Domo Arigatō Mr. Roboto

I am back in New York City for a week, and the moment I landed, I got sick. Sick enough to really stay in bed and do absolutely nothing for two days. It felt like my body was telling me to take a rest after eight months of whirlwind motion in Rome.

Today I finally felt well enough to get up and met a friend of mine, Oscar Bianchi, at a cafe in the West Village. Oscar often composes in cafes, directly into Sibelius software, without sketches. His music is complex, dense, extremely rhythmic, and funky. He comes from a background of studying in Italy with the avant-garde, hyper-complex composer Adriano Guarnieri; a year-long seminar at IRCAM; and playing keyboards in an afro-pop band.

What strikes me about Oscar’s music is the risks that he takes. In Sibelius, anything you write is played back—in time, pitch-perfect. Yet when I look at his scores, great stretches of them seem unlikely to be played by actual performers. But—and this is the amazing part—when humans do perform his music, not only are they successful and virtuosic, the performances have a quality of treading a line between man and machine, between the possible and impossible.

Those of us who were taught before notation software may be suspect of composing without paper, without sketches. But for Oscar, the computer allows him to hear new rhythms, textures, and speeds. His music is undoubtedly fresh and singular—it is not computer music, but there is something about it that arises from computers.

Steve Reich was at the American Academy last week, and he said, in a slightly sheepish way, that he uses a computer to aid composition. I wonder if this embarrassment comes from an older generation of composers, or if it still exists.

7 thoughts on “Domo Arigatō Mr. Roboto

  1. cpeck

    Come Out
    Didn’t the core of Reich’s aesthetic originate in his early experiments with tape loops? It seems funny to me that he would express any embarrassment over using a computer. You need look no further than his 1969 manifesto “Music as Gradual Process” if what you seek is a classic example of how to think about technological extensions of the composer’s pen.

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  2. Kotch

    Without the aid of technology, I’d possibly be in a different field.

    There have been some interesting scientific breakthroughs in human-machine connectivity which led me to speculate on how these might influence performance and virtuosity down the road.

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  3. tedthetrumpet

    Yes, it’s the secret shame of contemporary music. Everyone has been using computers for the last 20 years, but no-one wants to admit to it. Ok, no, wait it depends. If you use Max/MSP, or better some hard-to-use piece of open-source hackware, boast about it. If you use notation software (Sibelius, Finale) that’s kind of ok, as long as you claim to compose with pencil and paper ‘first’. If you use a commercial sequencer (Logic, Cubase)… anathema.

    Which is a shame, because for me, and I suspect at least some other score-based composers it’s the midi sequencer, not the notation package, which is the real composing tool.

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  4. davidcoll

    Do you have an idea of what this something is that arises from using the computer? Personally I photocopy an incredible amount while composing by hand, and I think that this might serve some similar function, as the thing that comes to mind from sibelius and finale is the ability to ‘copy and paste’.

    Besides this, how else are these programs informing ones compositional method? Time-saving is a big one, that comes to mind…I wonder how that changes things. Less time reflecting while copying gives a certain energy to creation…but then again in finale theres a lot of time moving around dynamics and ‘cleaning up’ the look that gives one time to reflect….i donnow, thoughts?

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  5. jbunch

    I notice that sometimes when I write with Finale, rather than with pencil/paper, I tend toward certain types of musical gestures over others. Predominantly they are easy to notate, and value the values that traditional notation values: pitch/rhythm. Notation, like language, has an effect on the kinds of things you can/will say. I hate to sound overly McLuhan-like but I think that much is true. Notation programs give one the idea that continuity is incremental, I think – and in the larger sense that what is incremental is to be preferred to what is not. I generally pencil sketch until I know exactly what a piece of music is going to do/what kind of language it is speaking, then I enter it into a program when the time is ripe. It’s important to remember that the purpose of a notation program is to depict ideas not to generate them.

    On another note, I say to hell with shame and grandstanding in the composing profession. If you compose in Finale and come up with results that are pleasing to you…fine. If you compose at the piano or away from it, fine. If you record yourself improvising, or you draw pictures, or you…fine, fine, fine.

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  6. Colin Holter

    On another note, I say to hell with shame and grandstanding in the composing profession. If you compose in Finale and come up with results that are pleasing to you…fine. If you compose at the piano or away from it, fine. If you record yourself improvising, or you draw pictures, or you…fine, fine, fine.

    Amen, brother. The proof of the pudding is in the eating–and if hammering away at another composer’s working method is ever warranted, it’s only in conjunction with questions about the success of that method’s outcome.

    Reply

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