Too long has music been subject to the limitations of the human hand,
and subject as well to the interfering interpretations of a middle-man:
the performer. A composer wants to speak to his public direct. Machines (if properly constructed and properly written for) are capable of niceties of emotional expression impossible to a human performer.
I came across the above statement from Percy Grainger (quoted in Richard Taruskin’s monumental Oxford History of Western Music [volume 5: The Late Twentieth Century]) while preparing a lecture this week on the impact of electronic music in 20th century music. I myself have never been much of a practitioner of electroacoustic composition, although I have done some tinkering around studios during my student years, but I have a number of friends and colleagues who are incredibly passionate about electronic music. What none of them share, however, is a sense that the inabilities of performers drives them into the computer music studio (most of these composers — people like Alexandra Gardner, Evan Chambers, Daniel Eichenbaum, Sam Pellman, Steven Gorbos, and many others — in fact are quite adept and comfortable writing for live performers as they are working in the computer studio).
I understand the historical context in which Grainger made this statement. The first half of the 20th century was a time rife with musical experimentation and a very real sense—one that still permeates some musicological circles—that a drastic break from past practice had been accomplished. This sense of giddy experimentation was accompanied by growing frustration from composers at the inability of certain performers to adequately realize the sounds these men and, increasingly, women were envisioning, particularly in the area of rhythm. Composers as diverse as John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Conlon Nancarrow and, as we’ve seen, Percy Grainger, were driven to reveries in which they imagined a music made entirely through mechanical means. Varèse realized this vision in a justly famous composition, Poème Électronique, but had to wait almost two decades before the technology existed to create this work. Nancarrow, dissatisfied with the abilities of performers to realize his mathematically complex rhythmic relationships retreated musically into the pre-electronic automata of the pianola or player piano (much as his political views forced him into exile in Mexico shortly after his return from fighting in the Spanish Civil War). Neither Varèse nor Nancarrow, however, ultimately rejected live performance; Varèse continuing to compose for combined instrumental and electronic forces into the 1950s and Nancarrow lived long enough to see and work with performers who had developed the technique to realize many of his player piano Studies on the standard concert grand as well as in transcriptions for large ensembles.
Why do I ramble like this? Well, to me the relationship between a composer and a performer is one of the most rewarding professional relationships one can have. Not only that, for a working composer it is simply essential to develop strong relationships with performers, who, other than the composer him/herself is the strongest advocate for a work or even a body of work. Not only that, but to read such a thought from Grainger, who aside from being a composer (known primarily today for infectious and extremely charming and clever music for wind ensemble, much of it utilizing folk music from the British isles) was quite accomplished as a pianist is surprising and a bit shocking. It made me wonder, also: are such views prevalent among any composers working today? Are any of you fellow composers out there dissatisfied with the level of performance available to you (or perhaps it is simply the unavailability of performance outlets) and thus driven toward electroacoustic composition not for the compositional possibilities and expanded palette such electronic tools present but because, quite simply, electronic realization is the best performance you dream about?