October 12, 2003

Free music celebrates 20 years

Author: Lee Schlesinger

The concert hall lights dim. A bespectacled man in a tux takes the conductor's podium and raises his baton. When he brings it down again, beautiful music starts to play. Welcome to a performance of the Musical Open Source Artists Instrumental Collaborative (MOSAIC).

To a casual audience member, MOSAIC has the same look and feel as the dominant symphony orchestra. But in this organization members play only instruments in the public domain -- no Moog synthesizers here. They don't charge for their talents, though if you want to see them in person you may have to pay to rent a seat.

The orchestra can trace its beginnings to 1983, when composer Richard M. Straussman was gored by a large African antelope ("it's a long story" is all he'll say about the incident) and forced to spend time recuperating in Cambridge, Mass. Up to that time, Straussman was best known for compositions under the pseudonym "E. Max." During this time when he was forced to associate with people in the real world (mostly nurses, "so it was a mixed blessing," he says), Straussman realized how little appreciation people had for free music. "I considered that the golden rule required that if I liked a symphony I had to share it with other people who might like it."

Straussman published what he calls his "gnu music manifesto" on a bulletin board at Boston's Symphony Hall, signing it with his initials RMS. He attracted a few like-minded individuals and built a core set of woodwind and brass players that played old classics and developed a few new works. Their work was mostly relegated to the back alleys of musicdom for many years, however.

The project didn't really take off until more than 10 years later, when Finnish conductor Linus Stokowski joined the project and somehow began attracting not only clarinetists and trombones, but strings, percussion, and even keyboards. MOSAIC's numbers grew, as did its fan base. In recent years, MOSAIC has even attracted corporate sponsors, one of whom has spent more than $1 billion producing MOSAIC music.

Despite this, no one involved with MOSAIC is getting rich. This may be due to the organization's unique distribution system. The orchestra makes its works freely available through FTP downloads and peer-to-peer file sharing. If, however, you want a CD of music, you can pay the company a modest fee to ship it to you.

Critics have questioned whether MOSAIC's music is ready for desktop players. Some, feeling that you can only be comfortable with music that costs money, wonder whether there's a place for MOSAIC at all. Others maintain MOSAIC recordings might have a role on room-size systems, but still feel music fans are generally better off with their own orchestra. Conductor Linus Stokowski maintains, however, that "MOSAIC is scalable from the desktop to the concert hall, and even plays well on handheld devices." He notes that the orchestra is highly compatible with pure, classical music composed independently, always (PCMCIA).

MOSAIC has been attacked in the press and recently sued by the Symphonic Closed/Open Repertory Ensemble (SCORE), which says it owns the music MOSAIC has been playing. Linus dismisses the claims, saying, "They are smoking what jazz musicians smoke." Still, critics are waiting for the courts to give their opinions before the critics themselves affirm MOSAIC's worth.

Music users aren't waiting, however. MOSAIC is growing in popularity monthly. There's even a MOSAICworld conference in San Francisco every year, which includes seminars on musical techniques as well as booths for fans to popularize their favorite works.

Straussman recently looked back with pride at how his brainchild has taken off in 20 years. In recent years RMS has spent less time directly involved with music and more time on liberal social causes. Nevertheless, he wields the baton on occasion, though without formal training he's considered only a semiconductor.

Linus, on the other hand, still mounts that podium almost every night. He says he still gets a thrill out of knowing that free music, like free speech (not free wine spritzers), is alive and well.

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