Diablog: We're Asking Nicely

Who is this pianist? What is he playing? It's pretty soulful.

Richter. Handel. Yes, isn't it? Sviatoslav Richter is a recent obsession of mine. Born in the Ukraine to a Russian mother and German father two years before the Russian Revolution. Died a decade after Perestroika. A big man with big hands and a big skull, the face pulled down by a not quite permanent frown. He would go into a performance with this magnificent musical architecture in his head, dozens of dynamic gradations, all kinds of tone color, real feeling, and had the chops to execute all of it perfectly, except when he didn't. But he never phoned it in. His power and nuance blow me away every time. An authentic Soviet hero--

Oh, that'll endear him to your readers.

Well, he never joined the Communist Party, Stalin or no Stalin. He did mount exhibitions of banned artists and spent the last 30 summers of his life in the south of France. He was certainly greeted as a hero when finally allowed to make his Carnegie Hall debut in 1960 at the age of 45. That's what got me obsessed, a beautiful live reissue called Richter Rediscovered.

That's what we're listening to, then?

No, these are Handel Keyboard Suites. Not as rigorous as Bach, but they have a nice back-of-an-envelope quality. It's unusual to hear them played on piano--they were written for harpsichord. Or was it clavichord? Richter actually played only half the pieces. His protégé Andrei Gavrilov played the rest. The Handel Keyboard Suites are a bargain on Amazon at $11.98 for the two-disc set. There's also a second volume. I bought that too.

Hey, I recognize those red CD spines. They're EMI Classics releases. I thought you were participating in Gizmodo's Boycott RIAA Month. I refer, of course to the Recording Industry Antichrist of America and its clutch of capitalist powers: EMI, Sony BMG, Universal, and Warner. You are a traitor to our glorious cause, comrade!

Uh, I ordered them in February and they just arrived. March is the boycott month. The ones I'm buying this month are from independent labels. Richter got around a bit after the Soviets let him cross the border and signed record deals with everyone in sight, simultaneously, confounding the capitalists as he confounded the communists. As a result his discography is vast. But while we're on the subject of copyright controversy, here's something odd. Found in the sleeve notes of the first volume of Handel Suites: "Thank you for buying this disc and thereby supporting all those involved in the making of it. Please remember that this record and its packaging are protected by copyright law. Please don't lend discs to others to copy, give away illegal copies of discs, or use internet services that promote the illegal distribution of copyright recordings. Such actions threaten the livelihood of musicians and everyone else involved in producing music."

Well, you're in the clear. You paid for the CDs.

What I meant by "odd" is that it's the most reasoned copyright warning I've ever read. Someone tried to go beyond the boilerplate and speak to the consumer.

It blew you away with its power and nuance?

No, but it got my attention. After a paragraph break, it goes on to say: "Applicable laws provide--"

Yes, we've heard that before. Skip over it.

And finally: "To find legal downloads, visit www.musicfromemi.com." This URL redirects to pro-music.org where I found a point-by-point rebuttal of the rationales people use when doing things that cheese off EMI. It's, um, er, interesting reading. Unfortunately, that site doesn't make it easy to find the promised legal downloads, so what's a music lover to do? Where are they? Oh, here they are.

Whew! I was beginning to panic over my lack of legal download options. If I get the point you're meandering around to, you're saying this label at least attempted to get its point across by asking nicely, using the point-by-point rebuttal to acknowledge a dialogue, and referencing legal alternatives to illegal downloading.

And isn't that much nicer than filing lawsuits against children? I found some more interesting stuff in the liner notes. Apparently even Handel had copyright worries. The Keyboard Suites represented his first attempt at publishing his own music. He obtained a "Privilege of Copyright" from the King of England in 1720 and wrote by way of introduction: "I have been obliged to publish the following Lessons, because surrepticious [sic] and incorrect Copies of them had got Abroad."

He needed to get a Handel on his copyrights.

Sometimes I'm ashamed just to be seen with you.

I'd love to put these Handel Suites on my iPod. But EMI says: "Please don't lend discs for others to copy." Does that mean you won't let me have them?

There are other potential scenarios here. I might loan you the discs without asking whether you plan to rip them or just listen. Or you might hook up your iPod to my PC and bump the MP3s to your iPod. I'm not a lawyer...

Especially an RIAA lawyer.

...but I have a feeling one or more of those scenarios falls under the heading of fair use, regardless of what the RIAA says about iPods. It may take years for a consensus to develop on this. But, really, we live together, and it's ridiculous to expect us to buy multiple copies of CD titles to feed two iPods. And if it's OK for two people living together, shouldn't that include families? Extended families? College roommates? Or anyone living under one roof? Including the roof of a whole dorm?

You may have overreached with that last one. What happens when Boycott RIAA Month is over?

Some argue that every month should be Boycott RIAA Month, with the number of lawsuit victims at 20,000 and rising daily. That's nothing if not a pattern of abusive behavior. But if that 21-disc Philips set of Richter: The Authorized Recordings came back into print, I'd have a hard time saying no.

You're a model citizen. Suckerrrrr! I see more red EMI CD spines in your future.

There are some good deals out there. Better red than dead.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.

Mark Fleischmann's picture

Apologies to Alan in Victoria, whose comment I inadvertently deleted while fussing around with this blog.