To composer or not to compose?
There are two highly polarized opinions regarding the use of VOL for composing concert music; i.e. composing at the computer. Then there is a third, which is the one I share, but falls into the category of “Do as I say, not as I do”. By the way, I’m just gonna use VOL from now on. I’m too lazy to keep typing it out .
“Don’t bring that sh!t in here” I was told once upon showing up to a composition lesson. I was gleaming with pride at the beautiful printed and bound score of a work in progress I JUST picked up at Kinko’s. There were good reasons for my teacher’s reaction. Especially for me, a student who was still trying to learn and develop a creative process that would serve him well. I’ll try to break it down by some categories but it all stems from a central issue of the computers ability to play back flawlessly regardless of the complexity or context of the music.
Harmony/Pitch: synthesizers can be misleading when it comes to how pitches and harmonies fall onto each other (massively misleading). When I was studying, it was the 90′s, VOL wasn’t really available so you had the crappy FM synthesis sounds of your sound blaster card or if you were fancy…WAVE TABLE Oohhh Ahhh. Both sucked horribly compared to what would be available only a few years later and complete basura compared to today’s landscape. Real instruments have tendencies; certain notes in certain ranges which sound sharp or flat, certain overtones which sound louder in different tessitura etc. MIDI sounds play perfectly in tune and consistently thoughout the entire register of each instrument. If I could have a conversation with my old Korg X5-DR sound module (Which was actually a professional level piece back in the day; 64 notes of polyphony baby yeah!) it would certainly include the words “What a load of crap!”.
Time/rhythm/Tempo: Sort of the same as with notes. The sequencer will play every rhythm perfectly regardless of the complexity and regardless of the tempo. So now you are fooled into thinking it’s totally no big to put a 13tuplet in the violins over a septuplet in the low brass. I mean, hey, it’s only at ♪=120 and ya gave the low brass the slower notes so it should work fine. The wood winds will easily make short work of those long 32 note runs at ♪=112 in the finale. They play fast notes all the time. It said so in the orchestration book. Now, technically any professional orchestra and many good college groups could pull off such a figure. But it would take a LOT of rehearsal time. Something you are not likely to get in this day and age where more and more, the average modern orchestra seems to shun modern music. Do not get me started on that. It is another discussion for another time and it’s already been beat to death anyway.
Sequencers need not breathe nor bow. Oh, and those 32nd note runs, they can go on forever. “Those need to drive to the end!” I remember one composer remarking in a reading session on just such a figure only to be scolded by the piccolo player “Then those need to be dovetailed with the Flutes, Eb Clarinet and keyboard percussion”. Pwned! and the piccolo player wasn’t even a composer :/ Never mind the practical concept that wind instruments require wind and wind players can only play so long without breathing. This should be obvious. Of equal importance however, is how breathing/bowing help with shaping the phrases of music which gives it that organic feeling of, well, breath. Furthermore, if you want to be ‘invited back’ as it were, it is imperative you don’t irritate the musicians [too much]. In general, conductors and ensembles tend to like and program pieces that make the group sound good without too much hassle.
Sound/Orchestration/Acoustics: One day a friend of mine showed me a score he had written for orchestra. He was particularly happy with it. The first thing I noticed was the tuba entering on a High “G” in the treble clef from a dynamic of ppp crescendo to FFF over a about 30 seconds. This lick was repeated several times. I of course, being a tuba player immediately pointed this was likely to be an issue. He quickly corrected me by reminding me that the orchestra reading it was a professional level group and informing me that it sounded great in Garritan. Now, that note is indeed playable on the tuba and appears in more and more literature everyday. Nevertheless, I explained the tuba in some depth to him and the issues with such writing. This is another situation where you would just wanna say “What a load of crap!” to your computer. Then acoustics are usually not even close except in the most hi-end (and expensive) VOL. Violins sit in a certain position in respect into the stage and ensemble seating. The Trombones are in a very different part of the stage and as such convey dynamics very differently than the front row. This makes balance an issue if you don’t know to address this in real life. In short, your inner ear, even when trained to a high level can and will sometimes lie. Computers, on the other hand, are dirty, rotten, filthy lying bastards and are never to be trusted.
The creative process itself: This is probably the most important thing. It is where the computer can cause the most damage. Now, if you are simply trying to come up with some background music for a sound track that is derivative of Bach, this isn’t as much of a big deal as you aren’t really creating as much as you are re-creating. I might watch TV while working on such a project. But if you are trying to say something real; to make art, it has to come from a more real place. It has to originate from a more vulnerable part of you. To do this you really have to use your imagination. You have to go to a very quiet place and think long and hard. You have to push yourself and dare yourself to be loudly heard.
There is something, for lack of a better term, magical that gets lost from the creative process when you tie yourself to the rigid world of zeros and ones. Unfortunately, every sample library out there refers to itself as a great way to compose music. It makes my heart sink and I throw up in my mouth a bit. But hey, they gotta market themselves I guess. That is the one side of the argument anyway :/
It’s the best thing since sliced bread! Now everyone with a PC can compose. Well, the second half of that is certainly true and just like graphic design in the 90′s, everyone and their mother is doing it. As a result, like with the graphic design thing, much mediocrity has entered the fray. But who are we to judge? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure right? Yes, I was being sort of elitist, but the truth is that there are more great composers out there today than ever before and by more than a little bit. Think about it. Technically, we have no idea how many other composers comparable to Mozart and Haydn there were during their time. There might very well have been someone who totally blew Mozart away. We will never know. Now, we know of thousands and thousands of composers. But even more importantly ,they are able to be heard, even if they live on the opposite side of the earth and have no access to musicians. Much of this has to do with technology and from that point of view, I have to agree, VOL’s are a good thing.
Before the 21st century there were pretty much only two ways to write music that was actually heard by others; the academic route or the commercial route. Both required access to musicians. In the Academic path, you really needed to play piano. You probably needed either perfect pitch or near perfect relative pitch. If you were American, you had to work towards a doctorate from big conservatory in the North East. And you had to have pedigree (The pedigree aspect still helps, it’s always about who you know). While remnants of that culture (mostly rooted in the older, upper echelons of academia) still remain and do their best to keep a firm grip of control over who’s turn it is next, they are well; kinda screwed because technology always wins.
Or, another option; you could go to LA. Get a job as a janitor or some other low level support position/intern in a Hollywood recording facility. Then move your way up slowly, getting coffee, making copies,then actually engraving, then orchestrating, then arranging, then composing or conducting. If you didn’t follow one of these paths, the odds of your first symphony every leaving your imagination were slim to none.
Now the field is wide open in a way never before enjoyed (or some say endured) throughout the history of music. With the the purchase of VOL’s (which become cheaper and cheaper), some sequencing software and a decent PC, anyone can let their creative juices flow onto the Internet-0-blog-o-sphere. Actually, there are more free programs available every day. Then, with the aid of sites like Soundcloud or Reverb Nation and other social networking sites for sharing music, you can market, distribute and even SELL your tracks!
So from the standpoint of making the ability to compose available to everyone, I have to agree, using VOL to compose is a good thing. Actually, I would say it’s a great thing.
My humble opinion…
Now, there are more than a few great composers, some very famous ones, who compose directly into the computer, but they didn’t learn to write that way. It’s simply a tool they use to save time. Their music would be just as breath-taking if they used chalk drawings.
I was taught music composition by practitioners of the old religion (Pencil and Paper). They earned their bones with the high priests in the great Northern halls of testing (fancy conservatories in the North East). This was before the one god came with his zeros and his ones (VOL). In short, my teachers mostly frowned upon the use of a computer during the actual creative process when writing. Most of the pieces I created with them usually involved some stipulation in the ‘assignment’ designed to discourage or even prevent the computer from being part of it.
I am grateful for this. It forced me to develop my inner ear and a creative process conducive to the kind of music I want to write and the things I want to say with my art. I write almost always with the intention of other people performing the final product. If I had not learned initially to write from my imagination, I’m fairly certain most of my experiences would have been tough lessons learned at best. Instead, I have been fortunate. Nowadays, when I write, I would say I get it about 90%-95% right (as in, exactly how I wanted it) at first reading. I haven’t had a train wreck moment in many years (fingers = crossed). I think most composers would agree that’s pretty good.
When writing music,especially for larger ensembles, I do technically use the computer and a very nice VOL but not so much during the composition process as what I would call the editing process. I always start with pen, paper and often piano. I sketch. But that is only after a great deal of quiet, inward thinking on the subject of what I want to say. Melody (yes, I use melody often but not always), harmonies, rhythm, orchestration, form etc. are usually fleshed out before they go into the computer. My keyboard skills are suck beyond suck. So I use the computer playback primarily for tweaking timings. It is a process that allows me to work quickly which is important. I’m not stacked to the hilt with commissions by any means. But when someone does ask me to write something it is not uncommon for them to want the piece in a short amount of time. I like to be able to devote the majority of my effort to ‘thinking on it’ not inputting notes into Sibelius.
There is something magical about when performers get a piece of music and bring it to life that is irreplaceable. To paraphrase my teacher Hilton Jones, ‘It can be more brilliant than your wildest dreams and more terrifying than our worst nightmares’. Which of the two, I think, is dependent on how well your inner ear is developed and how much experience you have with real, live people/instruments. This cannot improve if your learning experience is limited to sample libraries. So to beginning composers with aspirations of becoming professionals, I would say, resist the temptation of instant gratification. It will probably bite you in the end. Pick up some pencil and some paper. Get with some friends who play instruments and use/abuse them. It’s the time-tested recipe for success.
If, like I said you really don’t care if real people are gonna play your music and do it just for selfish indulgence (which I guess I do as well, only I don’t have the decency to leave others out of it), then go forth and destroy with VOL. I mean that in a good way. Let it all hang out, be bold,be loud, be expressive and be heard. The technology only gets fancier and less expensive every day. Better yet, grab friend and see what you can make together. For you there are no limits.