Aren’t We Past the Pencil?
Imagine, for a moment, that you possess some kind of magical pencil (equipped, of course, with a magical eraser). Whenever you take this pencil to manuscript paper to write a note, you hear it—not a MIDI approximation, mind you, but the actual instrument, maybe even the specific axe of the player for whom you’re writing, playing the note. If you write slashes through the beam, you hear tremolo. If you write “flz.” above the notehead, you hear flutter-tongue. You write some sixteenth-tones with widening vibrato or arcane gestures on Lachenmann clefs: yes, you hear those too. Maybe with some tasteful reverb.
If you owned this pencil, there would be absolutely no reason for you to write music at the computer. Even if, like me and many other composers of my generation, you spent your formative years in front of a CRT screen, you’d be foolish to embrace the feeble auditioning capabilities of MIDI instead of the pencil. If all you have, however, is a No. 2 graphite from Office Depot and a G4 iBook, and you’re as comfortable with the iBook as older composers are with the pencil, why not compose with it? If working at the piano is unhelpful—if, for example, one’s music isn’t in twelve-tone E.T. or relies heavily on timbre to make its argument—the case for writing notes on a piece of paper becomes weaker yet. In fact, if I were to write my music the old-school way, some of the things I like most about it, things over which I can only obtain fine control through computer modeling, would probably evaporate.
There are, of course, caveats: A healthy skepticism of MIDI realizations is a must. I suppose that taking compositional shorts is made easier by the editing abilities of Finale or Sibelius; these are often pretty transparent in performance. But to suggest, as a composer with whom I had a major altercation about this issue did, that writing by hand imbues some kind of visceral connection with the sounding result that writing using computer can’t equal? That’s simply superstition. Composing directly into a notation program requires a set of creative safeguards, but if you’ve been working in this manner for your entire musical life, your vigilance is unlikely to waver.
So my position on this matter is clear. What I really want to know is whether this is a topic of active debate in the compositional community or just a pet issue for the Luddite fringe. What’s the story?