Same As It Ever Was

“Over the past hundred years, much of the heat in political argument has been about which system for controlling resources—the state or the market—works best. The Cold War was a battle of just that sort. [...] That war is over. For most resources, most of the time, the market trumps the state. There are exceptions, of course, and dissenters still. But if the twentieth century taught us one lesson, it is the dominance of private over state ordering. Markets work better than Tammany Hall in deciding who should get what, when. Or as Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase put it, whatever problems there are with the market, the problems with the government are far more profound.”

—Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas (New York: Random House, 2001)

“The London Tube was designed with narrow tracks and matching tunnels that, on several of the lines, cannot accommodate air-conditioning, because there is no room to ventilate the air from the trains. Thus, tens of thousands of modern-day residents in one of the world’s richest cities must suffer a stifling commute because of an inflexible design decision made more than one hundred years ago. But software is worse than railroads, because it must always adhere with absolute perfection to a boundlessly particular, arbitrary, tangled, intractable messiness. The engineering requirements are so stringent and perverse that adapting to shifting standards can be an endless struggle. So while lock-in may be a gangster in the world of railroads, it is an absolute tyrant in the digital world.”

—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (New York: Knopf, 2010)

Last week I got into a discussion with an old composer friend of mine about how the vast majority of notation-based music being created today seems somehow more conventional than it once did. I don’t say this in a judgmental way since I don’t believe in linear evolution and I’m not sure that that evolving down the path of unconventional notation systems and wild hypothetical music is ultimately possible or always desirable.

On the other hand, the most experimental music, however impractical, often opens our minds to new possibilities and new modalities. Some highly indecipherable scores of John Cage and subsequent creators of indeterminate and conceptual compositions, when effectively realized, reveal to listeners details in the aural realm that otherwise might have never been paid attention to. And the realization of such scores is also a tremendous growth opportunity for interpreters in that it requires new kinds of decision making faculties as well as enhances communication skills. Once minds have been expanded by such music, going back to a world where such options don’t exist occasionally seems like wearing a straitjacket, or an exercise in collective amnesia, as if part of history were somehow erased.

I posited to my friend that the amazingly effective tools we now have at our disposal to create and disseminate our music—e.g. the easily programmable MIDI synthesizers, the notation software, the instantly emailable .pdf parts, etc.—have also somehow led to reducing what is possible. We have all reaped the benefits from the things that are possible, but technology will ultimately fail composers, interpreters, and listeners if we start believing that all the things that it has made possible are the only things that are possible.

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5 thoughts on “Same As It Ever Was

  1. philmusic

    Frank, I always found that the most interesting experimental composers know how to notate as well.

    Now you point out something interesting and perhaps a stereotype too. “Experimental music” by its very nature must be experimental. I’d say most of it is, on the other hand experimental music is mainstream for the visual art world. In most cases we see an external idea, given priority, is then used to manipulate sound.

    Notated music on the other hand runs the gamut. In most cases a “musical idea” creates the work.

    If its harder for notated music to be experimental that sounds like a good idea to me. Once you reach the point of incomprehensibility its all about the editorial anyway.

    Phil Fried Phil’s page

    Phil’s other page

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  2. davidwolfson

    John Cage is supposed to have said, mid-career, that he didn’t view his music as experimental any more—he was pretty sure he knew what he was doing.

    In the same fashion, I think I have to disagree that the notation software, sequencers et al. has limited our imaginations. Most of my compositions start in my head, or on paper, or at the piano, and only move toward software toward the end of their larval period. And I don’t recall ever deciding to change a piece, or not write it, because it was too hard to notate in Finale. In other words, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing.

    That said, my music is not that hard to notate using music notation software; but even if it were, there are other options: graphics programs, word processors, 3D animation software. I’d bet there’s not a score in existence that couldn’t be reproduced from scratch that way.

    I’ve heard similar fears that the rise of computer audio recording has restored the tyranny of the barline, or made music too dependent on looping. But you can turn the metronome off, and you don’t have to use loops. Today’s software tools are Swiss Army knives, not hammers; it may take a little extra work, but you don’t have to use them along the path of least resistance if that’s what your music demands.

    David Wolfson

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  3. mclaren

    I posited to my friend that the amazingly effective tools we now have at our disposal to create and disseminate our music—e.g. the easily programmable MIDI synthesizers, the notation software, the instantly emailable .pdf parts, etc.—have also somehow led to reducing what is possible.

    It’s obvious that using MIDI synthesizers, which allow any possible tuning, drastically limits the contemporary composer. A composer who can produce music in a wide variety of equal temperaments 5 equal through 53 equal per octave is clearly much more limited than a composer who is forced to make music only in 12 equal pitches per octave. Composers who can create music in an unlimited number of non-octave equal temperaments, or an unlimited variety of just intonation tunings both octave- and non-octave-based, or an infinite array of non-just non-equal tunings, clearly have many fewer options than composers who can produce music in 12 equal for fixed-pitch acoustic instruments like vibraphones and xlyophones and celestas and pianos.

    In the same way it’s equally obvious that, as Lawrence Lessig points out, the market stands triumphant as the sole means of organizing productive resources in modern society. We see the proof of this everywhere, from the fact that compulsory public K-12 education does not exist in any advanced industrial society, to the fact that Wikipedia is not possible and cannot exist, to the absurd impossibility of a project like linux (or indeed any kind of free open source peer production) to the obvious impossibility of public libraries.

    Only in the waning days of a collapsing crony petrokleptocracy like America could claims like Lessig’s market triumphalism and the alleged “limiting” nature of MIDI synthesizers be made without getting laughed into oblivion by the entire population of North America.

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    A composer who can produce music in a wide variety of equal temperaments 5 equal through 53 equal per octave is clearly much more limited than a composer who is forced to make music only in 12 equal pitches per octave. Composers who can create music in an unlimited number of non-octave equal temperaments, or an unlimited variety of just intonation tunings both octave- and non-octave-based, or an infinite array of non-just non-equal tunings, clearly have many fewer options than composers who can produce music in 12 equal for fixed-pitch acoustic instruments like vibraphones and xlyophones and celestas and pianos.

    Please don’t misunderstand my comments. As someone whose keyboard of choice these days is a 6-octave Tonal Plexus, an instrument with 211 keys per octave optimized for 205-tone equal temperament but retunable to whatever you want, you don’t need to convince me that we have way more possibilities now that we’re able to generate sound electronically. The problem is the defaults. I still generally prefer analog synthesizers to their digital successors for that reason although the ability to retune analog synthesizers was much more problemmatic. And there were few exceptions. In the early 1980s, I spent a whole summer working out ideas on two Motorola Scalatrons; the Tonal Plexus is a vast improvement.

    But still, if people don’t question the defaults, they will limit their possibilities. Indeed the piano has tons of limiting defaults (e.g. 12tET, timbral resources, etc), but composers like Cage, Lou Harrison, Lucia Dlugoszewski, Thelonious Monk, LaMonte Young, etc. questioned those defaults and as a result created new paradigms. Of course there are many folks out there that are creating new paradigms with computers. Don’t take my comment as a sweeping generalization; it is not. However, I still believe that it is possible for creativity to be hampered by the lure of relying on defaults. (e.g. Sibelius has a macro for quartertone notation and playback, but not for other non-12 ET tunings. It is possible to figure out how to do other tunings in Sibelius, I have, but it is not obvious, etc.)

    In the same way it’s equally obvious that, as Lawrence Lessig points out, the market stands triumphant as the sole means of organizing productive resources in modern society.

    Lessig’s arguments seem to me to be equally limited by his belief that computers are the be all end all, which is why I prefaced my comments about a potential hazard in creating music with his words. It is also why I contrasted his quote with the quote from Jaron Lanier, whose You Are Not a Gadget is a must read for anyone who cares about creativity and personhood.

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  5. rtanaka

    I recently had a string quartet performed that used quarter-tones — quarter-tone notation is pretty much standardized at this point (Sibelius will even play it back for you) so maybe it’s not all that crazy, but the music was also attached to some acting and a pop song that the actor wrote. We used the libretto as the score, which pointed towards the pre-written musics at appropriate times.

    Experimental notation, including the ones that Cage used, was created out of necessity because most of them were working with artists of different mediums which required them to think up new systems in order to organize the flow of the performance. It’s not, and never was, an end in itself. If you’re asking the performer to do something unusual, it’s only reasonable to ask that the composer be clear about what they want, instead of passive-aggressively trying to get them to read your mind. I’ve seen some people try the latter approach (using the “subjective interpretation” argument) but it never works — if they’re lucky, they’ll have great performers who’ll BS their way through the muddled mess by improvising something, but sooner or later they’re going to start questioning what the composer is doing there to begin with.

    Check out Sofia Gubaidulina if you want good examples of “clear” experimental notation. It’s obvious that she’s hearing what she wants in her head, and the results are clearly audible. It’s about how it sounds, not how it looks after all, right?

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