In high school in the mid 70s, I spent many hours poring over recordings of then-new electronic compositions: Varese’s Poème électronique, Pousseur’s Trois Visage de Liege, Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon. I dreamed of being able to work with pure sound, my imagination unencumbered by technical limitations and preconceived notions.
As a college sophomore, I took a standard (for the time) electronic music course, learning to loop tapes, play them backward, splice, add ring modulation, etc. The product of that class was my first and only electronic piece, Because the House Was Cold, after a line in a Mark Strand poem.
I attended a grad school that had no electronic lab. Laptops were a few decades away, so I signed up for a summer course with a man who was, at the time, one of the most celebrated of electronic composers, though one seldom hears his name now. I spent several hours a day for six weeks learning a computer language that thankfully no longer exists. At the end of the course, I had nothing to show for my efforts.
At that point, I decided to set aside adolescent dreams. I had too many things to learn, both in life and in music, to spend any more time learning technology that would be outdated within a couple of years. I focused my creative energies on acoustic ensembles.
Almost thirty years have passed. At this point, technology has become ubiquitous and easy, so easy that the idea of going to college to learn to write electronic music is, on the surface, laughable. But, through all these years, I was content with using acoustic means, with occasional amplification, to convey my ideas.
Then, early this spring, an odd thing happened. I heard a sound in my head that was different from any music I had written. When I analyzed what I was imagining, it seemed to be comprised of tight intervals between a high bassoon and a low soprano sax, with a constantly morphing, sparkly background.
After the briefest of hesitations, I decided it was time to be an adolescent again, at least in aspiration. I began sketching out a piece for soprano sax, bassoon and electronics. I figured I would work out a way to make the sounds I was hearing with my notation software, supplemented by samples I found online. Worst case scenario, I could always take it as far as I could, given my ignorance of current possibilities, then hire someone to finish “scoring” it for me, the way Hollywood and Broadway composers hire assistants to orchestrate their tunes. I scheduled two performances for November, figuring I would sketch the piece in the spring and get someone else to finish it over the summer.
At the end of May, I brought a completed sketch to a friend of mine who has several decades of experience in the field of electronic music. He took a look at what I had done, sniffed at the idea of hiring someone to finish it and suggested I get myself Reason software to do the fine-tuning. I have great respect for expertise, so I followed his advice.
I’ve had Reason for about a month now. Had a helluva time translating my sketch into Reason’s interface but — thanks to my friend’s intercession — that problem has been solved. Now I’m having a blast getting the music to sound exactly the way I originally had imagined.
Just one problem. I figured I would pass this piece off to an assistant to work on this summer, so I accepted another commission for a piece due next month. Now that I’m finishing the electronic stuff myself, I’m behind where I’d like to be on both pieces. Coupled with some other commitments I have this month, I’m going to get these done by the skin of my teeth.
Luckily, these teeth have tons of experience biting off more than they can chew.