Today is the 50th anniversary of computer music. What started out inside an acoustics research lab has now taken over the entire world. Even composers like myself, who still notate their music by hand—passé, I know—can’t manage a career without logging some time in front of a computer screen on a daily basis. But even if you do somehow manage a tech-free existence, there is no escaping the aesthetic impact of today’s digital culture.
Computer software has enabled composers like Ferneyhough to realize complicated algorithms within a musical idiom without all the hassle of those pesky punch cards his predecessors had to deal with back in the dark ages. Furthermore, the advent of the laptop spawned a whole new performance practice. Beyond such conveniences and paradigm shifts, the conception of “digital space” has infiltrated the multitude of ways in which we practice art.
With the ability to condense an Academy Award winning film into a rapid-fire 30-second assemblage or stretch a Beethoven symphony into a 24-hour sonic event, composers have been swayed by technology to explore any and all whimsical what-ifs simply because the effort involved isn’t prohibitively time consuming. On the flip side, some composers are wasting tons of time tweaking infinitesimal details that, in the end, are completely inaudible. Regardless of how we use or don’t use technology, notions of compression and expansion as they relate to digital archetypes will be musically explored, even if the byproduct is good old-fashioned acoustic music. Anybody out there have an action plan to escape this predicament, or should we just ride out another 50 years and see what happens next?