A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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This productivity project has sparked some intense debate. Recently, a composer was talking about the inability to keep up with what she had written, as each year was successively more burdened with objects and duties -- tracking performances, following up emails, marketing compositions, cataloging scores, preparing résumés, making and preserving recordings, clipping reviews, sitting for interviews, proofing score publications. This is the other side of the composer, the composer as fully responsible, fully self-contained engine of creativity and practicality.

That, together with yesterday's comments about tools of the trade, led me to considering the technological composer. Composers have always been so, forward from the days of illuminated manuscripts and instrument invention and improvement. But today, it seems that technology both empowers and dogs the composer.

Our typical technological composer uses a computer, scoring software, audio software, digital printers, disk playback and recording tools, microphones and mixers, keyboards, and sometimes effects boxes and video equipment as well, not to mention email and websites.

If we were to travel back just two generations, we discover that the composer's hardware toolkit was very small: perhaps a piano, plus a pencil and manuscript paper (or even a music line roller and stamp pad) for sketching, fine vellum manuscript paper with a straightedge and an Osmiroid pen for final copies, plus a stack of envelopes and stamps. And great patience. Composers who prepared their scores for manuscript publication used transparencies with music lines on the back, penning the music in India ink that could be scraped off with a razor blade to fix mistakes without damaging the lines. It was a simple time, and few composers could move past oblivion into the publisher's realm, eventually to be sold via gatefold catalogs to a small waiting musician public.

I don't miss those days, though inking transparencies helped me pay for college. When I spent my only month in Cologne at Clarence Barlow's kitchen table copying parts for the orchestral piece Softening Cries, I knew it was time to forsake the pen.

But what are the implications of technology for a composer? For the field of composition? Who rejects the technology? Why?

The Good, the Bad, and the Background Noise

The positive implications are enough that writing final manuscript is rapidly vanishing among younger composers. Those who continue to use manuscript generally have very good reasons; later for that.

The good side of technology is improving score creation, transmission, revision, and legibility. Having used scoring software for fifteen years, I know that one's hands can fly over the entry tools. Though I can draft a score more quickly in pencil, the computer score is quickly ready for editing and proofing, while the pencil score (unless it is rendered very clearly) needs to be copied in full before another's eyes can see it. For revisions, keystrokes and printouts will do instead of recopying or (physically) cutting and pasting. For parts, extraction from score is painless. Time saved and accuracy increased is enormous. And scores and parts can be transmitted quickly.

This latter was brought into focus back in 1999, when Zonule Glaes II was to be performed in Prague. I received a panicked phone call early one morning. The score and parts had disappeared. The rehearsal was to take place that evening. Now what? An hour later, the parts were freshly printed, sitting on a table at HAMU and ready for the quartet. And another story. Two years ago, Icecut was to be performed, but the cellists were unhappy with it. What to do? The lead cellist faxed some suggestions, and by the next day they were incorporated in score and parts. In both cases, the technology saved the performances.

And there is another practical element: legibility. Think about this: Would today's players play Mozart's parts? Unless they were making a historical point, absolutely not. Would today's players even play the manuscript transparency parts for Berlioz's Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale that I copied for its U.S. premiere in 1968? Nope. The clarity of computer engraving has raised the level of expectation. Performers in Broadway shows still get handwritten parts, but even there the numbers are shrinking. As new editions of music appear, they are inevitably computer engraved. Even the diligent composer with impeccable manuscript risks rejection or weak performances with handwritten parts.

Technology may not have disadvantages, but it assuredly has dangers. It's expensive to start with. It's not very portable, at least not in the way a pencil and scratchpad in the back pocket are portable. Composers are in a constant state of upgrade. The technology has pressured composers with a greater expectation of immediacy or urgency. The ease of producing scores that look good imputes an undeserved confidence in them also being error-free -- not only is absolute accuracy unlikely, but errors are easily propagated.

And then there's the issue of one's body of work, the archive, the shelf of scores that could at one time sit undisturbed and pure for centuries. Today, scores vanish in a flash, sometimes during the process of composition. There are good archiving and backup practices, but this is more time burden that technology increases rather than alleviates. Other scores vanish slowly, as acidic office paper deteriorates and non-archival toners and inks flake off or stick to each other or quietly fade or smear and run during floods that would leave offset-printed documents salvageable.

There are also the psychological dangers of archiving. Too much? Not enough? What do I keep? Practical losses come with changing software versions and companies that vanish, orphaning both software and score. And then there are the musicologists. No longer can scores be dated by the papers, can drafts be seen in their development, can revisions be examined on the page for their handwriting. It is all digital and in many ways anonymous -- as well as fragile, for a composer can more easily hit delete than scour the room to discard drafts no longer needed or compositions no longer wanted.

And finally, the very accessibility of notation technology puts it within the reach of would-be composers, creating an enormous background noise of scores of dubious value.

Not So Technophobic

With all the advantages, then, why would composer reject technology for composition?

It's rarely a question of technophobia. Certainly, some composers reject it for the cachet of being a pencil-and-paper composer, as do some of a certain age uninterested in acquiring yet another skill that will be obviated by time. An enviable few have publishers who take care of their work in its entirety, some have students on a leash, others can afford to hire engravers, and many have such low productivity that computerized efficiency is redundant. And yes, some are indeed technophobic.

More likely, though, it is the bad fit between a composer and the technology. Computer scoring can be dissonant with a composer's lifestyle, of course, and I'm not thinking of those such as laptop performers or electroacousticians dependent upon unscored effects and transformations, or even traditional instrumentalist-composers. Rather, there are many composers for whom the software is simply incapable of doing an effective job, or of doing it at all. An algorithmic composer might find no affirmative presentation solution in the software's options. Others might find the complexity of the manuscript (such as Larry Polansky's interwoven-tuplet canons or Michael Edgerton's thick guitar pieces) disposing with traditional scoring software in favor of an entirely graphical approach.

There are some very serious implications of scoring software that deeply affect the segregation of composers. One is the codification of notation. This began long ago with print publishing, but accelerated dramatically with the appearance of engraving software in the 1980s. Already marginalized symbols were now entirely absent from music fonts. Although designers such as Christian Texier and Klemm Music Medieval have added some of that missing functionality, it remains that the hard-line codification of musical symbols (including the nominally inclusive but notoriously exclusive and conservative musical symbols list in Unicode) has limited composer options for presentation, and subsequently may limit their successors' vision.

In other words, what isn't easy isn't done, and what isn't done isn't supported. This limits the composer's opportunities to the software's capabilties. 'Writing to the software' has become a creativity curse for those not strong enough to push back at technology. Any push back, however, may lead to a more extreme segregation or stratification of composers into a collaborative class and a rejectionist class (or creative schizophrenics like me).

Bring On the E-Demos

In just a few years, it has become commonplace to include electronic demo versions with scores. They're sometimes called Midi demos, but Midi is no more the truth of the demo than a score is the truth of the performance. They are electronic demos, e-demos.

For composers, demos are again a mix of good and bad news. They are excellent proofing tools, certainly. But they misrepresent orchestral balance for composers whose skills do not lie in orchestration, or who are developing orchestrators. This misrepresentation creates very bad habits and unreal expectations. Cranking up the volume does not save the oboist from blowing up the note in the low register. Nevertheless, the e-demo also represents a challenge to performers, who all too often are content to collect a check for cruising through another rendering of Adagio for Strings. A strong score and a good demo may discourage a marginal performer, but will challenge a great performer to heights of technique and expression.

Another upside of the e-demo is that ideas not otherwise expressible -- lines too hard to be played today, new instruments that can be modeled, morphing of instrumental sounds -- can be put into practice. The ideas can be expressed without waiting for time and worm to turn. The composer's ur-vision is possible, and there is a reduction in the composer's awful psychology of neediness.

On the other hand, the ur-vision may be flawed, and an awkward period piece may result. This is what befell Frank Zappa in his attempt to correct and purify his albums. The original recordings certainly were rough, with much lost in the mix and the performance. What Zappa accomplished in applying a Synclavier layer atop the originals was a work of clarification genius. Unfortunately, they have become period pieces even more than the original recordings, with the latter releases' hollow synthetic sound obscuring the players' energy. I don't mean to say that a composer creating an e-demo is making any less a valid product than the composer performing an acoustic demo. But a composer who believes that an e-demo (or even 'e-final-version') will be definitive is wrong.

A final point: Scoring software has encouraged some bad habits, among them bad rhythmic legibility and poor choices for enharmonic accidental usage, intoxication with clean computer printouts that are otherwise poorly proportioned and with difficult page turns, and lack of consideration for the impact of ledger lines.

The Future

No predictions are about to ensue, just suggestions and general thoughts.

One can hope that the future will bring about better data integrity (the ability to maintain a format a reasonable time into the future, and the likelihood of transferring that easily to a new format), and a widening of available symbology and techniques. Once we cycle back out of these conservative artistic times and experiment once becomes part of the composer's attitude, the software situation (and codification dilemma) may improve -- or, as I suggested above, it may result in further stratification of composers into a collaborative class and a rejectionist class.

On the positive side, we may find less reliance on paper. (You just thought, Oh yeah? I heard you.) Once the advantages become obvious and practical, the paper scores may shift to electronic ones. Part of this future is here. There will be no more lost music, as distribution to screen-based stands will be automatic. Edits and performance marginal notes will be done directly on the screen. Revisions will be pushed right to the music stand. This will create greater integration of score and performance, and more intelligent software can fix performance issues by including suggested fingerings or bowings or other techniques which, once learned, can be hidden and recalled if needed. (This brings in the question of creating 'editions' and who will own the intellectual property brought forth during rehearsals.)

These changes will happen as more composers and performers both are using technology, and an older generation retires (or dies at the stand!). Resistance is futile. Perhaps composers will have more influence because of an involvement that is virtual, but feels direct. The composers can absorb the changes made at the music stands into their orchestration, and learn from it, becoming more skilled composers.

Naturally, better e-demos will follow, better transcriptions. And looking ahead, it's possible to imagine that new forms will arise simply because of the ease of computer technology. (Mozart's Musikalische Würfelspiel would be splendid with the dice being reflected in an instantaneous change at the piano's music rack.)

And what of postmodernist artificial intelligence? Would the composer become collaborator with artificial intelligence, or a subservient Mozart to his Emperor? What would Eliot Handelman or Ray Kurzweil or Thomas Georges have to say?

And what will become of the supreme portability of the pencil?

A poppy from our garden.
Poppy. Not pencil.

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