It’s Not Carved in Stone

Endbar

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.

8 thoughts on “It’s Not Carved in Stone

  1. Paul H. Muller

    Your article speaks to the vulnerability we all feel when one of these devices fails us. A weekend without the Internet at home seems like an eternity. A crashed hard drive is a real trauma and the uncertainty of the survival of music notation software vendors is a real concern. Just now pricing a replacement for my laptop – should I suddenly need one – and it is just $320. Might be cheap insurance to keep two systems running at all times; when one fails you upgrade to current hardware while you are still able to use the reserve system to access and get everything crossed over. Is anyone doing this? Has it saved them from catastrophe?

    Reply
  2. todd reynolds

    Redundancy, Frank. Data in the cloud, and on media of some kind, three places apart from one another . seems like a lot, but it’d be hard to lose things that way. That and upgrading occasionally.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner

      I’m with Todd – redundancy! My laptop (read: my LIFE) is in the shop for a few days, and I can still do quite a lot, and have almost everything I need still available in one form or another. The initial setup of having things in multiple spots can be a pain at first, but it is SO worth it in the end!

      Reply
  3. Zoe Anderson

    Great food for thought here–I especially like: “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?”

    The wonders of technology have us enthralled and few of us ask these questions. The nearly instant obsolescence of the machinery and formats in a sense reverses much of what we gain in efficiency and power–it requires a bottomless pit of money and also of manhours. Backing up data, keeping up with what’s out there, upgrading, resolving compatibility issues, learning to use new systems, transferring data and software between machines, reformatting, staying current with security and privacy software, buying new equipment when the plugs change and the filesizes and new formats and bells and whistles require higher capacity and faster machinery–all drain our energies and time to a degree we are not really acknowledging. And it is compulsory. After about 9 years or so, any system we have invested in will be obsolete. In the meantime, any backups we have created are physically deteriorating, and will have to be duplicated ad infinitum.

    Thank you for this article–we need to explore our ambivalence with technology further.

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  4. Cinque Hicks

    The notion that an art work should exist in a permanent, unchanging form throughout all time is a relatively recent one. Shakespeare would have been mystified by the idea of selling his “plays” as unchanging artifacts that could be routinely separated from a specific troupe of actors. As was typical of playwrights (and composers) of the time, he thought of them more like notes for a particular set of actors in a particular theater, just as composers were making notes for particular performances by particular musicians often for particular occasions. People started looking for permanence in art as secular worldviews began to supplant religious worldviews. As the idea of the creator God in an eternal heaven began to fall apart, what replaced it? The creator artist and his eternal art work!

    It may be that we’re back to the baseline of human creativity: art works belong to the whole people and have to be updated and maintained constantly by human memory and intervention. And in the process they invariably get changed over time to reflect the concerns and ideas of the time. Think about the way epics and folk songs belonged to everyone and were maintained by everyone. And were changed by everyone. People didn’t even start signing things–music, paintings, etc.–until we had been making these things for tens of thousands of years.

    Or maybe you just need a better hard drive.

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  5. Saul Davis

    You can’t beat paper!
    I always print paper copies to archive my music written with sibelius. But as my wrists get more and more stiff from mousing and typing notes, I expect to return to pencil and paper and work ideas out the old-fashioned way, by ear, by instrument, at least until well set, then copy them just once. After all, the flexibility of such software only tempts more and more changes, more than necessary. It is too true that once systems change, old data becomes irretrievable. I am utterly upposed to a digital “civilization.” There is nothing civilized about it. Everything is made proprietary.

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  6. classic soprano girl

    It is a common problem, not only music, photos and documents are all stored the same way. I lost it all a few years ago, hard drive data could not be recovered, so the solution I found is to have backups in different places, ideally 3, I keep an external hard drive in another house.

    Reply

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