Thursday, May 29, 2008

Open it up!

Bart Collins of the Well-Tempered Blog reports that a number of manuscripts have been discovered in Poland which might be "new" works of Mozart. The online stories indicate that the specialists have been gathered to render judgement on the provenance and authority of the works. That's standard musicological operating procedure ("SMOP").

However, online technology, and that of blogging in particular, offers a serious alternative to SMOP: Good images of the manuscripts can be placed online as soon as possible, allowing analysis and discussion to be carried out by as broad a community as possible rather than a select group of professionals. On numerous occasions, online communities have already demonstrated considerable competence in investigations of this sort, both confirming, complementing, and challenging the work done by professional scholars.

Such a process would necessarily require that parties most immediately associated with the discoveries have to give up a bit of their conventional SMOP rights to control first performances, publication, and even some of the authority associated with a first report in print on the authenticity of the documents. However, as scholars, isn't the greater interest in the work itself, not the collection of scholarly feathers-in-mortar-boards or in the prestige of publication by a traditional publishing house. I believe that this is the case for musical works by composers whose catalogs are otherwise long part of the public domain, and acutely so for works of substantial musical quality, for which getting the work out (published, played, heard) is more important that being the first to do so.

It may be argued that an open vetting of a question like the provenance of a musical manuscript would be a messy and inconclusive process. The famous example of the alleged military service documents of George W. Bush is frequently taken as a case in point. However, I believe that those documents are, in fact, a very good illustration of the advantages of an open process. I believe that it's fair to conclude that the open online discussion reached a consensus on two points, and a consensus that may well be familiar to scholars of music: the first point was that the documents were modern forgeries, but the second point was that the content of the documents appears not to have contradicted in any substantial way the known circumstances and events of Mr. Bush's military performance. (In other words, the documents were fake but their content was true, a combination entirely plausible in the world of music.) In both the documents and the historical context, the online community was able to bring considerable resources and expertise, far exceeding those of the news organization which first publicized the documents. Had CBS News first placed the documents online for such thorough perusal and discussion before making their prime time report, Dan Rather might still be reading the evening news, an example that contemporary music scholars may wish to examine in considering the possible advantages of an open inquiry over SMOP.

1 comment:

Chalk said...

I guess this means my Complete Mozart collection is outdated now? :P