Fresh ideas in online distribution of experimental scores

By June 8th, 2011

One of the problems historically facing composers is the distribution of their scores. Composers in times past relied heavily on music publishers to circulate their music. But in recent decades, many composers have asserted that music publishers are generally unreceptive to scores that “push the envelope”.  (Yes, I’m sure music afficiandos can name plenty of exceptions and the “envelope” is a relative idea.)

The “lucky” exceptions who find publishers often complain that their royalties are halved, their copyrights are tied up, and performances delayed or stifled by the laborious process of score rentals. As Joe Drew wrote in response to a Kyle Gann blog post:

“A month ago, I submitted a perusal request for a new trumpet concerto from a major publisher. Just looking at the score to decide if I want to rent it costs $35+shipping. Weeks go by, and I finally get a CD from their NY office. The score is shipping separately from London.

I have the pleasure of paying for all of that. The bill will be about $50, and there’s absolutely no indication of when the score will even get here.

That’s total nonsense, especially since it takes about 5 minutes with a score to decide if it’s worth performing!

What composer wants his music to be so hard to access? Why should a musician have to pay $50 just to look at a score in the age of the pdf? What good is a publisher doing a composer by cloistering his scores away from the public?

This is not a new problem. Since it became clear in the early 20th century that American composers were creating music differing from European models in daring ways, they have by necessity taken it upon themselves to both self-publish and to publish each other’s scores. An early example of this was Henry Cowell’s New Music (a quarterly running from 1927-1953 and largely supported by Charles Ives) which featured music often too progressive for traditional publishers. This publication featured some of Ives’ most famous works and introduced the musical community to composers as diverse as Otto Leuning (a pioneer of electronic music) and Aaron Copland (then working in a more dissonant modernist style than his later populist Americana).

Later examples in Cowell’s footsteps include Larry Austin’s conceptualist Source Magazine, Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press (which played an important role in the Fluxus movement), and  Peter Garland Soundings Press. In the 1970s and 1980s, Soundings featured the work of many innovative composers ranging from (post)minimalist scores to the player-piano pieces studies of Conlon Nancarrow. Collectives such as Frog Peak continue this type of work with the advent of the internet. Frog Peak, founded in 1982 and still active, features many composers well known in experimental and (post)minimal music circles., a free site created by composer Adam Overton throws the doors of score publication and distribution wide open. This site, now over 2 years old, bills itself as “a wiki-repository of scores for contemporary experimental performance”. Composers can create a searchable profile and upload unlimited scores under a Creative Commons license. It takes merely seconds to find a score and download its pdf. The site design allows users to search for scores in a number of creative and inspiring ways (instrumentation, materials, duration, # of players, title, random artist, random score, etc.). I can’t help but use the “random” features whenver I visit to find something new and unexpected.

You don’t even have to be musically trained to get something out of the site. Many pieces are conceptual and don’t require the performer to know traditional music notation or have any particular degree of “musical” ability. A open mind can find much of interest here without even “performing” a single “note”.

Since the 1990s, many composers have offered their scores online as pdfs on their personal websites or pages of organizations they affiliate with. This makes distribution of their work easier than in earlier decades but does not necessarily make their work less obscure. This vacuum is totally obliterated by the model of, bringing score distribution into a Web2.0 framework. Overton’s creation fosters community, curiosity, and experimentation and updates the altruistic efforts of Cowell, Austin, Higgins, Garland, and Frog Peak in new technically adept way.

Have you had trouble distributing your scores? What do you think of Do you think this is a model for score distribution in the future?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 at 4:00 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

2 Responses to “Fresh ideas in online distribution of experimental scores”

  1. Kate Miranda Says:

    There’s a lively and interesting musical community meeting internationally in virtual reality.

  2. Susan Mills Says:

    I love! Often when I’m thinking of organizing a concert I do a couple keyword searches in the site to see if there are any relevant scores that would be cohesive with the event I’m putting together. Most recently I found an amazing piece by Andressa Soares (who’s work I was completely unaware of) that fit perfectly in to a concert devoted to new music inspired by the Shakers.

    Thank You Jacob for this thoughtful post and Thank You UDP!

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