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Performance, Authorship and Ownership

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    Update: (okay, it took less than a couple of hours to get to this, but you knew I would). I have to include this wonderful retrospective by Peter Guralnick about his interview with Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino in New Orleans in 2011. (You think of trying to interview them as … Continue reading →
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I’ve been thinking about the ownership debate around the Waste Land documentary that I was reading this morning. It got me thinking about some of the issues I’d been working with during my fieldwork, and am thinking about again now as I prepare an article on performance, text and genre and the conference papers that will help me stay on track to get it done on schedule this spring…

One issue that came up early for me, in fact during the first semester of my fieldwork, while I was formalizing my project, was where ownership of a documentary begins. To what extent is ownership based on who came up with the idea? To what extent does collaboration change the nature of ownership? In my research, I’ve had trouble taking credit for the ideas I came up with, in particular the model, mostly because all I did was reframe things my interlocutors talked about into “model” format. On the other hand, the lack of articulating the thing as a model has meant that the music industry itself has lacked perspective on how to consider the progression it’s on now. Performers understand that there is a split between their creative impulses and the logistics of music production as do industry executives but their views on this are almost antagonistic. A pity. Maybe we can change this.

Why am I labeling this post about performance? Because the issue at hand is how the text of a performance is defined and who defines it. In the classical music world these are the criteria that fundamentally stamp something as the creation of such and such composer. The Anna Magdalena Bach notebook comes to mind. Credited to J.S. Bach for over a century (I’m not looking up the date when scholars first began questioning this in public so call this time frame a lazy way to ensure I’m not exaggerating), it wasn’t until the last two decades or so that attributions to his fellow composer-friends began to show up on published editions. Take that where you will.

Then, likewise, authorship of an interpretation of a piece inevitably goes to the “front person” (I’m teaching Gender and Society – something in me fights the phrase “front man” right now) of that performance. One of my all-time favorites, Robert Marcellus performing the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet with the Cleveland Symphony under George Czell (if you haven’t ever heard this landmark recording, you really should) is another case in point. So, who is responsible for this performance? Who gets credit for it? Note that on the cover two names show up – Marcellus’ and Czell’s. Um, excuse me, while I revere Mr. Marcellus (and will never forget the day he kicked my butt in a masterclass) as one of the great musicians and teachers of the 20th century, he’s not the only one who made this performance what it was, nor was Czell. There were over 100 other folks involved in the rehearsing and performing of what many of us in the clarinet world have called the only perfect recording of the Mozart Concerto in existence. By the way, I’m not disputing the appropriateness of placing their names up front, I just want to problematize it here. In fact, I’ll probably go listen to it again as soon as I finish writing just to have my 25 minutes of Zen for today.

We give ownership of a performance to the performer only when it strikes us as unusual. Remarkable. Otherwise credit remains with the author. “I saw a performance of Hamlet at xxxx theater last week – not bad, but certainly not the best Shakespeare I’ve seen. (Hello, Bill the Bard has been dead for many many years. Notice that he still gets the credit.) and not as good as Olivier’s interpretation. Note that qualification – interpretation.

My thought to go out on for the moment, since I’m back in writing mode and will be talking about this more over the next few months, is that this distinction is equally valid when performers play their own compositions. Which one’s the urtext? Is it the first published recording? Do they have the right to change it? Which one’s the definitive performance and where do rehearsals, drafts, and revisions come into play?

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1 Comment

  1. […] commodity, also bring with it the option of ownership of creative work? This goes back to what I was writing about a couple of days ago in terms of crediting performances to individuals who front a performing […]

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