Cunningham, Cage, and Copyright

The Christian Science Monitor published an article yesterday about Merce Cunningham’s living legacy plan to avoid the kind of intellectual property feuds that followed the death of Martha Graham. The Carol Strickland  of the CSM reports:

Although the Cunningham living legacy plan aims to preserve its founder’s vision intact as custodian of his intellectual property, that does not mean the choreography will be frozen forever, like an artifact of the past. As a choreographer, Cunningham always welcomed new technology and pioneered countless innovations. Collaboration, chance, and change were the very cornerstones of his approach.

Although the sun has set on his career, a new dawn inspired by his achievement may follow. “Ideas,” as the artist Robert Rauschenberg, Cunningham’s collaborator, said, “are not real estate.”

Neither is intellectual property. It could be a site where past art is not just preserved but fertilizes future growth.

“Dancing is a process that never stops,” Cunningham said when announcing his living legacy plan, “and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh.”

There was a mention of Creative Commons in the article’s discussion of copyright issues.  Cunningham was one of the few major choreographers to have licensed his work under a Creative Commons license.  As an advocate of Creative Commons licenses, I applaud Cunningham’s generosity to our collective artistic heritage.  However, I should also note as a comparison that in most folk dancing traditions, sharing and open collaboration are the norms– the idea of ownership is fluid and oftentimes forms and techniques are owned and transmitted collectively.

<tangent>Another scenario to consider: Michael Jackson “owned” the moonwalk in the sense that it is a dance move popularly associated with him.  But what if he literally owned it as intellectual property?  Would the Jackson estate be going after the unauthorized moonwalkers in the Eternal Moonwalk tribute site? </tangent>

The CSM article did not mention Cunningham’s life partner and frequent artistic collaborator, composer John Cage.  The two men’s work similarly combined demanding detailed instructions with indeterminacy and chance operations such as the rolling of dice.  The Cage estate has recently gone after what it considered copyright infringements against Cage’s (in)famous 4’33” (“The Silent Piece”).

The big Zen koan question then becomes, is randomness and silence copyrightable?

The score of 4’33” instructs the performer(s) to not play their instruments for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  But the piece is not really silent.  As I have previously written:

The piece is made up of the hum of the air-conditioning in the hall, the ruffle of programs, the coughing of an audience member; it is an invitation, an invocation, to listen to the ambient sounds all around us.  Cage rejects the distinction between musical and non-musical sounds, and embraces all sounds, regardless of the performers intent, to be potentially musical.  In doing so, Cage completes the break from the history of classical composition and offers up a new model for music in which the primary act of for the composer and for the performer is not to make music, but to listen.

When a critic told Cage that anybody could have written 4’33”, Cage responded with his usual charming wit, “but nobody else did.”  There is no doubt that the provocative and performative nature of 4’33” is an act of creativity, if not genius.  At the same time, one could also argue that because the piece is about listening to the sounds that exist in the performance space even if no instruments are being played, then David Tudor’s “non-playing” of the piano at the premiere, as well as the noises generated by the audience members present, were all integral parts of the piece.  In that sense, the performer and the audience share a kind of authorship of the piece.  They all ‘performed’ 4’33” and made it what it was.  By elevating the role of listeners, Cage was in effect bringing back a participatory, interactive element that had been lost in Western “classical” music.

Cage’s 4’33” also represents a break from the idea of Romantic authorship, where “an author is perceived to be the source of original ideas, transforming the world around him through his own genius” (Authorship Collective).  Romantic authorship would claim that the roll of the composer is to create music out of silence. But Cage’s point is that silence does not exist.

One of the inspirations for 4’33” was Cage’s experience in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a soundproofed room designed in such a way that all the surfaces in the room will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes.

Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he “heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, yet sound was nevertheless discernible. He stated “until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” (Wikipedia)

Composers cannot create music out of silence because silence does not exist. Even if it did, unless we are deaf, it is impossible to perceive it.  Cage’s 4’33”, like Duchamp’s ready-mades, is a kind of “found art,” comprised of environmental sounds that already exist.  We are all constantly surrounded by sounds, they are unavoidable elements of our environment.  The role of composers and musicians is to organize and present those sounds, which is exactly what  remix and mash-up artists do today when they create new music from the found sounds and cultural artifacts found in our environment.  In a way, the “found-sound” composition 4’33” is an Ur-remix, a remix of (non)silence and of reality itself, and John Cage an avant la lettre master of the mash-up.

All of this has inspired my latest composition: 433 trees falling in the forest with nobody to hear the sound. (C) 2009 Lee-Sean Huang, published by Hepnova Multimedia LLC.  All Rights Reserved.