Surely the most significant development in the compositional process over the last two decades is the arrival of synthesized playback technology in the home. Composers now take for granted the ability to sit at their desks and create vast sound worlds with a speed and accuracy that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago.
All of us who use this technology are grateful for the advantages it brings, while mindful of its shortcomings. Chief among the problems we encounter are those that occur when we use the technology to tell us how our acoustic music is going to sound.
Stravinsky called the organ “the monster that never breathes,” a joke that is doubly important to bear in mind when using MIDI playback for acoustic music. Live musicians breathe. Seems too obvious to say, but the human breath – regular, yet not metronomic — has been an integral element of music making from the beginning of time.
How does MIDI’s lack of lungpower affect us compositionally? There are two ways, one practical and one philosophical.
First, the practical. Professional wind players have developed extraordinary control over their breathing, the ability to sustain phrases to impressive lengths. But they still have to inhale eventually. If you are writing for wind instruments, be sure to sing the line out loud. Don’t worry about how unattractive your voice is – the pitch may not be as accurate as MIDI pitch, but it will still be more lifelike than MIDI can ever hope for. Can you find a place to breath without interrupting the flow? If not, try breathing at different points in the line to see if it matters to you where the line gets broken. If you honestly hear no difference in the various versions, then you are all set. If you like some versions better than others, though, think about how to notate the line so your wind player can shape it properly. You may decide to insert tiny rests, or show the shapes you prefer with phrase marks. As long as you are not relying on the MIDI playback to tell you where the line wants to breath, but relying on your own voice, you will be okay. Just bear in mind that the breath can give features to an otherwise featureless line, so make sure you are not putting the nose where the chin should be.
Another practical issue is the fact that computers don’t know much about instrumental limitations. According to your software, middle C on the oboe is just like any other note on the instrument – never mind how difficult that note is to tune, articulate and balance within an ensemble for a real oboist.
Now the philosophical issue. With computers, there is no such thing as a complicated rhythm. 30:29:28 is as easy as 2:1. Human beings can perform those very complicated rhythms, and the results can be wonderful, but they don’t have anywhere near the ease of machines. If you are going to write these kinds of rhythms for human beings, you need to think about the philosophical ramifications of having people struggle to do what machines do easily. Also, it is important to pay attention to the difference between the way MIDI plays simple rhythms, like 2:1, and the way those same rhythms are played by people.
This is not a black-and-white issue for me – there are times I wish people could be more like machines. Usually, though, I like to find the things in people that can’t be found elsewhere in the natural or artificial world, and emphasize those strengths in my art. 2:1 played by live musicians can be a very complex pattern. But that’s just me – you may feel differently. My point is simply that you need to come to terms with the meaning of your actions, whatever they may be. Art and life are thoroughly intertwined. Would you prefer your co-workers, your family members, to be more machine-like? Do you wish you were more machine-like? Like it or not, your art says a lot about who you are, so we all have to answer those questions for ourselves.
Again, there is no reason not to get the most out of this wonderful technology. If you are using technology to create new sounds or rhythms, then you’ve got a great tool. My only concern is with the use of MIDI in the compositional process when creating acoustic music. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen composers who never learned to walk because they were handed crutches at an early age.
So think about the way you use your tools – don’t just let them use you.
What composers sometimes forget, unfortunately, is that we all have within ourselves completely portable sound processors – our imaginations. With a little training and practice, a composer can easily auralize the most complex combinations of sound and, without so much as a mouse-click, alter those sounds suddenly, gradually, dramatically, minutely. These adjustments can be made anytime, anywhere: out for a stroll, in the shower, while falling asleep. The playback can be sped up, slowed down, amplified or moved around in space without our even having to open our eyes.
And the upgrades are amazingly affordable.