Today as I drove to work I listened to Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring". It's a rousing, populist bit of symphonic music (actually, a ballet for 13 pieces), full of vim and life and reminders of how exuberant "serious" music can be. The title, applied by Martha Graham from a line in a Hart Crane poem, somehow fits, as the music is frightenintly bracing and alive, popular and yet serious all at once.
The piece has a passage in it which is a quote from the Shaker song "Simple Gifts". "Simple Gifts" was written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett. We tend to think of "Simple Gifts" as a standard which has been with us for years upon years. In fact, Aaron Copland brought it back from relative obscurity. Parenthetically, the lyric "Lord of the Dance", rather than being a Shaker hymn at all, was written in the 1960s.
Aaron Copland did something that numerous composers before him done. He mined the folk idiom of his country, and used it as the basis for classical music. He did this because the song which he mined was in the public domain. This kind of "remixing" is a long-established tradition, whether it comes from tavern songs becoming Lutheran hymns or folk songs being passed from performer to performer.
"Appalachian Spring" is all the richer for the remix. The "simple gifts" variations give the piece a sense of place that keeps it anchored. It's also a positively beautiful section. Copland wrote "pleasing" music in a time when formal music was often considered "difficult". He had this notion that what he had to say could be said simply. "Simple Gifts" fits this idea like a glove.
Copeland wrote some beautiful original melodies, but he also drew on the American folk tradition. The folk song "Bonaparte" shows up as "Hoedown" in his ballet "Rodeo", and it's rousing and alive. Indeed, it even became an Emerson, Lake and Palmer song, but that's another story for another day.
The past several years have seen steps taken to actively discourage this process of remixing and re-inventing works, through extensions of copyright. I am comfortable with the existence of some form of copyright, which I fundamentally see as a way to create property rights for artists in their creative expressions. Yet the copyright extensions passed into law in my lifetime defeat a key idea of copyright--that the duration of exclusivity must be finite. The law protects a term of years, and, in return, the public owns the songs and words at the expiration of the term.
Copyright extensions, spelled M*I*C*K*E*Y M*O*U*S*E, were utilized to protect an American corporate near-hegemony in certain very profitable forms of artistic expression, just as some of its interesting copyrighted material was about to enter the public domain.
"Appalachian Spring" reminds me how America could re-learn a wonderful 19th Century songs because a popular 20th Century performer had the legal right to remix it. The Creative Commons movement is based on the idea of use of generic legal licenses which encourage remixing and public use of works, with attribution. It's not some great new way to make money, nor some magic pill to get a novel published. Instead, it's a recognition that creative sharing is in and of itself a potential for good, to be encouraged.
This week I have been sharing sounds at the Freesound Project, a non-profit from Barcelona in which ordinary people like me upload sound effects and little snippets of sound so that others can use and share those sounds in songs, films, websites, and video games. I've been excited that my first five uploads, ranging from hanging bells to a blast on a nose flute, are already getting a little traffic. I want people to have things to use as sound effects or synthesizer wave forms.
But mostly I see it all as one more small step in the battle to make sounds and words and pictures and expressions of ideas available for use. This is the essence of a sharing culture--and it's an inevitable spread.
This kind of consensual remix culture will create great assemblage, wonderful musical melanges and
powerful new expressions of ideas and media. This kind of remix culture is a simple gift that can save culture from being trapped in proprietary handcuffs. All one has to do to join this revolution is to license into the Creative Commons whereever possible.