internet music publishing
a survey of independent and open source publishers

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Serpent Publications (Laura Conrad) -

Laura Conrad's work as an editor of early music scores is well known to most Mstation readers, and her earlier article details her work in music typesetting using Linux. Her music is released on the Laymusic site, and like the Musica Viva and CPDL sites, it is available for free download, providing authentic editions which may be printed at home, although she also provides a mail order service at low cost. I asked her about the origins of how she came to be publishing via the internet:

Well, there are two questions in there -- why I started publishing at all, and why I put the results on the internet. The answer to the first is that the regular music publishers just weren't doing editions of the music I was interested in they way I wanted them. And I was organizing these recorder groups, and I wanted them to be able to play the renaissance polyphony the way it was originally published. This was happening at about the same time I started my webpage; both the publishing and the home page were part of why I wanted to buy a LINUX system. I'd been using UNIX systems at work since the mid-80's, and I knew both jobs were going to have tedious aspects that I just wasn't going to want to do without the ability to write scripts for them. So my original home page had a list of all my hobbies on it, and I would put up my recipe when I brewed a batch of beer, and I regularly updated the recorder page with what I was practicing and had a page for the group that said when the next rehearsal was and what we were going to play, and when I figured out how to do something in LINUX I wrote it up and put it in the 'My linux setup' section, and so when I finally managed to get my music publishing going, I put the results of that up. And the one of these sections that's been the most successful, in terms of numbers of people who use it and write me about it, is the music publishing one, and so that's the one that I've been really putting a lot of time into lately. So for the next incarnation of my website, there will be just a pointer to "Laura's home page", which will still have the linux and beer and recorder stuff. But the site will be, and will have sections with pointers to organizations which do what I consider lay music, and to other places that publish useful music, or describe how to learn to play instruments, but a big part of the site will be the "Serpent Publications" page.

The problems of performing from a regular edition of an early work mean that much of its detail, particularly its rhythmic complexity is missing. Laura details this problem, which she avoids by preparing her scores without barlines so that they may be interpreted in a similiar manner to the original manuscripts:

The regular editions are produced from the point of view that you have something just like 20th century band music, with a conductor and players who are following the conductor's beat and need the barlines to know how what they're playing corresponds with the beat. There are a lot of 20th century early music groups that do function that way. But the people in the 16th century who played this music didn't function that way -- they really were thinking of their tune as their solo, and the rest of the group as the accompaniment to the solo. For every part. This of course works only if the group is feeling the same beat, but we're pretty sure they didn't always play metronomically. The harmonies are simple enough that getting a little ahead or behind the beat doesn't really matter as long as you all sync up at the cadence points. And besides, the rhythms are just plain easier to read without the barlines in the way. Dowland wrote barlines in his cantus parts, which were lined up in score with the lute tab, but he would leave out any barlines which would have caused a tied note. I think the best explanation I've written on that subject so far is the preface to the "Canzonets for two Voyces" at

Laura Conrad's site,, is devoted to music-making available to all. She releases her music under the GNU Public License. In the page from her website entitled "Why Lay Music?", she writes:

20th century culture, as a result of the commercialization of concert music in the 18th and 19th century, and even more of the development of recorded music in the 20th century, sees music almost entirely as something that professional musicians do, and the rest of us pay for. I believe that there are a lot of people who do not make their living doing music, who find making rather than consuming music is a very important part of their lives. I think music should be like eating and drinking -- you don't need to cook as well as someone else does to enjoy a meal with them, and there should be ways to enjoy making music with people who sing or play with different ability levels and different styles.

I also caught up with news on Lauras more recent editing projects, including her work with Linux music typesetting applications:

The big project is switching the underlying technology for my printing from the abc2ps program to lilypond. This involves doing some development on the abc2ly converter as well as a lot of QA on new versions of lilypond. One of the reasons to use lilypond is that the interface between lilypond and TeX is a lot easier to use, and so I'm writing scripts to produce the TeX files that enable this. Another project that is a little intermittent but occasionally threatens to loom larger in my life is the ABC Sourceforge project, of which I'm one of the administrators.

Her current editing projects include an edition of the songs of John Dowland, which were originally published as books, to be performed by singers sitting at a table, with the parts turned sideways as necessary:

Well, he published 5 books in his lifetime, and they are all available in facsimile. The facsimiles are fascinating -- they have all the parts printed on two facing pages, and arranged so that 4-6 people sitting around a table can each see their part. A lot of the tunes are pretty well-known as solos with lute accompaniment, but the 4 and 5 part arrangements aren't played very often. And they're presented isolated in anthologies, and I really think these books that the Elizabethan madrigalists published were intended to be experienced as a whole -- that is, people did sit down and go through all the Morley 2-voyce canzonets, or the Dowland First Booke of Lute Songs and Ayres in order. Which you can't do from the anthologies. So I'm transcribing them all. I'm about a third of the way through the first book (with some detours into the second and fourth). This project is generating even more interest than the similar Morley projects, and I've already had contributions from 2 other people (which aren't up yet, but will be soon).

I haven't yet produced a two-page spread with the parts arranged for sitting around a table. Partly because neither the serpent nor the trombone is well designed for reading from a score on a table, and the group I've been playing these with includes both. But I think the final edition will offer that as an option.

Other new projects have also been facilitated by the lower costs of publishing on the internet:

Well, I don't have any lack of projects to talk about. Two I haven't mentioned yet are: a book of simple tunes in all twelve keys, arranged both by key signature and tune. This is an example of something that's a lot easier to do by computer on the internet than it would be with dead trees. For a dead tree publisher, sorting both ways would double the cost. For me, it means writing a dozen more lines of shellscript. I'm contributing the two Arban sets of variations I've done so that I could play them on the serpent to someone who is trying to do the whole of Arban's 'method' in lilypond.

The mention again of the avoidance of cost by making scores available electronically instead of through a conventional print medium made me wonder if environmental conservation is also a concern:

So far, I don't think anyone can really claim that electronic publishing is leading to less demand for paper. If anything it's probably the reverse. Since multiple drafts are so much easier when you just edit a file on your computer. If I were going to make ecological claims it would be for electronic transmission versus petroleum-based delivery. But of course, there are individual situations where you can save trees by printing only the parts you're interested in.

The Linux applications which Laura uses in preparing her scores will also be made available on the Mstation apps CD, due to be released shortly as a prelude to the Mstation Linux distro project.

Many thanks to the individual composers, editors and webmasters for their contributions to this article, and for permission for the various screenshots alongside each site. Also thanks to Damon Hart Davis's photo gallery (another site which has adopted an open source ethos :) for source images used in the creation of the initial icon.

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