Stayin’ Alive

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?

3 thoughts on “Stayin’ Alive

  1. Armando Bayolo

    I haven’t done enough writing of music for interactive media yet, but the few times I have in recent years I’ve tried to keep things as simple as possible (digital delay, distortion, loops, etc.) so that the effects can be recreated with relative ease as the technology evolves (also, since I hadn’t done much work for interactive media until very, very recently, I really had very little idea, other than what’s in my ear, of what to do, which encouraged me to keep things simple for personal creative reasons).

    As a performer, however, I’ve encountered this problem a lot, particularly in programming works with synthesizer parts that were created on long-obsolete gear. Some composers keep it mercifully simple, specifying only general patches (“strings,” “harpsichord,” or the occasional synthetic wave form available on the average, middle of the road sampler). Others, however, require receiving patch files from a publisher, which can often themselves be included in obsolete media. A few years ago I conducted John Adams’ clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons, and received a stack of floppy discs for the synth parts. We were using some Kurzweill K-2000Rs for this performance, so we were able to use the floppies, but today we would be unable to do anything with such media. And this was Adams, who is published by Boosey and Hawkes, which has the resources to update his media as the technology evolves. What is your average, self-published composer supposed to do?

    As far as score distribution, I make sure that all of my scores and parts exist in Adobe .pdf format as well as Finale. This makes it easier to distribute the materials and Adobe is still, more or less, “reverse-compatible” with earlier versions of itself, so there’s no need to save new versions of files every time I upgrade Finale.

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  2. Andrew Sigler

    The use of newer technologies to recreate older pieces is a fact of life, but it’s such an integral part of how we hear music that we often have a fish-in-water experience with it. For instance, even though there are many recordings that showcase the use of period instruments to recreate 18th and 19th century works, it’s safe to say that most of our experiences and understanding of these works are shaped by contemporary interpretations using contemporary technologies. If you went to see one of the 80’s rock band revivals that have been crossing the country over the past few years, I can guarantee that most of the guitar sounds are almost certainly being recreated using digital processing as opposed to using any of the original equipment which is heavy, old, unreliable, and worth a fortune. And while it could be argued that these changes are negligible, (and that aficionados in both camps can both hear the difference and decry the alterations) it is these subtle shifts that over time change the works significantly.

    I recently purchased a new rig as well (mid-semester no less…) while hanging on to the old one. I held onto the old rig not only because of the mid-semester change, but also because of the familiarity and ease of use. I’ve done concert and commercial work using computers for some time now and have come to the realization that many of these works and the sounds that accompany them will simply go the way of the Dodo.

    Further, there are pieces that will never be recreated not only because the instruments no longer exist but also because recreating them is all but prohibitive. I was in Venice years ago and stumbled upon an instrument museum that contained a number of instruments that I’d neither heard of nor would have conceived of, including a violin-like instrument that had a horn attachment. Who wrote for these things and where are the scores? I’m sure there are more than a few dissertations (anyone want a Fulbright to Venice?) to be written on the subject(or have been) but even scrutiny of this nature will not likely bring these works to light for any significant portion of the population.

    Time marches on all and that sort of thing, I suppose. Unless you’re John Adams, in which case you can demand that rental of your scores involves rental of cartridges and use of keyboards from the 80’s and 90’s.

    Also, I believe that Sibelius allows you to keep the older version.

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    1. Andrew Sigler

      Armando, your post wasn’t visible when I made my comment this morning, but Gnarly Buttons was precisely the piece I was thinking of. The UT New Music Ensemble performed it this past Fall and I had a converstion with one of the keyboard players about using the floppies and having to get a hold of older keyboards. The tricky part is the requirement to use those specific discs/keyboards when it’s very simple to recreate those sounds with contemporary technology. Single patches and works with “tape” (We still call it “tape”…why is that? Who is using tape these days? A friend of mine told me a story about a discussion he had with his niece concerning the recording of a show. He said that he’d taped it and she said, “Taped it to what?”)are one thing, but dealing with technologies that impact signal in real time and figuring out how to update those is really where the rubber meets the road.

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