Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Congress, Alligators, and a Stairway to Heaven

The Colombian Congress is, it seems, notorious for the frequent absence of its senators or whatever they’re called. So a concerned senator proposed a bill to fine (I suppose dock the generous pay of) the worst offenders. Unfortunately the bill could not be passed, because — er — not enough people had turned up to vote on it.
Other important news is that near Disneyland in America a real alligator made off with a real (well, American) two-year-old, and Led Zeppelin have been accused of pinching the interesting chord sequence from the opening of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from, I think, a piece by the group ‘Spirit’.
That last item makes me wonder — how much, or how little, of a piece of music makes it unique, mine, copyright-able? Surely there can be no copyright in a mere sequence of chords? Or can there? Some chord sequences are at once recognizable: if I were to write a song using the same sequence as, say, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, or even just that characteristic I, III7, VI7, II minor opening, I would at once be accused of plagiarism. But what about the twelve-bar blues sequence? Surely anyone may use that? And how about the descending tetrachord, either in usual or Andalusian form? Is, say, Dylan’s ‘One more cup of coffee for the road’ ripped off from Dido’s lament in Purcell’s Opera?
Sometimes even a single chord can be immediately recognizable, and if anyone else uses it it is regarded as a quotation — think of the Tristan chord, which I wrote about a while ago, and which Britten used very obviously in a jokey context in one of his operas. Should the estates of Purcell and Wagner sue Dylan and Britten?
I don’t think I’m making any special point here; just the general one that things are rarely as simple as the newsreaders suggest.
Here is a stairway to heaven by Bouncing Bill Blake of Bermondsey:

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