Adventures of a copyright troll

In the 20 May 2013 issue of The Nation, I have a review of Unfair to Genius, a biography by Gary A. Rosen of the early-20th-century musician and litigant Ira B. Arnstein. Arnstein started out as a moderately successful composer and music teacher, but as the music business changed, he lost his footing and in desperation turned to the courts, where he made rather wild claims of plagiarism against his colleagues.

In his end notes, Rosen points the reader to recordings of Arnstein’s songs available on the internet. For example, you can hear “A Mother’s Prayer,”  a schmaltzy song that was Arnstein’s first big success, at the Library of Congress. It’s part of a 1913 recording of a medley by the Victor Military Band; Arnstein’s is the first tune in the medley. At Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, you can hear a 1918 Columbia Gramophone recording of Arnstein’s “Soldiers of Zion,” a Jewish national anthem, as sung by Josef Rosenblatt, a celebrity of the day known as the Jewish Caruso. The Judaica Sound Archives also hosts a 1922 Victor recording of another Jewish tune of Arnstein’s, “V’Shomru.” The conductor at Victor who arranged for the recording, Nathaniel Shilkret, was to become an early victim of Arnstein’s legal attacks.

If you want to judge Arnstein’s cases yourself, head over to the Music Copyright Infringement Resource, hosted by Columbia University and the USC Gould School of Law. There you can listen to the songs on both sides and make up your own mind as to whether, say, Shilkret plagiarized Arnstein, as Arnstein alleged he did (the judge’s 1933 verdict: “there was not sufficient originality in the plaintiff’s eight measures to make it worthwhile for anyone to steal them”). In a case decided in 1936, Arnstein claimed that a CBS music director had taken the gypsy-themed tune “Play, Fiddle, Play” from him; you can listen for yourself to that tune, too, as well as to Arnstein’s supposed original. In Unfair to Genius, Rosen points out that judges of the day applied conflicting rules about how to determine plagiarism in music: there was one standard in Allen v. Walt Disney Productions (1941), and a different one in Carew v. RKO Pictures (1942). The songs fought over in both cases are in the Music Copyright Infringement Resource. As are the songs at issue in Arnstein’s lawsuits against Broadcast Music, Inc. and against Cole Porter. The Cole Porter case is the show-stopper of Rosen’s book; it led to a Second Circuit ruling still used by the courts to determine whether there’s been a copyright infringement. Was a pious song of Arnstein’s degraded into, as Arnstein put it, “a song to a cow,” namely, Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”?

UPDATE, 6:40pm: At Oxford University Press’s blog, Rosen has compiled a Spotify playlist of fifteen classic American songs that Arnstein claimed had been stolen from him. (Probably better listening than the songs that are indisputably his.)

Presidential phonetics

In the tradition of They Might Be Giants' "James K. Polk," the band Two Man Gentlemen Band, who describe themselves in an email to me as a "vaudevillian-swing duo," have released the song "Franklin Pierce," in honor of the fourteenth U.S. president. They rhyme the president's last name with the word tears and beer, perhaps on account of his struggle with alcoholism. (It may not have been pronounced that way, though. His contemporary Lydia Maria Child, who loathed Pierce for opposing abolitionism, once said his name rhymed with curse.)

Figures of song

If a writer describes a dog as saying woof, the word woof is onomatopoeia: the word not only references the sound a dog makes but also reproduces it. Onomatopoeia is one of the earliest figures of speech children learn, and is only one of many ways to use language's musical aspect to evoke things and even ideas. The back of my old copy of Smyth's Greek Grammar has an extensive catalog, including repetition, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and many more. Figures of speech are what distinguish artful use of language from merely referential use of it. What do you call it, though, when a thing or idea in the real world is reproduced in music? Strictly speaking, perhaps the answer should be "language," but that completes the circle without answering my question. It may be easier to explain what I mean with examples.

The most straightforward way to represent something in music is to dub it in. In the age of sampling, a musician can easily insert the sound of, say, a telephone ring or a clock alarm. "The Big Picture," by Bright Eyes, for example, starts with an extended recording of a car trip, including jingling keys, the reassuring clump of a car door slamming shut, and an ignition turning over.

The Big Picture (sample)

At the next level of artistic transformation, the phenomenon that I'm talking about closely resembles onomatopoeia. At the end of The Clash's "Somebody Got Murdered," a single drum stroke seems to be meant to sound like a gunshot.

Somebody Got Murdered (sample)

In Radiohead's "Videotape," the limited progression of piano chords repeated throughout the song suggest the rotation of a videotape, and the rhythm that the drum track settles into by the end sounds, at least to me, like the slap and flutter of the loose end of a tape circling on an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder (or of the loose end of a reel of film turning on a projector)—so that the song manages to evoke the recording technologies of two different eras.

Videotape (sample)

Some of these "figures of song" represent the real world more abstractly. Regina Spektor's "On the Radio" is busy with words, and one of the song's pleasures is the way the words tumble over and into one another. When Spektor describes hearing the song "November Rain" twice during a single radio broadcast, however, she breaks her own talky rhythm by stretching out the word "sleep" in the short line "because the DJ was asleep" so as to reference the DJ's snooze. Note that she doesn't repeat herself to reference snoozing; her allusion, more abstractly , is to the way a sleeper's oatmeal boils over, or the way a sleeper's pencil flatlines if she drifts off while taking notes.

On The Radio (sample)

The most sophisticated example I can think of is in the refrain of Belle & Sebastian's "The Blues Are Still Blue," when Stuart Murdoch sings that when he meets up again with the girlfriend he has left in the launderette, "the black will be white and the white will be black, but the blues are still blue." The melody meanders up and down during the first part of the refrain, reproducing the circling motion of a laundry machine. But when Murdoch sings the words "The blues are still blue," the vocalists accompanying him sing all the words at a single pitch, reinforcing the concept of blue's identity with itself.

The Blues Are Still Blue (sample)

To call something like this "onomatopoeia" seems a little Procrustean. The sound of laundry isn't being mimicked; the melody is tracing the shape the laundry makes, and then the accompanying voices are tracing that of identity. It seems like another terminology is called for; maybe a musicologist will steer me to it?

“Heavy Rotation” on WNYC radio

Shortly after 1:20pm EDT today (Monday), editor Peter Terzian and contributors Joshua Ferris and Martha Southgate will be talking about Heavy Rotation on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show, airing in New York City on 93.9 FM and AM 820 and streamable anywhere from the show's webpage. (Free download through I-Tunes available here, at least for a while.)

In other Heavy Rotation news, Liz Brown has blogged about the book at Kill Fee, and Peter has written a guest post at Large-hearted Boy about the role music has played in helping him mourn the loss of his mother.

Update, July 13: Newsday published a full-page preview of the book on July 11, and Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review (scroll down) on July 6, writing that "these essays exhibit a perfect blend of respect and irreverence, with
an intoxicating intimacy; readers who love music will devour this
collection, and beg for a second volume."