The last time I got a new computer, I kept the older one around and still use it when I need to fire up my dated version of Pro Tools and a few other bits of software of which I am fond but that wouldn’t transfer to the new machine. Some reasons why I haven’t upgraded my Pro Tools setup are a) it is prohibitively expensive, and b) I have a couple of plugins which I completely love that are not made anymore and an upgrade would mean that they will go away, which will make me sad. So I am keeping my old friend the Powerbook G4 alive for as long as technologically possible and wringing as much sound-mangling power out of it as I can during its lifetime.
The speed at which computers and music gear in general become obsolete makes me wonder increasingly about the compositions out there that have been created for very specific equipment that no longer exists. In graduate school, a clarinetist friend underwent a huge performance project in which he reconstructed the digital delay system for Thea Musgrave’s work Narcissus using modern software tools. Enthusiastic musicians like this friend, willing to recreate a musical experience like this, are few and far between. At the time I wondered why a composer would write a piece so dependent on a very specific piece of equipment that would become extinct relatively quickly.
I suppose the answer is that we don’t think about it too much—we do what we need to do with what we have and hope for the best in the future. However, as quickly as technology changes now, it seems like more advance planning is needed regarding the longevity of electroacoustic works, and especially those that are interactive. For instance, I have a few compositions for solo instrument with live electronics that I made using the software program Max/MSP. Even though the electronic component of these works is extremely simple and low-maintenance, in that all that is needed is a person to follow the score and trigger sounds from a laptop while the soloists does her/his thing, it still requires that program. At the moment this is not a problem, because most people interested in performing those works already have access to Max/MSP. But how long will that last? The electronics could certainly be reconstructed using other programs such as Ableton Live, or even using a older sampling keyboard—the question is, for how long and how many times will that be necessary over the lifetime of those works?
It is heartening to see the resurgence of a group like Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Ensemble, who can after 40 years recreate thrilling sounds in performance with the help of both old and new gear. And think of Harry Partch! It is a wonderful thing that his instruments are in the good hands of people who knew him and worked with him, not to mention that some composers out there are still writing for the instruments. Obviously this isn’t only an issue for musicians who deal with electronic music.
Returning to the world of software, every time Finale puts out a software upgrade, it won’t simply allow you to open up your score files in that new version and carry on—you have to create new copies of all of your scores in that most recent version (does Sibelius do this, anyone?). If you jump off the upgrade bandwagon for a while, who knows what will happen when you try to open your files from a few software versions ago. The act of keeping everything current and updated is a big part of composer “life maintenance.”
Do you think about how to preserve your work in a way that will make future performances possible? Does anyone have some kind of system in place for archiving and/or updating interactive music?