I was a very early adopter of music notation software. I bought my first home computer—an Apple IIGS—soon after it arrived on the market in 1986 and shortly thereafter acquired Pyware Music Writer. My newly embraced music engraving apparatus was admittedly far from perfect (e.g. the program was limited to six staves and I was using a dot matrix printer), but the shortcomings were a small price to pay for the amount of time it saved me in getting my music from my brain into a notated form. Prior to my digital conversion, I typically would spend two hours per page carefully shaping every single notehead with a ballpoint pen, a protractor, and numerous jars of Liquid Paper™. Revisions were agony. But through using a computer to notate my scores, the ability to listen back to what I had written—albeit via rather chintzy early MIDI—allowed me to proofhear the music and fix various pitch and rhythm errors; I used to make many such mistakes. Over the years I changed computers several times as well as notation programs—the latter often requiring me to re-format each score all over again. I just started using Sibelius 7 on a Windows 7 operating system and am terrified that I will need to tweak a bunch of my old scores once more. But I have no desire to go back to pen and paper. (I did only once, twelve years ago, out of frustration with Finale’s awkward method of beaming across barlines, which is what ultimately led to my use of Sibelius.)
I recount this whole history because I have been worrying quite a bit this past week about the permanence of data that is created and saved digitally. Part of it is paranoia resulting from having problems with my home computer; I have been unable to retrieve files from it for nearly a week. Recently several other friends have also reported having problems with their computers. All my music files are presumably safe on a detachable hard-drive and the repair of my own machine is imminent; but still, not having access to them has been unsettling especially since, as a result, I have not been able to further flesh out a compositional idea that’s been brewing in my head for days.
Then, as part of my recent obsession with the writings of Robert Coover, I came across an essay he wrote for The New York Times back in 1992 called “The End of Books.” In it, he talked about some of the pioneers of hypertext fiction and poetry. Intrigued, I thought I’d acquire some of this stuff. I was particularly eager to read “Afternoon, a Story,” a 1987 hypertext by Michael Joyce, which was touted by Coover and others as a landmark of the genre. Soon, however, I was disappointed to learn that the CD-ROM containing Joyce’s work, though thankfully still available, cannot be opened by computers using the most recent versions of Word.
Information technology now develops faster than any of us can keep up with, and to what end? If there is no permanence to the formats we use to store information, what is the point of storing information in them? Of course, I’m well aware that paper manuscripts are also not indestructible. Over the weekend, I read that the score and all the parts for the Third Symphony of York Bowen, an early 20th century British composer whose chamber music I love, were destroyed in a flood at the premises of its publisher back in the 1950s. No format guarantees survival.
Although I finally said goodbye to my Blackberry back in February, I still carry around a FlipCam and, gasp, a Palm T/X. Some people find it amusing that I’m still attached to these outmoded devices, but I’ve learned how to use them quite effectively, particularly the Palm, and they now do exactly what I need them to do. Why else would anyone be saddled with technology in the first place? I haven’t kept any staff paper around the house for years now, but I suppose I could restock my supply and jot some notes down the old fashioned way.