There’s a saying, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Deep, eh?

I don’t even know what that means—borrow, steal, lease? It’s another one of those sayings that strikes some chord, some je ne sais quoi, some part of our language center that gives it a seeming profundity. Like using foreign words, especially French or Latin, to sound more erudite and sophisticated, when all it means is, “Duh, I dunno.”

Here we have Charles Avison, 1709-1777, a late baroque musician, church organist, music teacher, and composer. His life is not well documented. His compositions and style patterned after one of his teachers, Franceso Giminiani, perhaps, and as we’ll see, many more. He is best known for his 12 Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti, and a haughty three part critique, Essays on Musical Expression.

I would grant the reader a small excerpt from his dissertation on musical Expression for edification and enjoyment, but no less a lesson on English, at least in it’s Form and Style, from the eighteenth Century. I would also care to effect Emphasis on reading the Meaning, attended by carefulness, while letting pass the highfalutin turns of phrase. Thus it may require a second or third reading to appreciate, with fulness of Mind, the thoughts he expresses.

I would appeal to any man, whether ever he found himself urged to Acts of Selfishness, Cruelty, Treachery, Revenge, or Malevolence by the Power of musical sounds? Or if he ever found Jealousy, Suspicion, or Ingratitude engendered in his breast, either from Harmony or Discord? I believe no instance of this Nature can be alleged with Truth. It must be owned, in deed, that the Force of Music may urge the Passions to an excess, or it may fix them on false and improper Objects, and may thus be pernicious in it’s [sic] Effects : But still the Passions which it raises, though they may be misled or excessive, are of the Benevolent and social Kind, and in their Intent at least are disinterested and noble.

To comment on his second most famous work is not what I’m out to do. It’s about his music. Most of the movements, but not all, of the 12 Concerti Grossi are based on the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Scarlatti’s sonatas became tremendously popular in England at the time, so Avison saw an opportunity to capitalize on their popularity. He also wrote 60 other concerti grossi, his own sonatas for harpsichord, and a variety of small chamber works. Much of his music appears to be arrangements or adaptations of Giminiani, and Rameau as well. This habit of absconding others’ themes wasn’t his only crutch. At other times his compositions were developed working in person along side his contemporaries. It appears he wasn’t much the wellspring of originality.

So, is he a borrower, thief, or simply an arranger of others’ labors? Is he great or simply good? Or is he an arrogant copycat?

The liner notes put ample attention on the co-opting of themes, not just by Avison, but many composers of the era. It was common practice, but the author of the notes, Stephen Roe, coming from a modern perspective of copyrights, wants to make a big deal out of it. I have some ambivalence towards the practice only because Avison’s talent rides more on the reworking of someone else’s work. Maybe he’s more an arranger than a composer. The flip side is that good arranging requires at least equal talent to original composition, or more in order to escape the original’s pressure to conformity. Think of all the covers that are half-baked rehashes rather than creative reinterpretations. Even today composers use folk tunes or popular music in their work. Whether purposely or subliminally, it’s unavoidable. Unless an artist is completely isolated from the rest of the world, there’s no way influences from hundreds, or thousands, of various sources won’t seep through.

On the first listening to Avison’s transcriptions of Scarlatti’s sonatas, his creativity is evident. First, consider that the sonatas were single movement pieces, mostly fast tempo. A concerto grosso is typically a three to six movement work with a combination of slow and fast movements. Avison’s are primarily four movement—slow, fast, slow, fast. His initial step in writing the concerti was the selection of which sonatas to group together. Then he needed to find enough slow pieces. He did this in a number of ways. One was to adapt a fast piece to a slow tempo. Second was to take slow movements not just from Scarlatti’s sonatas, but additionally from compositions for soloist and continuo. Third was to write his own material. (He may have also used material from yet another composer(s).) Finding solutions to challenges is the heart of creativity. The final consideration is taking keyboard pieces and refiguring the left & right hands parts into individual string parts for violin, viola, and cello. It can’t be done by a direct note by note transcription. His goal was to capture the spirit of the music and transform it into string parts for a couple of dozen musicians—more creativity.

The accusation of theft is unwarranted. Good or great, all artists are thieves, or borrowers, and more importantly, lenders. This borrowing and lending, this recombination of matter is the foundation of re-creation.

All this cross pollination between Giminiani, Scarlatti, Avison, et al., had me look into my music library to see if I had any recordings of the harpsichord sonatas that match wth those used for the concerti. I have two CDs of Scarlatti sonatas. One by Bob James with his imaginative synthesizer realizations—no matches. The other is a CD by Anthony Newman playing the magnificently grand Magnus Opus harpsichord. Of the twenty-three sonatas on Newman’s CD, only one is a match to any that Avison used for his concerti—Sonata in D Major, K.23, which became the third movement of Concerto #12 in D, Allegro spiritoso. The difficulty in finding matches shouldn’t be too surprising. Scarlatti wrote over 550 sonatas.

Compare and contrast Newman’s harpsichord version with Avison’s third movement of Concerto #12—

Avison combines two sonatas for the first movement of Concerto #2 in G, a largo and an allegro. Although it’s written as three movements, the first, with its slow-fast form, is effectively two movements. Have a listen to the last repetition of the largo as it leads into the allegro.

Concerto #2 in G, Largo-Allegro—

Try this lively fugal movement from Concerto #11 in G. The violin soloist features prominently alternating with the orchestra while winding around major and minor.

Concert #11 in G, Allegro—

Sometimes I get bored with Baroque and Classical music. I’ve listened to so much of it that I find it too predictable, or too sweet, or too common. Then something like this comes along to give me a little wakeup call. It’s just enough different to keep my attention and give my ears a little surprise. Avison may not be the most prolific, the most famous, or the most original. Though he may have borrowed most of the themes, he deftly puts his mark on the music. Though he may be a thief, he has created new music from predecessors’ material as everyone does in one form or another, just not as obviously.

The recordings are well done digital remasters of analog. There is plenty of headroom (no dynamic compression), minimal tape hiss (without artificial EQ), good stereo imaging (possibly only 2 microphones). Solid recording techniques, all that’s needed to forget the sound of the recording so you can relax and hear the music, only the music.

(||) Rating — Music : A ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║
 Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Avison-Scarlatti 12 Concerti Grossi, Philip Classics, 1993 (recorded 1979)

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Free Market—Free World

prosperity for all the free

Excerpts from Bleeding Heart Libertarians “Why Free Markets.”

. . .the problem we face when try [sic] to “construct” an economic order is how to best make use of all of this knowledge, which is dispersed, contextual, and often tacit. His answer was that the price system enables us to make use of the knowledge possessed by others, even when those others cannot articulate or put into statistics exactly what it is that they know. Our acts of buying and selling cause prices to change and enable those prices to serve as surrogates for the underlying knowledge. Without directly accessing others’ minds, we are able to have some knowledge about what they value that, in turn, enables us to allocate resources in ways that match those valuations.

Mises and Hayek also argued that because this knowledge is structurally dispersed, contextual and tacit, it cannot be aggregated by government planners and regulators (nor, it’s worth noting, by private actors). The only way to make this knowledge available to others is in surrogate form through the price system.

That quote is a classic example of the “I don’t know” theory. Since we cannot know the underlying knowledge of the economic system, we let prices do their own thing. We’re not smart enough to self-regulate, therefore, let the market run willy-nilly on its own.

Without the ability to make reliable decisions on the objective merits, self-interest will slowly dominate. Regulators will try to serve the needs of those who will keep them in power and supply them with healthy budgets. So-called “Capture Theory” explains that it then becomes easy for regulators to be “captured” by the industries they regulate and then regulate in ways that favor the industry.

As long as the state regulates, the possibility of private profits will lure with those with power and resources into that game and it’s a game they will inevitably win. And the losers will be those without the power and resources. Free markets don’t give us utopia, but I really do believe they do better by the poor than do regulated markets for the reasons I’ve outlined.

A sparkling example of the “I give up” theory. Since laws and regulations meant to remedy inequitable and unjust behavior have historically been subject to resistance and reversal, then there’s no reason to try. Just let people be free. Free to be unjust. Free to discriminate. Free to exploit. The rich will win out every time anyway, so let them have it all to themselves. Of course, no actual statistics back up his claim, “but I really do believe [free markets] do better by the poor. . .” He can believe whatever he likes, even after he points out many of the pitfalls of a carte blanche free market. He can deliberately ignore the horrific treatment of employees by the industrial robber barons of the 19th/early 20th centuries, a time when there was much less regulation. He can choose to ignore why we established child-labor laws, or why the 40 hour work week was put into place, or why sick leave, paid vacation, maternity leave, and work place safety laws were adopted. All regulations established to help equalize disparities. The recent domination of the marketplace by the middle class was not accomplished via an unregulated, laissez faire, libertarian free market; it grew out of good law and good policy.

Free market advocates also clam that minimum wage increases will cause higher unemployment among the low-skilled workers—just the population it’s supposed to help. It’s easy to see why. Employers push back by cutting jobs. Being understaffed hurts the company, but it’s only minor and temporary. A big company has the resources to weather a short term inconvenience, but the poor are effected immediately. They haven’t the reserves to get them through an interruption of their income. Soon they capitulate and accept any job at any pay. The rich have the fulcrum set to give them the leverage. The poor never have a chance. An example of poverty being created. It also sidesteps the number one reason for increasing minimum wage. The minimum wage employee lives hand to mouth spending every penny they earn. Double their income, and they’ll still spend every penny. Think of what that’ll do for retail sales. The rich, conversely, can’t begin to spend everything they take in or have. Increase their income and very, very little of it makes it to the marketplace.

It’s the free market that has driven technology and given us more choices for less.

Oh, and here we have the “money drives innovation” theory, along with the “free market gives more choices” theory. Inquisitiveness, the desire to know, the desire to understand are what drive science and technology. They are the real motivators behind learning and progress. Greed only drives getting more of other people’s share. Choices? Free markets do give us abundance—and redundancy—and waste—and lots of unnecessary junk. And it gives us choices based on greed rather than need. We don’t need more, cheaper choices; we need better choices.

This begs a few questions. If the rich game a system under regulation, what’s to keep them from gaming a system without regulation? Since the rich are gaming the system, how is their free reign over it better than independent, external regulation? If a free, unregulated market is the only viable market, why do we tolerate a market where the rules are made for, by, and favor the rich? How can the market be free when it’s regulated by the rich?

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates once said.

An unexamined belief is not worth believing. These are only a few of the arguments made to justify the unjustness of an unregulated economic system. But to rationalize without rational thought, to argue without thoroughly examining the proposition, leaves the argument unreasoned and confounded by false assumptions. Belief needs substantial, verifiable support to be real, free faith. I would have faith in a free market if all the players were fair and honest. I would have faith in a system of complete anarchy if every one of us treated everyone else with equal respect and kindness. We would not need laws or regulations, rulers or police, borders or armies. A truly free market would not only “do better by the poor,” there wouldn’t be any poor.

Since all the evidence we have of current human behavior, and all the historical evidence on record decisively shows us a world incapable of acting with respect and kindness, fairness and honesty, among all the players, a truly free market is untenable. Free market advocates would never stand for anarchy on Main Street, but somehow, by some twist of logic, they insist on having anarchy on Wall Street.

Listen to part 1 of the BBC podcast [Does Money Make You Mean?]. 

Related post [Competition Makes the World Go ’round].

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