Archive for the “Tools” Category

Time was the end result of a composer’s efforts was a score and parts on paper.  And paper is surprisingly durable – they are still finding Bach manuscripts in Germany after 250+ years.  But 21st century composers use a variety of digital media to do their work: notation software, MP3 or .wav files, executable application files and maybe some spreadsheet and word processing files for the business side.

Apart from the variety of files to be stored there is the issue of media durability. We have all probably experienced hard drive failure. Turns out CDs and DVDs are not forever and may degrade after 20 years. Files kept in the cloud may be at risk if the server has some sort of catastrophic failure.  And another issue is platform longevity – some of the early music composed by computer 30 years ago can exist only as recordings; the hardware needed to realize it is obsolete and no longer available.  Software may be abandoned by the company that created it or your version may not be compatible with later operating systems.

So what is the best thing to do?  I know I don’t address all of these issues but I do keep my files in three places: on my PC hard drive, on an offline storage drive (updated from my hard drive twice per year) and in the cloud.  My notation software is on a CD so I can reload if my PC fails, and other software that I use is freeware and I keep back-up copies of the executables.

So what is the best practice?  What are some of the solutions for the long-term issues?  What do you do and what have you found that works best?

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The Guardian recently ran an article titled “Can You Make Any Kind of Living as an Artist?” and the first sentence stated: “With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet.”  This is not exactly news to those of us in the musical arts – so the more practical question for composers might be: “How can I get more done in less time?”  Can a 21st century composer forced to work a day job hope to produce the output of, say, a Bach or Haydn?  The answer, surprisingly, may be ‘yes’.

Let’s look at are some historical examples of composing productivity that we can use as a benchmark.

During 1724 and 1725 JS Bach wrote one cantata per week for the Leipzig churches where he had recently been installed as Kantor. Each cantata was about 20 minutes of music and consisted of choral, instrumental and keyboard parts. Bach had to compose, notate, rehearse and perform this music each week, so his productivity, assuming a 40 hour week, was something like 2 hours spent composing for each minute of music performed.

GF Handel raised the bar on composer productivity in 1741 by completing the ‘Messiah’ in just 24 days. This famous oratorio runs some 136 minutes and has 259 pages in the original score and works out to a rate of composition of almost 40 minutes per week. If we assume he worked 8 hours per day, this calculates out to about 1.4 hours of composing per minute of music. This does not include rehearsing or copying out of parts – so Handel and Bach were probably about equal in terms of composing efficiency.

Josef Haydn produced some 340 hours of music over a 42 year career. If we assume he did this in standard 40 hour, 5-day weeks, we get an output of something like 9.7 minutes per week – requiring an average of a bit more than 4 hours of composing per minute of music. Notice that Haydn worked at a rate about half that of the most skilled Baroque composers – but he is still considered very prolific.

As an experiment in 1998 I took one week of my vacation and tried to write a Baroque church cantata. And to my astonishment I actually succeeded in producing 8 minutes of usable material. Of course my 8 minutes weren’t as good as Bach, but it was performed during a church service very much as Bach would have done. Throw in a couple more hours for choir rehearsal and my composing efficiency was about 5.25 hours of composing per minute of music. Not a lot worse than Haydn!

But here is the thing: when I was writing my 8 minute cantata I noticed that only about half the time was spent actually creating music. The rest was spent breaking out parts and checking them, transposing for various instruments, making copies and organizing the pages into a rational format, etc. In other words my composing efficiency was cut in half because of the requirements of performance.

21st century composers now have the capability of realizing and delivering their music electronically – there is no need for notation and performance – and there are computers to increase our productivity over 18th and 19th century practices. I have been composing electronic ambient music for about 2 years. I do this by a combination of notation and processing – this music is not written for performance. In the first half of 2012 I have produced some 5.5 hours – realized by PC and delivered to the Internet. I have a full time job but even so I am producing over 12 minutes per week. So my composing output is something like 25% greater than that of Haydn. Now I’m no Haydn – and although I like my music it’s possible that I’m actually making 12 minutes of crap per week. Even so, I will only get better at what I am writing and can do so knowing that I don’t have to be a full-time composer to achieve a historically high output.

Contrast my situation with the composer who writes for performance – his efficiency will be only 50% of what I can achieve, and the number of new pieces performed each year for even a busy, well-connected composer is likely to be in the single digits. So his progress is restrained by the slower pace of writing for performance and his art will take longer to develop. Performance is presently deemed the successful end result of the composing process – but the lack of performance opportunities and the efficiencies to be gained via electronic music would seem to be compelling for those of us who are increasingly composing part-time by necessity. Sooner or later those among us with real talent – and the inevitable day job – will be working as I am, reaping the benefits of improved composing efficiency through electronics.

The most dramatic effect of the Internet on the art of music, therefore, may be the breaking of the historical chain of composer, performer and listener.  Music will henceforth be composed primarily for listening – rather than for performing.

What do you think?

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An article in the May 14, 2012 New Yorker profiled Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who examined the effect of disruptive technologies on large corporations. Here is an excerpt from the article about one of his first case studies:

“The first industry that Christensen studied was disk drives. He saw that the companies that made fourteen-inch drives for mainframe computers had been driven out of business by companies that made eight-inch drives for mini computers, and then the companies that made the eight-inch drives were driven out of business by companies that made 5.25-inch drives for PCs.

What was puzzling about this was that the eight-inch drives weren’t as good as the fourteen-inch drives and the 5.25-inch drives were inferior to the eight-inch drives. In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior.

But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies, ‘because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it.’”

To repeat, here is the key insight of Christensen’s research: “In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. “

Christensen found that big successful companies typically saw no threat from inferior products with poor performance and so ignored them in favor of their existing high-end, high margin products. Why try to manufacture millions of 5.25 inch PC disk drives for just a few dollars profit when your much better eight-inch drives were already selling for hundreds each in the minicomputer market? But when the disruptive technologies became accepted – and improved – it was too late for the fat corporations living off legacy products.

Is there a lesson in this for new music? I think so. Let us assume that the tools used by traditional performing organizations – the concert hall, the expert players, the rock-star conductor and the traditional commissioned composer – all produce a much better product experience than the computer-generated MP3 realizations posted by Internet musicians and composers on-line. And the revenue coming from down-loadable music is certainly minimal. So if you are John C. Adams, for example, why would you undertake to realize your music for the on-line audience when the result will likely be less satisfactory and much less lucrative than writing a new score for the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

This, I submit, fits the classic Christensen pattern of a disruptive technology. The computer-realized music is perhaps less impressive than what is heard in the concert hall, but it is also very easy for the composer to get his music out there and very easy for millions to hear it. So, while new music realized electronically is perhaps inferior in quality, it is also low cost and widely available at a time when the traditional performing organizations are doing less and less with new music. Will our philharmonic orchestras perceive the disruptive effects of this technology and will they be able to stay on the cutting edge of music? Clayton Christensen would say no.

What do you say?

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On Monday at Westminster, we have the final concert for the composition class. While we’ve studied a number of pieces this semester, I’d like to give the students a list of suggested further listening. What would you recommend as a list of 10-20 pieces for a student composer – to provoke, inspire, and enrich their knowledge of the repertory?

Kitty with 'table from openphoto.net

Kitty with 'table from openphoto.net

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The photos to the right show where I make all of my music; the top is from the early 1990s, the bottom from 2007. The equipment has changed drastically but one thing remains a constant, in every workspace I’ve had going back to the mid-’70s… See the single sheet of paper tacked on the wall with an image of a piano keyboard, a long row of notes from low to high, and lots of lines above that? It’s a photocopy of a chart from a book I once owned, on the ranges of all the orchestral instruments. It also includes the frequency in hertz, as well as the naming convention of each note. Michael Urich in La Porte, TX has even been kind enough to offer an exact copy of it online.

Recently I spotted another by Charles Houghton-Webb over at BWMusic, that I think will become the new candidate for my wall; in addition to all the original has, this one extends the range, color-codes some stuff, and adds the standard MIDI note numbers for each pitch. It’s also a PDF file, so the print quality’s a bit better (the PDF is password-protected, but Charles offers the password right there on the page). Plenty of this information has long been internalized, but it’s still something I glance at almost automatically a few times during the composition of any piece.

So how about it? Do any of you have some little, almost-totemic item that stays at your own workspaces, no matter when or where?

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