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Has it Become too Easy (to Make Music)?

Back when I started composing, in the pre-MIDI/computer days, it was most definitely NOT easy to make music. Let’s say you wanted to “produce” a string quartet. You’d have to buy (or make your own; yes, we did that too!) staff paper, devise/plan/compose the entire piece by hand, note by note, hearing it in your mind’s ear or on a piano or a string instrument if you were lucky enough to have one or know a string player who’d be willing to help you out. Once you were done composing/notating the piece and all the individual parts – by hand!!! – you were just halfway home. You still needed to get it performed … the only satisfying solution, unless you were content hearing a piano reduction of your opus, since there was no way you could make a picture-perfect computer simulation of it like you can so easily these days. You’d have to find an existing string quartet (or four individual players, much harder!) and convince them that your piece was worth their putting gobs of work into, despite the fact that you weren’t famous, proven in the world, or wealthy enough to give them anything but a sad fraction of what they should be paid to learn your piece. Then you’d have to find a venue/occasion that would be willing to include your piece on the program. Then you’d pray for good rehearsals, good health, and a good performance. If all went well recording-wise – and it rarely did – you’d end up with a mediocre recording (on an analog medium, i.e. one subject to degradation) to show for your hundreds of hours of work.

All in all, a deeply daunting process: hugely time consuming, uncertain all along the way, subject to the whims of day-to-day fortune, and with an often less than deeply satisfying payoff.

Note: If you were lucky enough to be in a school (conservatory, college, etc.) with a good composition program, the infrastructural components of the above process would be less daunting: you’d have access to string players, venues, decent recording equipment. But – unless you chose to dwell beyond your student years in academia – real-world constraints would kick in as soon as you graduated.

Is it Cheating?

Not unsurprisingly, many classically trained, pre-computer composers of my ilk believe that it’s just way too easy these days to make music: Load a sample map, press a key et voilà: instant _________ (atmospheric drone, piercing high-pitched string line, dubstep groove, whatever). This is hardly surprising, right? Current compositional reality threatens their very foundation, their sense of who they are, of their personal worth. Indeed, I felt similarly about all of electronic music (not just computer-assisted) for many years: that it was essentially cheating. Instead of working the very challenging and esoteric alchemy needed to call forth compelling sounds from acoustic instruments and human players … you relied on electronic components to do your bidding and to generate sounds that were beyond the capabilities of instruments and humans. It was the easy way out, composition for losers.

But I no longer see it that way. Partly because I’ve become a more or less afficionado of electronic music, and once you’re steeped in a medium its deeper challenges reveal themselves. And partly because the medium has grown up and is now capable of breathtakingly gorgeous subtlety and nuance. (Wasn’t always true! Listen to the earliest electronic music of Schaeffer, Stockhausen, and his cohorts. The sounds might have been fabulous, new, shocking, strangely powerful … but subtly nuanced they were (mainly) not.)

Electroniste Chops

As I see it, the skills needed for excellence in the composition of computer/electronic music these days are: access to software and samples and a studio (computer, monitors, headphones, etc.), fluency running software, and above all a great set of ears. The analogs in pre-computer composition: access to recorded/live music and scores and a piano (or other instrument), fluency in music theory and notation, and great ears. The first and last bits are not so different then and now. But the middle part, fluency in music theory/notation vs. fluency running software … well that’s huge.

Before a composer could write anything of “worth” in the old days, he/she would have to master theory and notation. This was a several-year process; five at least, I’d say. These days, a composer with good ears, solid equipment (hardware and software), and a good imagination can make something eminently listenable almost immediately. It’s as if a violinist could skip to the fine points of playing a Paganini étude without putting in the 15 years of daily practice to get there. (Kinda sorta.)

Where I Stand

I am (have become) totally fine with the reality that years of playing scales and learning harmony/meter/notation are now unnecessary (even perhaps: unhelpful) for the production of excellent electronic music. Electronica compositional geniuses – and they’re out there! – are at home with all manner of DSP software/hardware, unafraid of diving in without having suffered through a half decade of theory courses, and equipped with great ears and a fabulous imagination.

Coda

Think I’ll leave it at that for now. But I’ve got LOTS more to say about what contemporary musical tools enable/disable us from doing as composers and performers. Watch the skies!!

Posted on November 22, 2011 at 10:11 am by rachmiel · Permalink

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Jan NEH Civil
    on November 29, 2011 at 2:55 pm
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    well, my foundation is not threatened by anyone’s activity or idea of what to do in music. However I have observed that ease can result in laziness and stupidity. HG Wells’ The Time Machine comes to mind.

    I do not use notation. It is a middleman in the process I don’t find useful. But I believe that there were chops developed iin that discipline which may or may not have been very *fun* att the time.

    I don’t think in terms of harmony and haven’t since I can remember unless the exercise dealt with it per se. But I known doing all of these strict part-writing excercises *made me* the arranger and composer I am today.

    To me the idea that someone is going to get their ear together to previde this facile ‘good-sounding’ result and seschew all known steps to it is rather problematic.

  2. Written by thormusique
    on November 30, 2011 at 6:50 pm
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    I fully agree with rachMiel — well, sort of … I think? While I used to be a bit put off by the stumblings and bumblings of would-be/wannabe EM “composers”/”producers”/”sound stylists” (these are all appellations I’ve seen in the press) because of an apparent lack of knowledge and experience, my attitude these days is a bit more like “Whatever.”
    I should say that all through this, I’ve been thrilled at the thought of the tools of music being more accessible to those who might not have the opportunity to first spend years at university/conservatory. And I still believe this. It’s a very democratic idea, and like any democratic idea, it can never be a perfect one. The reality is that there are more than enough “composers” of no consequence who are passing themselves off as composers and, for better or worse, some people are buying it. Not that there’s anybody to ‘blame” for that. The situation could quite suitably be remedied by less ignorance on the part of the music-listening (or should I say -consuming?) public. The people making the music may be doing nothing more than innocently pursuing their musical dreams, and who am I to question such a wonderful motive? Those consuming it do so largely unaware that music has had a history, and that one listener’s revelation might be another’s anachronistic cliche. But let’s face it: most listeners/music consumers just want to be entertained; they don’t really want to be taken on a journey of discovery. And Dog forbid they should be — dare I say it? — educated!
    So I don’t really know WTF I’m saying, but I do know that I feel strongly opposed to ignorance (under any guise), and I think that if ignorance itself could be properly addressed (whatever that means), we’d have a lot less to kvetch about than whether or not DJ GrandMasta IpsoFatso can be considered a musician.
    As one of my most esteemed musical colleagues, Bigg Blakk Basta, once said, “If it’s music, just shut da f**k up ‘n play it!”
    I say a Big A-men to that!

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