When you made this planet

Some time ago, Thomas Thurman drew my attention to a text to try setting as a hymn. The story behind the text, as well as the text itself, is here.

After spending the requisite months sitting in a “drafts” drawer while I got distracted by other things, and some help with editing from various people (Dr Christopher Parker at St Mary’s Addington was particularly helpful), I think it’s about as finished as it is going to get.

I’ve called the tune “Hitchin”, because that is the birthplace of the author of the text, and because clever Latin things ended up looking like “Cum hoc tellure” which, let’s face it, isn’t going to be a giggle-proof title for working with choirs.

Today the some churches celebrate or remember the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this morning after the necessary clarification about just whose conception this refers to (the Immaculate Conception is not the same as the Virgin Birth), I was thinking about that. I was thinking about how it is that when someone does something wonderful, or fulfills what we might call God’s purposes for them, we are sometimes tempted to say “Oh, but they’re special, we could never do that…” rather than being inspired by their actions. For me, the amazing thing about Mary is not that God chose her or somehow set her aside — whether or however that happened — but that she said YES. “Let it be unto me according to thy will,” she said.

Or possibly, in today’s language, “My Lord, I pray my life will mirror you.”

Here is a .pdf of the music.
Here is a .midi file of robots singing it.
As usual, the material is CC BY-SA.

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A bit about why I use the CC licenses I do.

When I write music I release it under a Creative Commons license. I usually use a CC BY-SA license, known as Attribution-ShareAlike. This means people can use it, without first asking me, as long as they give me attribution and any derivative works they make are shared under a similar license. If I am using CC BY-SA then they are free to earn money for derivative works, but since they have to release those works under a similar license they are not going to be in a situation where they have a monopoly on the work. For example, a musician might get paid for recording one of my compositions — this is a commercial use of the work — but as they must allow others to use the recording they are not going to end up being the only supplier of it. The CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike ) license is more restrictive, and I rarely use it these days; I believe the drawbacks outweigh the benefits of restricting copyright in that way.

The reason for “giving my music away for free” is something I’ve been through a number of times, but a short summary is that it is more important to me that the music is heard and used than that I make money from it. People are not queuing up to pay me to write music and the writing I do is little enough, and sufficiently esoteric by mainstream standards (mostly choral music, mostly for use in churches), that I’m unlikely to make much money from it anyway. Like the majority of musicians throughout history, I earn more money from teaching and performing than from composing, publishing or recording. When I do write something, and someone uses it, I’m delighted. It would be great if they could chuck a fiver my way, but a lot of people are in the same boat I am, with little or no sheet music budget, so I’m not going to worry about it too much if they don’t.

So, why do I use Creative Commons licenses rather than simply adding a preface to work saying that people are free to use it?

One is that the license information is easier to include on the work itself, so that in the event that it gets separated from the preface my intentions are still clear. (See Christ Has No Body Now On Earth But Ours for an example — that work is four pages, but it wouldn’t have been hard to include the license information on all of them, and anyway one page of it isn’t that useful on its own.) This isn’t a big deal for short pieces, but if I were to publish, say, a booklet of psalms for Advent, it’s quite likely that some people would want to use — and print — only one or two pages from it. It makes sense to have licence information on all of them, rather than expecting people to remember where the music came from and come back to find it again.

Another reason is that the people at Creative Commons have done the research to make sure that their copyright statements are legally valid, whereas a simpler text statement may not be considered binding (particularly in areas of international jurisdiction). I’ve seen lots of plain text copyright statements that aren’t absolutely clear whether, for example, an organist playing for a wedding which will be recorded is allowed to use the work if they are being paid. While I’m alive this isn’t too bad, as people can contact me (I try to include an e-mail address on most paper copies of my work too), but after I’m dead if there is any lack of clarity people will have to wait seventy years for my work to become public domain. So there’s a lot to be said for using a standardised license that others will be able to interpret and which has been formulated by people who understand the full legal implications.

I use a Creative Commons license because I want to give my work away and I want to do it with a minimum of fuss for myself and for others.

Your Commission, Should You Choose to Request It

An experiment:

I would like to write more music, particularly choral music. I would prefer to do this on commission, for a whole bunch of reasons. But my music is not well-known, and so I don’t attract attention from people who have serious money to pay for commissions, on the whole. So far, every note I have ever written has been for free.

What if the money for commissions isn’t quite so serious?

For £30, I will set up to 50 words of English for SATB, with or without a simple organ or piano accompaniment. I’m willing to do more complex compositions, or simpler ones, or other languages, but please do contact me about it — Latin is easy, Russian much harder! You can see (and in some cases hear) examples of my other compositions by using the look what I made category on this blog. That isn’t a full list (I’m working on it; processing works that pre-date this blog is another thing that is easily pushed aside!), but it’s something.

Your chosen text must be in the public domain, or you must have permission from the appropriate sources for me to set it. The copyright of the finished work will remain with me but I will release it under a CC BY-SA license, meaning that others can use it freely in derivative works, even for commercial purposes, as long as they acknowledge my work and share it similarly. So if you commission a choral work from me, you won’t just be contributing to my livelihood, you’ll be contributing to a body of publicly available art.

Any takers?

Psalter Commons

I have a new project! It’s called Psalter Commons and I would love your help with it.

I’d like the words of the psalms to be freely available for liturgy and study, but copyright law means the only truly free translations are quite old.

If you have translated or paraphrased a psalm or many psalms, please feel free to add the texts! They don’t need to have music, though if you do have music that’s great too. If you know of existing public domain psalters not listed on the category page please add those, too, preferably with links. Using a wiki is easy and quicky, er, quick.

More background details:

I have often whinged about the lack of freely-accessible, modern-language, metrical settings of psalms available these days. The older psalms available in the public domain are glorious! I do love them, and I’m very glad to have a chance to sing them fairly regularly in London Gallery Quire (though I play the serpent more often than I sing, I still get to read the words as I usually play from a vocal score). However, the language is considered archaic by many, and in some cases the translations are a bit suspect too, compared to modern scholarship.

There are modern metrical translations. Some of them are even included in the Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative (CCLI), which means that for a fee and with a lot of paperwork, we’re allowed to make copies of the words — if we’ve already bought a copy of whatever book they’re in. That’s admirable, but for a small parish like St Andrew’s it’s still a pretty high barrier to use. Why not just release them under a CC-BY-SA license and let everyone use them? Then I would be able to write my own musical settings if I wanted to, or set them to existing hymn tunes where appropriate.

There are accessibility difficulties with prose translations, too. The Common Worship Psalter publication terms aren’t too bad for liturgical use but if I want to use that material in a separate piece of music I have to write an ask for permission. The Coverdale psalms which are usually bound with the Book of Common Prayer, and those in the King James Authorised Version of the bible, are commonly thought to be in the public domain, but in the UK they’re actually under strange special copyright laws which mean that, again, I would need to ask for permission to use them.

So, I was having my usual moan and a friend offered to set up and host a wiki. It seemed like a better idea than just whingeing, so I said yes.

I hope that Psalter Commons will eventually become a valuable resource for anyone interested in the psalms for study and liturgical purposes. It will take a lot more work than I could do myself, which is why a wiki makes so much sense — now others who are interested can join in. Please do, and please send this page to others who might be interested.

On acknowledgement

On Thursday I got an e-mail from someone. He was writing to tell me he’d found my piece Crux Fidelis on the Choral Public Domain Library a few months ago, and had used it in the liturgy for Good Friday at the church where he’s organist. It went well and they intend to use it again next year.

It felt really wonderful to be thanked, and even just to know that my music is being used. I know others have used that piece this year, but they’re all friends or acquaintances. Of course I’m glad they like it and use it, but in my head it feels like strangers liking my music enough to use it is another level. One of the difficulties of putting my work online is that I never really know whether it is getting used. Oh, SoundCloud has some stats for listens and downloads, but once a track has been downloaded I have no idea how often it’s played. CPDL doesn’t seem to offer any stats, but even if they did, there’s a long way between downloading a piece of music and having a choir sing it!

If there were such a thing, I’d be tempted to use a Creative Commons license where people can do what they like with my music as long as they tell me, somehow. As things currently stand I’m reliant on etiquette.

Perhaps, though, it’s just as well that such a license doesn’t exist. Having to let the creator know what’s happening might be enough to put people off using the work, after all, and if it comes to a choice between the music being heard and my hearing about it, I think I’d choose the former.

A creative response to copyrighted lyrics…

Eric Whitacre wrote this music to fit the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Rather stupidly, Robert Frost’s estate told him that he couldn’t use it until it becomes public domain in 2038.

So he asked Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a new poem to fit, using the same meter and some of the same words… this is the result:

The whole virtual choir thing is pretty darn awesome, too.

(Hat tip to @elmyra who brought the post on BoingBoing to my attention.)

IMSLP is back

Just a brief update on yesterday’s situation with IMSLP — the site is back!

It looks like the MPA contacted GoDaddy to request that the domain name be reinstated. Their offer to work with IMSLP to ensure all relevant scores meet relevant copyright legislation seems like a bit of a joke to me, though: clearly they know much less about copyright than the good folks at IMSLP. I don’t see much sign of an actual apology, either, though I’ve only had time to skim things this morning so I may well have missed it.

IMSLP under attack on bogus legal grounds

I’m a big fan of the International Music Score Library Project, also known as the Petrucci Music Library.

It seems the Music Publishers Association, a UK organisation with industry links to EMI, PRS and many of the other usual suspects, is being quite problematic for them.

A short extract from their forums:

The MPA, without notifying us, sent to our domain registrar GoDaddy a bogus DMCA takedown notice. GoDaddy took the entire IMSLP.ORG domain down. IMSLP has filed a DMCA counter notice with GoDaddy, however, the DMCA seems to require the registrar to wait no less than 10 days before restoring service. This means that IMSLP is inaccessible from IMSLP.ORG during this period of time. We will be working to restore service as soon as possible.

What is the MPA complaining about? Rachmaninoff’s Bells, which is public domain both in Canada and the USA: http://petruccilibrary.org/wiki/The_Bells,_Op.35_%28Rachmaninoff,_Sergei%29
MPA’s claim is entirely bogus.

Further legal clarification is available here on the IMSLP forums.

Basically I think this looks like bullying, plain and simple. It’s scandalous that such a valuable resource should be taken offline because “traditional” music publishing companies have their knickers in a twist over something that isn’t even illegal.

Workaround: You can still reach the site by using either petruccilibrary.org or petruccimusiclibrary.org. Note, however, that some links on the site that refer to IMSLP.ORG may be broken; you will have to manually replace IMSLP.ORG with one of the two above domain names manually in the URL bar.

Anyone who is interested in suing or helping to sue the MPA under DMCA section 512(f) (misrepresentations) please contact imslproject yahoo.ca. Note that the feldmahler imslp.org address is likewise offline.

Words, words!

When I write music, I struggle with the words. As a child I was a decent poet, I’m told, but at some point I lost the habit of writing poetry in a notebook in spare moments. I think it may have been around the time I took up playing the horn and got a paper route and somehow seemed to always be out at one rehearsal or another! These days, most of the words I write are typed directly onto a screen and unpoetic at best.

But I do seem to compose better with words than without. So, I try to find others’ words that say what I want to say, words that inspire or words that I think will be right for the context for which I’m writing. Invariably, I run into trouble with this. Anything that’s still under copyright is a massive pain; sometimes it’s possible to contact the author and ask for permission but often attempts to do so are simply ignored, and in some cases it’s hard to find out who to get in touch with in the first place. As I often struggle to find the right words in the first place (it took me several months to choose the words for Christ Has No Body Now on Earth but Ours, and even then I wasn’t sure until I sat down to write; In Commendation of Music was similarly fraught, though for very different reasons), the bother with copyright is a significant hurdle.

Lately I have been enjoying Thomas Thurman’s poetry. Eventually I summoned up the courage to ask, since Thomas seems a churchy type, whether there might be any psalm paraphrases I could use. I was pleased that there are two of them, and possibly more to come! One of those is more Christianized than I’d be happy to use as a psalm in liturgy (more on that in another post), but would definitely stand well as a hymn on its own; perhaps it was that comment which prompted Thomas to point me at this hymn text, which can’t be used with the tune it was written for due to copyright issues (see? it isn’t just me that has trouble with this stuff!)… Thomas also writes software and so is familiar with and happy about Creative Commons and other open licenses.

It’s not exactly a time of year when I ought to be taking on new projects, but the other Friday I had a long-ish train journey to a rehearsal (Zone 5, south of the river, there’s no way to do it without at least two changes and as I wasn’t cycling to London Bridge it was three this time). So, I printed out the words, chucked some manuscript paper in my bag and decided to see what I could make of it. It was a delightful tune to set to music: all the word stresses line up beautifully from verse to verse, and though the meter is somewhat non-standard I do now have a tune I’m reasonably happy with. As, for once, I’m not working to a deadline, I’m leaving it in a drawer for a month before doing some editing, so you don’t get to see it yet. But I’m pleased with it so far, and really happy to have access to some newer words which I’m allowed to put to music!

Starts with P and that rhymes with T

Lent approaches fast and, at St Andrew’s at least, this will be a time of penitence, prayer, purple vestments and psalmody.

The latter is my concern. During Advent we tried adapting the Common Worship psalter to a simple plainchant melody from Palmer’s “Manual of Plainsong”. It worked well for the choir, who could rehearse, but the congregation struggled to join in. Even when using the same plainsong melody for the whole season, fitting unfamiliar lines of varying length to the same tune was either too difficult or too unclear.
I feel strongly about congregational participation in church music in general, and psalms in particular. While there is an argument for reverent, contemplative musical worship where a choir sings the psalms on behalf of the rest of the congregation who participate silently, I think that kind of vicarious liturgy is more suited to Choral Evensong. The psalms are a dialogue, a means by which human feelings can be honestly explored and offered to God, and I feel there is something to be gained from very direct participation in sung psalmody.
So this Lent I’m trying another approach: responsorial psalms. The term “responsorial” is a bit of a mis-nomer, I feel, but refers to psalmody in which the main body of the psalm is sung or said by cantor, choir or reader, with a refrain repeated by all present.
A lot of the chanted responsorial psalmody available today is in a particular style of simplified, interpreted Gregorian chant. Murray’s settings of the Grail psalter are by far the best known of this type of recitative chant; and for the Grail translation I understand they work very well. Copyright issues abound, however, and I can’t quite be having with a paperwork fight. New Psalms for Common Worship, compiled by Colin Mawby, also uses this style of responsorial psalmody — and also has copyright issues, as the publisher, Kevin Mayhew, do not take part in the Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative, so I cannot photocopy the chants for the choir to learn or the response for the congregation to read. In addition, the text of the Common Worship psalter, like the beloved Coverdale psalms used in the Book of Common Prayer, was not really designed to make chanting easier, and hard-to-sing accents on the last syllable of the line are common. That might eventually be okay if we had sung or chanted psalmody every weekday or even once a week on Sundays but as things stand, it only has a place during the penitential seasons, unless I get particularly insistent. This is unfamiliar stuff to the majority of the congregation and so it needs to be very easy to pick up. Besides that, I don’t want to limit myself to just one translation or one musical style. There is a rich heritage of English psalmody upon which to draw, and I don’t mean just Anglican Chant, lovely though it can be.
I’m taking a slightly different approach. Several months ago, I attended a RSCM-led psalmody workshop in Salisbury where the director suggested combining Anglican Chant with the refrains of the responsorial psalmody. Writing a refrain certainly isn’t beyond my abilities and having the congregation sing the same refrain, after hearing the choir sing it once, makes it more likely that they’ll be able to join in.
If we can do this with Anglican Chant, why not do it with other styles of psalmody?
For Ash Wednesday, Dr Francis Roads (who also conducts the London Gallery Quire) kindly furnished me with copy in Sibelius of a metrical setting of the first half of Psalm 51. The music is by Playford, set for SAB, and the text is from Sternhold and Hopkins; you can download the manuscript from the International Music Score Library Project. But while the metrical text and regular tune make this easier to learn than chanted psalmody, it’s still a bit much to ask of a congregation with no warning and no rehearsal — or so they would have me believe every time I introduce a hymn someone hasn’t heard for a while! Since I already had a shiny Sibelius file I transposed the entire lot down a tone, and modified the alto part to be less awkward. I also made this response:
to be sung in unison. That line of music, plus all the words, with the refrain in bold type, will be printed in the pew slips for the congregation to follow. As the notes are the same as the last line of the verses, I’m hoping it will be reasonably easy to follow, and that Playford is not turning in his grave.
Of course, the trouble now is that the vicar would quite like the words to all the rest of the psalms for Lent as soon as possible, so I need to find suitable settings and write responses for all of them in a bit of a hurry! I’d like to include a mix of plainchant and metrical psalmody, sticking for the most part to better-known tunes for the latter, but I might go for a chanting tune or two.
So of course this afternoon I’ve been blogging about it, instead of getting on with the actual setting. Next up is Psalm 32.