The Best of Both Worlds?


“Most music takes too many tools.”

-Gary Snyder

As a composer I’ve long envied the painter and the sculptor, who have such immediate relationships with the materials of their art and can complete their work entirely within the confines of their studios.

Like that of the visual artist, the heart of the composer’s work is solitary. Conceiving and writing a new piece of music can be a slow, arduous and lonely process. Yet when the score and parts are completed, the music is still far from completion. This is especially true in the orchestral medium. It requires the collective labors of instrumentalists, conductors, managers, stage crews and many others to bring a new orchestral work to an audience. The cost of all this can be formidable.

By contrast, electronic media are inexpensive. Today, the cost of assembling a state-of-the-art studio for the composition and production of new music can be less than the cost of performing or recording a single work with an orchestra. Electronics allow us to create orchestras that wouldn’t be practical in real life. And they allow composers to hear and experiment with demos of new orchestra works before bringing the music to the musicians.

For many years, I chose not to work with electronic media. The sounds didn’t satisfy my ear. The amount of time required to do the simplest things seemed too great. And the cost of creating an electronic music studio was beyond my reach. All that has now changed. Even so, my own move to electronic media has been slow.

Deep within me lives a confirmed Luddite who harbors a fundamental mistrust of technology. But in spite of myself I’ve been inexorably drawn to electronic media by strong musical imperatives: The textures of my music encompass large clouds and washes of sustained tones that would require enormous acoustical ensembles to create. And I often work with tunings and rhythmic relationships that are more practical to realize with electronics.

But even as I’ve begun to work with electronic technology, my commitment to acoustical instruments and to “live” performances by people making music for other people remains deep and strong. I have no intention of giving this up. But my conception of the orchestra itself has changed. My recent music includes works for acoustical instruments alone, for tape alone, and for combinations acoustical instruments and electronics.

What roles do the orchestra and technology play in the music you listen to, perform or compose?

Is it possible to integrate the best of both worlds?