Thursday, March 08, 2007

Free Study Scores!

I've had a long argument with an open software advocate about music. My contention has been that music is already essentially an open source medium, as the combination of a good recording and good listening skills can often make the construction of a piece of music transparent. However, as good as one's ears can get, it is still often very useful to have a look at a score, both to see how the composer has indicated his or her ideas, but also to find interpretive possibilities not taken in the performance at hand. Some of the most important learning experiences for me as a musican came about from copying out scores by hand (I did that a lot, as I was on a paper-route income and photocopying was expensive for me).

Unfortunately, getting your hands on scores in the first place is often difficult and expensive. Study scores -- small format editions -- are increasingly rare, and they are sometimes sold at shockingly high prices. So in schools or universities, we tend to get taught either from questionably legal photocopies or from the same few pieces that are widely available in study editions or packaged into anthologies (the two volumes of the Norton Anthology will set you back 71USD), or a student is sent to the dreaded reserve desk in the library in hopes that no one else has checked out the score.

It's understandable why publishers have had little interest in making study scores available. The profit in sheet music of any sort is never high unless a publication can have a large audience over a long period of time, and the chief business of a publisher is the mix of score and parts rentals to professionals and collecting the publisher's share of royalties from works under copyright.

Sometimes, however, publishers have realized that making their materials more widely available at more reasonable prices can both create income producing sheet music, and create, via the promotional opportunity, more royalty-income. The recent Peters editions of collected smaller piano works by Cage and Feldman are a good example. Whereas, in the past, getting a look at all of these scores required many small purchases, and were both troublesome to order and troublesome for Peters to produce as the pieces were largely published as on demand ozalids or photocopies, now a pianist or a music student can have a substantial repertoire of contrasting pieces all at once in a single anthology, the price of which is modest when compared with the old price for all the separate pieces. Unfortunately, not enough publishers are following the Peters example -- assembling a complete set of Webern study scores (ca 3 hours of music total) piece-by-piece would cost many hundreds of dollars, for example, and a Stravinsky set would cost thousands. Why isn't there a single volume complete Webern*, Varese, or Ruggles?

More publishers need to get wise and realize that they have a real promotion opportunity for their scores if they simply put them online. The editions don't have to be beautiful, and they can be watermarked with great big "DO NOT COPY" messages. This will not diminish their income from the pieces, as they will continue to rent hard-copies of the full-sized and bound scores and parts needed for performances, and they will continue to be paid royalties for performances and mechanicals.

Here's a concrete example: The late Robert Erickson was an excellent and inventive orchestrator. But his pieces are too little known and played infrequently. His scores would be very useful in teaching orchestration, but although they are all available through Smith Publications, the editions are extremely expensive, affordable only by the small coterie of major research libraries with score collections. If only a few of the larger scores were made available in cheap study score format or -- even better -- free and online you can bet use of his scores in teaching orchestration and perusal of his scores by concert or recording organizers would increase substantially.

Erickson is far from the only composer to whom this applies. For a real survey of recent orchestration, study scores need to be more widely available of works by Goeyvaerts, Feldman, Cage, Xenakis, Ligeti, Reich, Scelsi, Sariaaho, Lindberg, Nono, Kondo, Takemitsu, Brant, Lucier, Adams, Tenney, Barlow, and many others. As long as these scores are not available, the status of the entire new music project with the larger musical culture may be very effectively questioned if not discounted altogether. The music has to be present -- in performances, recordings, and in scores.

There is a vicious circle here: music students don't encounter scores like those of Erickson in school, and when they grow up and start making concerts of their own they don't play any Erickson, all because they simply are unaware of his works. Here is an opportunity for publishers -- as well as for those composers who have chosen not to work through third-party publishers -- to get out of this vicious circle, to establish the works as fixed presences in the musical culture, and to promote the works at a modest cost, while offering potentially substantial benefits in terms of the real income that a piece can generate.

* An elegant, hardbound, but pocketbook-sized volume of Webern works was actually published in the last days of the Soviet Union. This was a "pirated" edition, of course, but why the heck didn't Universal get the idea and start publishing the thing itself?


Cotton said...

Great points! I'm looking into buying some study scores now and I don't see a wide variety unfortunately.

belpertc said...

Didn't know about study scores !! until I read the above, but now I have ordered Concierto De Aranjuez with 100pages. If its OK I will search for more.
Thanks for the interesting notes.