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?

9 Responses to “Where to turn and why”
  1. Renato says:

    Although this discussion can be extended to so many aspects and composers, I’d like to bring the famous “impossibility” of Hans Zimmer’s brass section (I’m sure a lot of other people do just the same, but Zimmer’s a known case – and a very known case). You could say it’s a question of expanded palette, but it’s mainly a matter of how to get traditional timbres working together although they’d be unmanageable on the “real world”.

    For the level of performacne available to my compositions… My real problem is getting an ensemble as diverse and big as my comps need. Using too many samples and instruments is a real problem on the contemporary music infra side.


  2. Renato-

    Actually, I don’t know about Zimmer’s brass section. Would you elaborate, please? Thanks!

  3. “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?”

    Well I agree about the value a player brings to the performance of a piece. When I write for performance I usually write to the skill level of the those who will perform the work – and the performers always add something extra that is valued and worthwhile.

    But I think there is another factor at work here: performance of a new music composition in front of an audience is a rarity and performances of all types of serious music are declining in number. The attendance figures for classical music perfromances are trending down and the demographics are discouraging.

    At the same time most people are listening to the music they just downloaded from the Internet through earbuds. The 21st century composer has a potential audience that is historically unprecedented – so why not write for this? Live preformance in a concert hall has become something like creating an illustrated manuscript in the age of Gutenberg.

    I write for performance – our little church choir – and I love doing it. But a lot of what I am writing now will never be performed live – just heard. The lack of performance opportunities for new music will allow it to evolve in the direction that gains it the most listeners.

    Sadly, this will not be in the concert hall.

  4. Armando says:


    Glenn Gould had the same attitude about live performance in the 1960s, claiming that concerts would disappear as the main avenue for presenting music by 2000. Well, it’s been ten years since 2000 and concerts are still a reality. The spread of digital technology and the ease with which musicians can share their work on the internet has certainly changed the field, but, ironically, musicians (particularly in the pop and rock arena) are giving up on recordings as a source of income (Prince released an album not too long ago that he simply gave away as an insert in the Sunday Times of London) returning to live performance as their main source of income as musicians.

    Also, I have to disagree, as someone working both as a composer AND a performer of new music, about the lack of avenues for presenting new music and the audience thereof. Certainly the audience is small, even by classical music standards, but it is not non-existent. In some places it seems to actually be growing. I’d say that, if anything, the opportunities for presenting live new music have increased with the opening up of “alternative” concert venues such as clubs, galleries and even abandoned buildings and highway overpasses.

    In my own experience (and the main reason for my writing the above post) it has been the passion of committed performers that has led to increased performances of and commisions for my work. It takes an inordinate amount of work to be a composer, a lot of which works out to simple networking (something else that the internet has made much easier). While this often gets in the way of the actual work of composing, it is as important a skill to develop in order to make it as a composer.

  5. paul bailey says:

    i think both points are true and not in opposition to each other. i think there are a lot of composers (and performers) who have adapted to the opportunities available to them (whether it be in alt-spaces or on the interwebs (improvFriday is a great example).

    i was recently approached to submit some music for a possible orchestral commission and i declined. sure i could use the money, but the bottom line is that the access and opportunities available to write for an orchestra are extremely limited and not worth my time (compared to what i can create and perform with my own groups or the digital music i am creating and posting online.

    overall our idea of an “audience” and “performance” is going be expanding quite a bit, and in the next few years its not only going to be much easier to watch live performances, we are also going to be able to collaborate and perform live with musicians from anywhere in the world.

  6. Armando says:

    This is certainly true, Paul.

  7. Thank you for the question. The answer is no. I have achieved, in my present work, the perfect union between Live Performance and ‘Electronic’. … on the Tape I perform music in wild abandon… and create music with Hundreds of Natural Sounds… The performers react to aural cues with latitude and… we are having fun and electrifying audiences as we speak. But the only reason my electronic music works is because I spent about 25 years before touching a computer sample… living life as a composer on the front lines bringing music from the Ivory Tower to the community and yet never compromising. So now I am fifty… taking care of a 12 week old beautiful daughter… and making new classical music that works. Cheers.

  8. And ditto to Paul’s comment… just reading makes one feel limitless possibility.

  9. Paul Bailey says:


    good point. although we might be making music in the ‘ars nova’, I’m glad I was trained in the ‘ars antigua’