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.