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Of sharing and possessing

This year I have made my videos using Creative Commons material as usual. However, I realised when using a Beethoven piece that it was 250 years since his birth. So, I’ve drawn on two of his works this year, and its made me think more about how creativity is shared and possessed. And made me think about music and play as historically a human act that was lost, which video games rediscovered and reclaimed.

Genius and heroism as a label given by others

Beethoven could be seen as a genius or heroic, set apart. After all, he took music to places they hadn’t gone before, and haven’t been since. But the implication there is that he oversaw and controlled. Certainly, he knew what he meant musically and expressed his opinions. He had intent, and a sense of self as a creative person. But his increasing deafness and problems with his health made him very much a mortal. He wrote about his art’s crucial role in hanging on to his self worth. The work he made reflected that tearing and rending – his personal struggle around health, social relationships, money and love. If he is seen as genius or heroic, that’s a judgment that has been placed on him.

So his music was creative expression, with the later work a means of coming to terms with life and death. But while he knew what he intended musically, it still had to be interpreted by the people who performed it. It was a struggle for some musicians to understand at the time, and it is still seen as challenging. The marks on a page are certainly Beethoven’s, but the sound in our ears is not just those marks. They are the interpretations of those marks by a succession of musicians. They lived in their own times, and we re-interpret them, which would explain his elevation in status. However, it is still an exchange and was intended to be an exchange – the format of the music as it was made. However, the interplay changed.

From sheet music to interpret, to recorded music as a statement

Later in the 19th century, publication of sheet music became more commercially controlled, and composers start to talk about saleability in that context. In the 20th, the recording changed the relationship again as ‘definitive’ interpretations became possible, and they would (essentially) be the same on every playback. Yes, ‘the’ digital means they don’t degrade over time, but the principle of repeatability is the crucial thing, and that covers a multitude of technologies, from wax drums, magnetic tape, vinyl albums and cds.

Music in a cover could be published to listen to, to be consumed rather than read, by big business – something that anyone could ‘own’ rather than ‘play with’. It became principally a product to sell to consumers, without the idea of performance as a shared experience with others. The composers relationship changed to… many a band have written about how they have been used by record companies… EMI by the Sex Pistols being the one that comes to mind first.

Going back to classical music, as Peter Cossé wrote in the sleeve notes for the conductor Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Symphonies 5&7, there are three kinds of artist. Ones who see recordings as a permanent means of being in front of the public. A very small second group ignore them, claiming that to repeat a performance is impossible, and recordings are pale copies. The third group, again small, live with that tension, and only release work selectively, as with these outstanding interpretations by Kleiber.

The brass band and the choir

In Britain, the brass band movement got working-class people engaged in instrumental art music. However, by the end of the 19th century, class was already forcing divisions, moving the idea of bands into a middle ground between art and popular culture. Never as good as orchestras to be upper middle class, and too sophisticated and tied to capitalist enterprise to be truly working class. Social conventions determined what kind of music was suitable for particular classes, and older traditions and connections forgotten. Either way, of superiority or of class politics, play was the casualty. The meaning of brass bands in northern class history becomes symbolic and nostalgic rather than a continuing popular social activity.

The value of play

Yet the idea of playing was not forgotten – Homo Ludens as in the title of the 1938 book by Johan Huizinga that is still highly relevant now. Humans are playful, and if recorded music sidelined it, video games brought it to the fore again, and are now, commercially, bigger business. Whether some of that’s been lost since the rise of big games studios offering slick consumer products where realism matters, with less room for the player to invent or be innovative, is a moot point.

There are two many reasons I like working in Second Life. The first being that Linden Research provide space and the means of making stuff – the good, the bad and the ugly – which leads to the second: it is very imperfect. You make it what it is, and while elements can be bought from others, you choose how they are put together. It is not a consumer product, where buying things dominates. It concerns me, though, that it appears to be increasingly marketed, because it can never succeed in that space. Others will always do that better, because that is what they were designed to do.

From music written on paper to video on digital screens

So, last week was 250 years since Beethoven’s baptism. A good enough reason to look at two of my video works again. Just as Beethoven reworked and reinterpreted using music, and musicians did in turn for centuries with his music, I wanted to do through virtual world video art. No, it won’t be remembered in 250 years time, nor will I. But we should live for a today where curiosity, play and inventiveness matter.

Flames Tear the Soul. Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament meets today’s virtual world experience.

Menuetto Contained. Music played on a piano (mechanically, with hands) set against video in a virtual world (entirely played in digital space).

The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History, edited by Trevor Herbert, goes into a lot more detail. This is just the start of his first chapter.

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