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

previous   October 5, 2006   next

There are plastic garbage bags hanging on the house. It's 9:45 pm and 37 degrees. Most of the remaining flowers are gone by, but the morning glories were slow to come this year, and it would be wonderful to keep them another week. So as darkness fell, I stood on a ladder tacking up black bags and taping them together. It's so hard to lose the summer.

* * *

Today we traveled around Vermont taking pictures of country stores for my occasional job with the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores. Out on a tiny highway -- it was dirt when we first moved here, but now has blacktop -- is the South Strafford Country Store. It has bread and milk and hardware and sweatshirts -- and a savings bank branch and a post office. And then we crossed the state to Pittsfield with the Vermont General Store, now being run by a young couple from Moravia. It too has bread and milk -- and a hand-built brick bread oven, a piano, and a wine cellar. We had to get back, though, because the farrier was coming.

* * *

As composers, we want it all. Okay, I want it all. Almost fifteen years ago, I purchased the music notation program Finale, the software sequencer Cakewalk, and an Emu Proteus Orchestral synethsizer. After a quarter century of working long hours with pen and ink, spending endless days splicing tape, and repairing balky analog synthesizers, it felt I'd reached compositional heaven.

For about a day.

Back in June I wrote about the composer's toolkit, but didn't reflect on the implication to our expectations as artists. Just as I could now create a serial-like acoustic piece effortlessly using the basic notational software tools, I could create an analog-like electronic composition by waving hands and pressing buttons. The studio has shrunk from a room full of equipment to a laptop with headphones (okay, sure, there's more, but it's pretty darn good just that way).

This came to mind after looking at the diversity of these little country stores, and then again this evening when a composer who uses some of this same software decried the lack of integration between notation programs and studio software. Each contains a rudimentary version of the other, a self-contained and unexchangeable rudimentary version. Ten computer generations have passed since I folded that software into my compositional life. Today, my computer runs twenty-five times faster, has two hundred fifty times the memory, and five thousand times the storage -- and its music programs still work like, well, 1992. Or 1979, but with fancy colors.

Conceptually, the major software lives in two worlds. Notation software still 'thinks' in terms of paper, audio software still 'thinks' in terms of studios.

Can they be integrated? The audiences are distinct enough that the simultaneous market would be uneconomical, and would certainly not end with that one integration request. How about more 'logical' (to some folks) integrations first -- Sonar & Audiomulch & Acid & Reaktor & SAW? Finale & InDesign & Illustrator & Audition? There is no end to possible integrations; for example, I would much prefer that Sonar and Finale each integrate algorithmic plugins and make themselves VST hosts or clients (or both).

Yet each program has an enormous distance to go completing basic functions before expanding into highly advanced areas. Consider that Finale has just this version made the move to link instrumental parts with the full score (really, it took them sixteeen versions to get to it), and Sonar -- a sequencer for goodness sakes -- doesn't handle most sampler file formats natively. Heck, I can't even draw lines in Finale, much less use a pen for input. And platforms! Sonar doesn't run natively on Mac, for example. And speaking of platforms, coding for Linux would be preferable to many professional users ready to jump from Windows before Vista arrives, something it seems to me would have a significantly higher priority than integrating an extraneous engraving program in one or an extraneous Digital Audio Workstation with the other.

For exclusively pen-and-ink-(heritage) composers working in Nineteenth century notation, Finale or Sibelius may be ideal notational tools. Though I understand their needs (and how the present software meets them) I'm not of those exclusively pen-and-ink composers. About a third of my work is electroacoustic, for which I use several programs and a pretty big chunk of utility audio (Sonar, Audiomulch, CSound, Cecilia, Coagula, Midimage, SMS Tools, Prie (now gone), The Voice, ixi modules, AnalogX modules, some four hundred VST and DX plugins, and more that don't come to mind). Finale doesn't understand anything at all about that genre nor how to integrate it (even as a sound wave file) into the score.

For example, Sonar is video aware (i.e., it doesn't create or edit video, but can synchronize to it and display it), but Finale is not audio-aware (able to sync to and display audio waveforms). It is necessary to do screen captures to create a synchronized score for electroacoustics. (The scores for Bales, Barrels & Cones and Call Me demonstrate the screen-capture workaround.) And neither can read the other's notation, much less work together on the same piece of music.

So what year is this? (Yes, I'm chilling. Chilling. Chill now...)

There doesn't exist a true, versatile composer's tool. I'm still waiting for pen-recognition input to a music-scoring program, which would beat the pants off any other input method for me. There is no lasso/drag/drop, no ability to create staggered barlines natively or beam across barlines or make any item stretch to fit on the page, something that has been possible in other vector-based program for years. I bought Finale in the early 1990s expecting these 'normal' functions would shortly be available.

The notation these programs support stops in 1920 -- and the audio the studio programs support stops in 1970. Both continue to devolve historically. Notation support expands to include chant notation, but not microtones. Fractional time signatures? Don't think so. Vertical notation? Not home. Curved staves? Raincheck. Similarly retro, studio programs offer more and more 'consoles' with virtual buttons and knobs. Random-generator feature? Nope. Fractals? Not a whisker. Granulation? Don't ask. The software, once driven by musical approaches, is now in a market-share battle. Publicly traded companies like MakeMusic (the Finale folks) have to concentrate on the bottom line, and each feature that does not increase market share -- we longtime buyers don't count -- is not considered.

What is it I'm asking for? Ah, there it is. From the dream-day in 1992 to today, the possibilities were presented and left unmet. Composers want new things and new techniques and new equipment to help build new pieces. Sure, the software companies can't anticipate this, but how long is too long? Stravinsky and Xenakis and Boulez and Partch and Cowell were doing these things decades before the software even existed, and half were dead before the companies were founded.

Back to the top, then. It's the bundled lie that I hate. These companies create their software behind the imagination, not before it. Their contemporary appearance is a disguise for a highly conservative, accountancy-driven approach that brings forth -- to use the analogy to what the art world faces -- Photoshop music. Of course it's my own fault. Expectations don't belong to corporations. There's no imagination in Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, or the minor CEOs at music software companies. They're all marketing hucksters who, upon a functional idea or two bought or stolen years past, have built empires of glitter. Okay, that's their job, that bottom line.

And so I think about the ringtone concerts, the laptop concerts, the photoshop music, the one-trick noise performers. Baubles & trinkets, hardly art, using stunted technology in its own image. Is there one single composition that has changed your life? Or, as the irascible Jeff Harrington recently asked in his smoke-and-mirrors dissembling way, "Name one love song -- not of styles sarcastic, or Beckettian madness -- but a song heralding our deepest emotion in an atonal or minimalist style that makes you feel in love."

I wonder what measures we use for our art, and how the results exceed our tools. (It's 34 degrees now.)

Wine cellar in the Vermont General Store
The wine cellar in the Vermont General Store in Pittsfield will be opening this winter. What measures do these storekeepers use for their art? And what sustains them and their families through their struggles with time and weather and competition?

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