Long Distance Runaround

Recently on these pages, I posted about the strange feeling of absence resulting from my inability to be as involved in performances of my music as during my student days, when all projects were necessarily local and came off primarily (and in some cases solely) because of my own persistent and attentive involvement. Today I wanted to write about some of the technology that makes it possible to traverse long distances without leaving the swivel-chair or piano bench—technology that has in many ways opened up opportunities and collaborations that would not have been otherwise available.

I’ve just finished a cello sonata on a very tight schedule, which is in six movements. The cellist lives in New York but was spending time in Seattle and San Francisco as well; and as the piece approaches completion, I find that the pianist is heading to Dresden for three concerto performances. I am sure I’m not alone among composers who have dropped unconscionable amounts of money at FedEx or the like to spirit away a set of parts that we had hoped to finish yesterday, and with the need to send individual movements out as they reached completion, I imagine that the above scenario would have resulted in an expensive, time-consuming nightmare had I been forced to resort to snail-mail. That’s why the ability to print Finale or Sibelius files directly to email-able, paginated PDF files has been such a lifesaver. While it’s true that this approach does pass the buck to the performers to some degree in terms of printing and binding the materials, it’s overall a much better deal for the players, who can receive the music no matter their physical whereabouts, much earlier than if I had overnighted the music via FedEx; plus, the performers are free to print additional copies as needed and the digital file also serves as a handy backup.

The advent of Skype and other incarnations of live video-chat has made possible new ways of working as well. In preparation for a recording in Berlin, I was not able to fly out in time for rehearsals but managed to meet the bassoonist who was to record the piece online. With a decent microphone setup the sound quality was very impressive if not perfect, and in two hours of working together the bassoonist and I were able to work out the preliminary gestures and sounds in the piece so that he could go hit the woodshed and get it up to tempo without the nagging fear that I would want to make all kinds of changes in his approach at the last minute.

Obviously, there are plenty of ways in which technology has made our lives more difficult and paradoxically, less connected, and while I don’t have the space to get into them here I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the overall impact of technology on the arts has been unequivocally positive. To give but one example, the advent of music notation software has had a democratizing influence and has largely been a boon to composers and the performers who endeavor to read their music; yet at the same time, a new generation of composers with little or no training in engraving or music calligraphy often seems shackled to the limits and conventions of the notation software at hand—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a colleague or student exclaim, “I won’t do X here because X is extremely difficult/time consuming to enter in Sibelius/Finale!” This kind of talk tends to sadden me, even as I eagerly and remorselessly savor the very tantalizing fruits that such software has made possible.

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