Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Free & Open Musicology, Publishing, Recording

The "Open Goldberg Variations" project seems to have slipped under the professional music making and scholarship radar although it's quite possible that it is providing a substantial challenge to the traditional structure of producing and publishing performing editions and recordings of music in the public domain.  The project encompasses the production of a new edition, from source, using crowd editing, of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, in Musescore notation format, which produces a payback-able score with audio as well as independent notation and midi files and, for this particular project, a studio quality recording of the piece by pianist Kimiko Ishizaka, all of which will be placed in the public domain with Creative Commons licenses and be available for free downloading and, as open source material, unrestricted further use. The Kickstarter page is here, the page at the Musescore site with the current version of the edition is here.

The challenge that a project like this poses to traditional score and recording publication is clear, but the challenge to musicology should also be recognized.  Although the "golden age" of the production of critical editions as a central activity for musicologists is a bit behind us, when professional musicologists are involved with editing, the old conventions of editorial territoriality and priority still tend to hold — finders keepers — just like on the playground and publishers entering into multi-year (and often multi-decade) commitments to put out expensive complete editions expect, correctly, to have some return on their investment, so they expect the exclusivity afforded by a copyright on the edition.  But opening up the entire process, as online publishing and cooperation makes possible, has the potential to change everything.  Volunteer labor has already produced a mass of performance materials available free and immediately, if not in the beautiful paper editions the traditional publishers did so well. But the quality of production outside of the traditional publishing system has improved spectacularly. And, in extreme cases, as when a significant manuscript (or, as the case might well be, an insignificant manuscript by a major composer) is first located, traditionally, the finder had the right of first edition and could usually keep the manuscript under wraps until he or she is done and only then begins the open vetting process over authority, provenance, and quality. That exclusivity, I believe, is no longer sustainable. Imagine what the process would be like if a newly-discovered manuscript image was made available to crowd scrutiny immediately upon  discovery!

This Goldberg project happens to have been funded (and actually funded well in excess of what the organizers had sought) and it remains to be seen what kinds of projects will happen in the future without such a foundation. (Personally, as nice as it is, I don't think that the sponsored audio recording is also necessary. One also wonders if the public funders, which have, in the past, supported the research that effectively subsidizes many private publications of scholarly editions, will adjust to the cost-effective sourcing of this work and actually support open-source projects as well or even instead. The open aspect here, I think is key, for it has a more natural fit to the public aspect of scholarly publication.  The serious move, chiefly among scientists, engineers and mathematicians, to boycott some private journals in favor of free and open alternatives, as those journals profit from the material and in-kind contributions of academics paid by the public hand and then turn around and sell their journals at high prices to academic libraries addresses very closely related concerns..

1 comment:

Larry press said...

I'm not a musician or musicologist, but was also impressed by this project and wrote a post on it (

It seems to me that it could be replicated with foundations, universities and grants from organizations like our National Endowment for the Arts replacing Kickstarter.