Creation and Civilization

I wish I could remember where I became aware of this idea and to who to credit it, but I once read that our collective ability to change the climate of an entire planet on a global scale, as we careen towards what seems like an increasingly likely end-result of an uninhabitable planet, is really the most impressive thing that the human race has ever accomplished. This is the stuff of comic book super-villains, but it wasn’t some dastardly evil-doer who accomplished this, it was more or less all of us (with some of us far more responsible for the accomplishment than others) that made it happen. A whole species involved in the horrific act of raising the temperature of an entire planet so as to wildly reshape every aspect of what is occurring on it. From a purely academic perspective, it’s incredibly impressive. Wildly depressing? Certainly. In need of drastic and immediate action? Absolutely. But impressive nonetheless.

This idea popped back into my mind as I was listening to the Vivaldi Recomposed episode of Toledo Symphony Lab (1). TAPA President and CEO Zak Vassar talks about the piece of music “Four Seasons Recomposed,” which was first published by Antonio Vivaldi in 1725 and then re-imagined by Max Richter in 2012, heavily reworking the composition but still clearly based on the original piece by Vivaldi. I found myself made uncomfortable and resistant to a sentiment that Mr. Vassar expressed:

“…and I gotta say, when I first heard about it, it’s the sort of thing that makes somebody mad. Why, why would they do this? They are taking a wonderful piece, they are trying to tweak it, they are trying to reinvent it, they are trying to make it more relevant. Let it live on it’s own. That’s what we would say 99% of the time. This is just really creative and beautiful, so I don’t feel like he’s…created a lesser Four Seasons, I think he’s created a different Four Seasons.”

Zak Vassar, Toledo Symphony Lab podcast, published September 9, 2020

Now, there is a lot of nuance embedded in this sentiment, and context that I don’t even necessarily understand. The re-composition of the Four Seasons was at the request of a German classical music record label, not simply as an exercise to release into the world under a CC0 1.0 attribution. I’m certainly not here to slam Mr. Vassar for his opinions on what I can only imagine are the complex inner-workings of the world of international classical music, an area that I am not familiar with as a musician, a composer, an administrator, or anything else.

But as someone who generally would like to see as much information made free and reusable as possible, while still acting in a responsible fashion to creators, this sentiment rather bugged me. If someone wants to take a piece of music in the public domain and re-imagine it in new ways, even ways that don’t rise to the level of “creative and beautiful,” what should stop them? If someone tinkers with a piece and doesn’t particularly create something all that different from the original, why should this make anyone mad?

At the 2019 annual meeting of the Society of Ohio Archivists, I had the great pleasure of listening to a keynote presented by Kathleen D. Roe, a former director of the New York State Archives and past president of SAA, called “The Future of the Archival Past,” in which she outlined a history of where the profession of the archivist has been, how we present ourselves as a profession in the present, and where we really need to be moving in the future. I would encourage you to read the presentation in full as it was both absolutely fascinating and wildly energizing.

To very briefly summarize a couple of her points, she emphasized the need for archivists as a profession to make our collections as representative of the population that they exist in as possible, and do less to center the work around the “vaunted historian,” (Roe, p13) an individual who has traditionally been more than likely white, and more than likely male, and instead work harder to make the value of archives apparent to society as a whole, and not just old white guys who are writing 1200 page books about dead white guys.

The value of archives is limitless, and this is one of the central points of my work that I find so energizing; I have no interest in using the collections that I help steward for research purposes, for academic purposes, for creative purposes; that is simply not my goal or interest. The idea that I can organize and present these resources in such a way that it enables a researcher to work harder on their book, for an artist to inform or add to their creation, for a kid to finish their book report… the sheer multitude of ways that one document I get online could be used is terribly exciting to me.

So why shouldn’t anyone interested in tinkering, recomposing, re-imagining, re-engineering Vivaldi’s Four Seasons be more than welcome to do so? We may disagree with each other about exactly when a piece of intellectual property should pass into the public domain, but intellectual property is utterly unique in that we do generally agree that this should happen eventually. If Vivaldi owned a book that was passed down through his family over a period of generations and eventually the government came in and snatched it up and said “no, this belongs to all of us now,” we would rightly be horrified that this personal, physical, property was taken unjustly. However the story in that book, divorced from the physical medium, is something that should be allowed to pass on to society as a whole, to allow it to be distributed more widely, repurposed for new creative endeavors, to continue “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…” (3).

Nothing that we as a human race has created is wholly lacking in any inspiration or influence from the larger civilization in which we all exist. While altering the climate system of an entire planet may be our most impressive single activity, the truth is that everything we do can be seen through the larger complex inter-relations of the whole of humanity, our civilization, our society, and our culture. It does nothing to diminish the brilliance of Vivaldi to discuss that he was influenced by composers, musicians, writers, and thinkers that came before him, or even that off-hand comments and stories from friends and family, or folks that sold him clothes or groceries, or those that passed him on the street may also in subtle and minute ways also have contributed to his thinking and composition. The wonder of society lays in the fact that all of us have complex inner-monologues that are informed by what we see and hear around us, resulting in new and fascinating creations, or even dull and uninteresting creations, but creations nonetheless.

The individual works of a civilization, whether that is a music composition, a book, an article, friendly small talk at the diner over breakfast, all of these creative expressions no matter how trivial, how banal, or how breathtaking, are only possible when viewed through the whole of a wildly complex and global civilization, and that is truly awe-inspiring.

To that end, I’m sure there are those who have expressed these thoughts far more coherently, intelligently, and cogently than I have been able to here, which is absolutely fantastic! I find it immensely gratifying however, to contribute these thoughts, whatever they are worth, by building on the thoughts and expressions of Mr. Vassar, of Ms. Roe, and of Mr. Vivaldi to try and contribute something new, no matter than it may be frivolous or entirely unread, the ability to take these thoughts and re-compose them in an attempt (perhaps a vain one) to create something new, is a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

References:
1. “Vivaldi Recomposed,” Toledo Symphony Lab podcast, timestamp: 07:16, published on September 9, 2020, https://www.wgte.org/radio/podcasts/toledo-symphonylab%E2%84%A2/vivaldi-recomposed

2. “The Future of the Archival Past,” Kathleen D. Roe, Ohio Archivist pages 13-15, presented at the Society of Ohio Archivists Annual Meeting on May 17, 2019, https://ohioarchivists.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/ohio-archivist-2019-fall.pdf

3. Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 8