Musical Writings

A use of computers in composition.

This article serves as a brief survey of some possible issues related to the use of computers in composition. Note the title 'a' use of computers, specifically a reflection of my own experiences and concerns, as opposed to a more absolute discussion.

Since the rise of home computing, computers have become essential tools in music making. Even before the advent of the Personal Computer, computational machines were being used by radio workshops for the creation of electronic music. Some specific observations:

Music notation software has educational benefits

 Commercial notation packages, such as Finale or Sibelius, have allowed users to prototype their compositional ideas in a way previously unthinkable. While the piano was the traditional means of testing musical ideas (I have a separate rant about this, too. For another time.), now it is entirely feasible for eager composers to input their musical ideas, and with modern instrument libraries, be rewarded with a digital mock-up that will at least approximate their notated ideas. While this is a fantastic accessibility tool, it is not without some disturbing consequences. Foremost, we have shifted from a model where composers would primarily auralise instrumental textures and colours. On one hand, this is not always a reliable system, and many instrument libraries excellently reproduce the sound qualities of real instruments. Conversely, auralisation is an extremely valuable skill for musicians to have. The ease with which we can access computer generated approximations is leading us to abandon traditional musical skills. The might seem to be a radically elitist comment, but allow me to expand further; while we have unparalleled access to recordings thanks to the various resources available on the internet, we also have an explosion of new repertoire that, tragically, goes unplayed or unrecorded. If one were to encounter a score that has no recording, then how might it be understood musically without hearing it? Aural skills can be honed. Not everyone can have all the aural skills needed to perfectly auralise a foreign score, but some basic aural skills can go a long way in achieving even a basic understanding of a notated score. Yet, our reliance on MIDI-realisations is leading us down a slippery path. I don't discourage experimenting via software, I just encourage imagination.

It isn't all bad. 

In a society where musical education is constantly being neglected, these packages represent an avenue for those that would otherwise be discouraged from music-making by a lack of a well-rounded musical education to engage with notation and instrumental sounds. More and more we need to foster musical interests. If notation software is a means to increasing inclusivity, which I think it clearly is, then we ought to celebrate it. And yet, for every solution there is a further issue. Composition, or at least notation, can be a tedious process. Copy-pasting has been the salvation of many a student seeking to increase the duration of their compositions. Literal repetition is repetition. It can be all too tempting to simply restate earlier material. It is a quick and easy solution. But, each time an idea is heard, its potency is constricted. If we look at the historical repertoire, musical ideas return for specific reasons, not simply because they can. Adjoining material serves to frame other musical ideas, and when an old idea is heard in a new context, it itself becomes a new idea. But once we've realised that we've heard the same idea literally exactly as before, it quickly loses its appeal. The result can be a directionless form, which itself can be fine, but that depends on the material, the idea behind the piece, the execution, and so on. When composing onto manuscript, as opposed to a software package, there is no benefit to literal repetitions. If anything, this increases the tedium of hand-notating. Why not alter the material? Structural repetitions by no means imply an exact restating of the musical material. Of course, these issues aren't an issue (or at least, ought not to be an issue) for dedicated composers who chose to use computers as a means of streamlining their workflow, but for the composition student, it can be a potential hazard. 

Furthermore, for composers particularly interested in 'New Music', software packages are both a blessing and a hinderance. The packages are designed to delivery primarily commercial music scores - scores for films, or typesetting earlier musics, and as such are often not suited for more contemporary notations. They do often streamline the process of creating parts, for which I am grateful.

Computation in workflow

Since the use of mathematics has become more prevalent in compositional planning, computers have been able to assist with this process. Stochastic schemes no longer need to be executed by hand. Packages like OpenMusic assist with microtonal playback and are genuinely excellent prototyping and research tools. Thanks to the open source file formats such as MusicXML, it is very easy to import and export materials generated in OpenMusic and other programmes directly into your favourite notation editor. For composers who are actively engaged in research, OpenMusic offers an extremely useful and intuitive set of tools for developing microtonal structures and materials, as well as accurate microtonal playback. In addition to these already very useful tools, it also is very capable of displaying these materials as musical notation.

 

In my practice, I use OpenMusic extensively to help generate and control musical parameters. More recently I've set-up systems to define metric devisions over long sections, as well as compute points of structural interest, such as defining new sections by a fibonacci series, or other combinatorial procedure. I'll write more about this in my Compositional Diary

Computers and Live Interaction

Computers in music have not only assisted composers, and made electroacoustic composition possible, but they also redefined the conventional parameters of concert performer. Thanks to music technologies such as MaxMSP and ChucK to name but two, it is possible to create live interactive systems for performance. I have used MaxMSP to create self-contained performance systems, as well as systems to accompany live performers. To see examples of live performance systems in action, check out PLOrk, SLOrk, and OxLOrk. To see some instruments and live electronics in action, check out this video on YouTube

All in all, we can see how computers have radically changed the musical landscape, as well as my own personal compositional aims. Are computers an active part of your creative practice? If so, how?

N.