The New Calligraphy
One strange and defining characteristic of our compositional era is the relative uniformity of notating music: for all the variety in individual styles and approaches, the vast majority of notated music still takes advantage of the five-line staff, and I suspect that most of this music ends up being entered into one of two popular notation programs: Finale and Sibelius. While it’s certainly worth emphasizing the fact that a great many composers create works outside the traditions of notated music (and that others still engage in that noble practice of hand-calligraphy), it’s staggering to consider that perhaps 80 percent of all that passes for “new music” has been run through one of these two programs.
This flood of accessible software has had a democratizing influence, allowing almost any composer who wishes access to legible, professional-looking sheet music. On the other hand, that same professional-looking music is rarely up to true professional engraving standards. As a composer I find myself somewhat less concerned with the increasing marginalization of the engraver’s craft than I am heartened by the increased access that technology has provided to composers. Now most any individual can easily and quickly prepare parts for a performance or reading without the need to hire a copyist or learn professional-level calligraphy techniques through apprenticeship or schooling. It’s easy to see how this situation benefits amateurs, the un-tenured, and un-funded—those who most need a helping hand if their voices are to be heard.
More recently still, tablet devices such as Wacom tablets and the Apple iPad hold huge potential for musical application, from virtual turntables to stylus note-entry. We can assume that it’s only a matter of time until full-fledged notational software roughly comparable to Finale and Sibelius emerges, and since the touchpad interface is so utterly unlike using a monitor and mouse/trackball there’s no reason that future touchpad retoolings of Finale and Sibelius would necessarily have any edge on the competition.
Assuming that the iPad and its ilk will eventually offer some manner of removable storage and move away from “synching” as the sole mode of data transfer, such a device would be a near-ideal tool for digital note-entering. If the touchscreen can be made to differentiate between a straight line and a note head, it might become very easy to create an interface that digitizes and recodes our hand gestures into uniformly-shaped note heads and stems, perhaps grouping them as objects that could be move. While I would certainly welcome these advances in their own right, I’m even more excited by the competition and innovation such a platform might offer.
There is something unsatisfying about having so few notational software programs crowding out the market, especially when they need such constant hacking to do anything worthwhile. If the next advance in notation can combine our newly-acquired capacity for digital storage with an interface that exploits the tactile experience of actually composing rather than entering music, perhaps that would be one of the greatest advances for which a composer could hope?