This week on The Avid Listener: Ann van Allen-Russell, “‘Stop Copying My Music!’: The Emergence of Musical Copyright in England”

Do you ever stop to think about how our modern copyright laws came about? Did you know that music was at the heart of some of the earliest copyright cases? This week, Ann van Allen-Russell gives us a peek into key 18th-century court cases involving the music of Johann Christian Bach. You might be surprised at the twists and turns involved in protecting one’s musical creations!

Here’s a teaser:

“Make up a tune. You can hum it, whistle it, play on an instrument—anything you like. It’s your own tune after all. Or is it? Can you own something that doesn’t physically exist? And could you stop someone from stealing it? In modern times, a whole body of law exists around musical copyright, which protects musicians from having their intellectual property used without permission. However, such protection did not always exist. In fact, the modern-day concept of musical copyright can be traced back to mid-eighteenth century England, when Johann Christian Bach—the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach—started a lawsuit to stop a minor theft. Unbeknownst to him, it would end up changing the way we think about music.”

Read the entire essay here. And for our stalwart TAL fans, we offer this November / December digest, which includes links to all past essays, too. We’ll be back with 1 more essay in two weeks before going on December hiatus.

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

TAL #TBT: “If Music History is Written by the Victors”

In preparation for our September 5 re-launch of The Avid Listener, I offer one of our most popular essays, Sara Haefeli’s “If Music History is Written by the Victors,” as this week’s #TBT essay. Remember this?

“Winston Churchill claimed that ‘history is written by the victors.’ If this is true of our history of music, then who won? What does ‘winning’ mean? Why is it that musicologists have historically chosen to focus on what we generically call ‘classical’ music (or ‘art’ music, or—even worse—’serious’ music) and not on all the other musical practices around us?”

This essay is a useful tool to get discussions going about how certain bits of music and certain composers (and heck, even certain countries and traditions) make it into our music history classrooms and textbooks, while others don’t. Who makes those decisions? How did we get to the narrative(s) we have?

This fall we’re going to move to a publishing schedule of two essays per month. We’ll kick off our third year with two essays by Joanna Smolko about Bruce Springsteen. If you are new to The Avid Listener and want to take a look at our back catalogue, take a look at our most recent digest in .pdf form. Each title is hyperlinked to the online essay. Essays are open access (no fee, no paywall) and aimed at a non-specialist audience. Please share widely and often, pitch us essays, and adapt for classroom use (for college-level classrooms, here’s a Guide to Integrating TAL into the Classroom; for high-school classrooms, here’s a guide to using TAL to meet Common Core ELA standards).

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

Integrating The Avid Listener into your classroom

Attention high-school and college / university teachers! If you use TAL in your classroom or would like to, we’ve got handouts just for you!

For post-secondary classrooms, we’ve updated our Integrating The Avid Listener in the Classroom Handout. This is essentially a list of suggestions with a description of who we are and what the site is about. For high-school teachers, we’ve updated our handout that links TAL to Common Core ELA standards. We realize that Common Core isn’t used in every state and that in the coming year or two as ESSA goes into effect, Common Core may lose its place in state requirements. But the standards themselves–such as citing sources, identifying main ideas, determining point of view, integrating a range of sources, etc.–will continue to be relevant. We’re aiming particularly at Language Arts teachers here, but these standards could also be addressed across the curriculum in Music and Social Studies classes. If you teach high school and are looking for fresh curriculum materials, take a look!

Remember: we’re always on the hunt for new authors. Got a great idea? Contact me. 🙂

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

TAL #TBT: What’s an Avid Listener?

This week we’re taking it all the way back to our very first post, Andrew’s exploration of Avid Listening. Remember this?

“Our bodies hunger for sound. Listening is so important to our self-definition that American Deaf culture has developed the concept LISTEN-EYES to describe the process of receiving and interpreting through sight information that would otherwise be acquired through sound. The rhythm of a song and its flow of emotional intensity, for example, can be conveyed both by musicians and by trained interpreters through a wide variety of physical gestures and facial/bodily expressions, allowing Deaf audiences to view and join in the physical manifestation and understanding of music. This kind of listening is a point of cultural pride among those who might be thought of as “unable” to enjoy sound—those, in other words, who have been disabled by mainstream assumptions about what “normal” listening might look (!) like.”

In retrospect, Andrew’s post set the tone for one two of our major TAL themes: the many ways of listening, and music and disability studies. Want to refresh your memory? Here’s our latest digest, which includes links for all of the essays we’ve published to date. Since our site’s search function is still less than optimal (blerg), this digest is also a helpful tool for educators in the midst of creating fall syllabi who want to incorporate TAL essays.) We hope to start bringing you new essays in late August, and we’ll have educational materials for both college and high school level available soon.

The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

This week on The Avid Listener: Kristen Turner, “Opera in America after the Civil War”

True story: My great-great-aunt, Félicie Richard, sang in a few operas in the 1920s and 1930s. I have the programs for two of these operas, one from 1926 and one from 1935. The operas were in French (Les cloches de Corneville by R. Planquette and Mignon by A. Thomas, have you heard of them?) and they were put on by an opera company called Compagnie d’Opéra Ste Cécile (Saint Cecilia Opera Company). This was not a traveling troupe, nor a group from Europe. These performances were in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, built from and performed for the local Francophone community. (My great-great-aunt was from Belgium; French was her native language.) There’s a paper in here somewhere for me to write someday. But for now, think about this: what made it possible for a Francophone opera company to exist and perform in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1920s and 1930s? And how does that local opera-musicking relate to what was happening in the rest of the country?

If you’ve been following Kristen Turner’s discussion about opera on The Avid Listener, you may have been wondering when English-language opera gave way to the craze for opera in languages other than English. (See Kristen’s discussion of English-language touring opera troupes here.) In this week’s feature essay, Kristen tells us how and why foreign language opera began to dominate the stage after the Civil War. She also tackles the ever-important questions of why and how opera became music for “elite” audiences. (You can read Kristen’s take on opera as popular music here.),

Here’s a teaser: “The most noticeable modification made to operas in the late nineteenth century was in the performance language. No matter the original language of the work, operas routinely were performed with the lyrics translated into a new language. Over many years of attending the opera, a devoted fan could easily hear the same work in English, German, Italian, and sometimes French. Opera troupes tended to perform their repertoire in one language. This allowed the singers to concentrate on one language, and the companies could brand themselves based, in part, on their performance language. French opera was popular in New Orleans, but those opera companies rarely made extensive tours. German, Italian, and English were the most popular languages.”

Someday I’ll have more to say about the exploits of Compagnie d’Opéra Set Cécile. Maybe I’ll even write it for The Avid Listener. In the meantime, you can read Kristen’s latest essay here.

The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

This week on The Avid Listener: Blake Howe, “Temperamental Differences”

Have you ever wondered how our equal-tempered tuning system came to be? Ok, maybe not. That’s ultimate music-nerd talk right there. But if you have, or if you’re curious now that you’re reading my blog, then this week’s essay on The Avid Listener is for you.

This week Blake Howe gives us the gripping tale of how our modern tuning system–a series of spaces between notes (intervals) that sound pretty much the same in every key (ok, maybe not true for everyone, but that’s the idea)–came to be. For those of you who aren’t experts: fear not! Blake doesn’t just give us the theory behind the music; he gives us the history behind the theory. And there’s a plot twist!

Here’s a teaser: “To play or sing in tune is to match the pitch frequencies prescribed by a tuning system. Despite an infinite number of possible systems, for the past 200 years most Western musicians have used just one, called ‘equal temperament.’ Listeners have become so accustomed to the sound of equal temperament that its organization of pitch frequencies sounds normal, and a performer’s failure to match those frequencies produces music that sounds wrong. But equal temperament, much like the very concept of normality, is a product of its time and place. It reflects the politics of a culture that values consistency over variety, uniformity over difference—and, as we will learn, a prototypical nondisabled body over the extraordinary diversity of human morphology.”

In other words: a tuning system that emphasized sameness was actively adopted by most Western musicians within the same time period that the culture within which those musicians lived started thinking about bodies as “normal” vs. “disabled.” This is also the time when theorists started talking about music as “masculine” and “feminine,” and “feminine” music got the short end of the stick, but I digress. I’ll just direct you to Susan McClary and move on. (Or you can send me a message and I’ll send you a reading list!) The point is that some things are not a coincidence. Tuning didn’t just “evolve.” It changed because people changed it, and those people had cultural priorities, whether or not they were individually aware of said priorities. And one of those priorities was to erase difference.

Anyway, you can read Blake’s essay here. And then you should share it with everyone you know.

The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.



New essay on The Avid Listener: Kristen Turner, “America Goes to the Opera”

When I was a young music major in college a few too many years ago, I went on a field trip with my voice studio. We hopped in a van and drove a few towns away to hear a traveling troupe perform Verdi’s La traviata. It wasn’t my first opera experience, but it was memorable: there was no orchestra–only a piano–and I don’t even think there was a full cast. Just enough singers to fill the principle roles (singing in English, not the original Italian), a piano, a few props, and Bob’s your uncle. I remember laughing during Violetta’s death scene; my reaction may or may not have been inappropriate. But to me, the piano reduction of Verdi’s score sounded ridiculous, and Violetta’s death took place to repeated oom-pa-pas. I was spoiled by my first opera experience at the Portland opera: there was a real elephant in Aida! Little did I know that stripped-down performances like the Verdi performance I attended were once more the norm than the exception.

Which brings us to this week’s essay, “America goes to the Opera” by Kristen M. Turner. Here’s a teaser: “To many people, opera means expensive productions of long, melodramatic works composed more than a century ago and sung in a language other than English. The genre conjures up images of formally dressed, older audiences who have spent a small fortune on tickets to attend a performance in a regally appointed opera house in Manhattan or Paris. But opera is not always like this. A quick perusal of YouTube reveals smaller, sometimes student productions, which lack the elaborate scenery, large orchestral accompaniments, and beautiful costumes often associated with opera.”

Wait, what? Opera without scenery and costumes? No wigs? No breastplates? Yes. Opera wasn’t always so highfalutin, at least in the US. Kristen gives you the scoop in this essay about how US audiences experienced opera before the Civil War. If you love opera, you’ll find all of this background quite fascinating. If you’re not an opera fan, give this essay a try anyway. You may be surprised to learn that opera was once popular music in the US, enjoyed by diverse audiences in a variety of contexts. You can read the entire essay here.

In case you’re wondering what happened after the Civil War, well, stay tuned: Kristen has a 3rd essay on the way! In the meantime, next week we’ll feature an essay by Blake Howe called “Temperamental Differences.”

The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.