As promised, I want to take some time this week to investigate what the verb “to compose” is really used for; specifically, I’d like to speculate about how “composing at the computer”—in its strictest form, with only notation software—differs from “composing away from the computer” with only a pencil. It hardly needs pointing out that composing is a complex process that can be prosecuted in many ways; these ways often comprise a number of methods and techniques that are by no means mutually exclusive. You can compose at the piano and at the computer—or, for that matter, at the Korg Triton and in front of the manuscript pad. You can sketch a score by hand, then input it into Sibelius for formatting; you can generate material in OpenMusic, view it in Sibelius, then prepare it meticulously with pen and paper. You can study the imperfections in a blank sheet by holding it up to the light, or you can data-mine the human genome in MATLAB. You can transcribe the tune in your head while strolling through the woods, or you can write a program on your laptop while flying across the Atlantic that will generate a similar tune to suit your tastes.
My own way of composing is a sticky, gooey affair that includes graph paper, scratch paper, spreadsheets, microtonal software synths, Finale, and usually several months of “think time” vital to the piece’s gestation. I tell people I compose “at the computer,” but the computer is really just where I commit the notes. It’s easy to confuse writing notes with composing; if there’s an elaborate architecture of system and intuition that governs what each note will be, however, it doesn’t much matter how the black dots are made manifest. Technology—piano and iMac alike—allows us to audition the notes as we write them, but only the most naïve composer would confuse this audition with the sound of an actual performance. Obviously, the importance of MIDI playback and piano reductions varies significantly from one composer’s creative process to the next. It’s a big part of what I do, but one has to be ever-vigilant; it represents only one dimension of a multidimensional phenomenon.
Ultimately, “composing” is a gerund that means something different for every composer. “Composing at the computer” is a gerund phrase with almost as many shades. Given the plurality of means available to composers today, to decry “composing at the piano” or “composing at the computer” without addressing a specific, individual way of working would necessarily involve a reductive and conflatory label—and, probably, the imposition of a procrustean workbench in its place.