone amok. I am sure that James would be turning in his grave over the issue right now.

    I really think that copyright (of music at least, I don’t know enough about various other areas, e.g. software) should only ever be able to be owned by people, not by corporations. Not able to be bought or sold either.

    I also think copyright should die with the artist, and simply be a lifelong entitlement. No extensions, no exemptions. That way, all creative content would eventually pass into the commons, and be available for everyone to enjoy, share, and build upon.

    But I somehow suspect I’m preaching to the choir here!

  5. As the new version has it, “substitute verses are never as good… we will all miss the space tale!” And indeed, the new text is a gloss on this story, but doesn’t help “sell” the music, really. The later version of the Space Tale is available on CPDL, though.
    The case of the Bush Night Song is very strange: I would have thought the SATB version would be the property of a single copyright owner, the composer and poet having sold their work on. Complicating matters, while William Garnet James died in 1977, so that the music alone will be in the public domain by 2048!, his co-author of the lyrical part of the composition, John Wheeler, is comparatively unknown, and although he worked for the ABC, all that the ANL knows about his dates is “fl. 1940–70”. Under the current law, copyright runs from the year of the death of the last-deceased author – after 2048, the Bush Night Song would only be public domain so long as Wheeler’s death date remains unknown or if it precedes 1977. Who profits by this ambiguity when no one can agree who owns the rights?

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