Wendy’s World

Part 4: From MIDI to Reinventing the Romantic Orchestra

Frank J. Oteri: Now we get to the ’80s, and the third influential idea I wanted to talk to you about: digital synthesis, MIDI, the possibility of a digital orchestra. When Digital Moonscapes came out, these weren’t concepts that people thought about. But now they’re tools that most composers use.

Wendy Carlos: But it’s done now more like a collage of audio clip art. Actually there are some new performable sampled instruments we can talk about in a minute. But with the earliest MIDI implementation, any sample-based collection was so literal-minded that if you repeated any note, it would sound exactly the same “voop-voop-voop-voop.” There was no expression at all, being basically canned, like using a rubber stamp, “Hey, that’s the same stamp, is that all you’ve got?” Maybe you rotated it a bit. Or you missed the ink on the lower left-hand corner on this one. That didn’t work for me at all; there wasn’t much musicality, so few performance values, expression. It’s why I made a detour through synthesis, building replicas of all the orchestral instruments. It’s also a great education to the musical ear. You soon begin to pick out many more details: “Oh, the bassoon doesn’t have much fundamental,” and: “Oh, that clarinet has not only odd harmonics, but I can hear a few softer even partials as well.” If your passion is orchestration, this teaches you some pretty useful skills.

I consider this an important, subtle topic; it’s so hard for me to put my brain around it, to put my words around it. The early electronic instrumentation was not of a kind that allowed you do the literal-minded sampling of every instrumental note to try to assemble later. That became too much like pasted clip art. You’d have to take a sample, say, of every way that a head can face, and all the expressions, the hand motions, and then try to create real art from pieces. I don’t think so. Reminds you more of Victor Frankenstein, yes? It’s a hard way to create anew. Fine artists, I’m thinking of painters, particularly, and sculptors, usually can create any shape they need ad hoc, to match their mental images. You have to start in your mind at first, even if it’s not yet well-defined and needs the physical effort to figure out what it is you’re seeking. So you need open-ended tools and skills to get there, wherever it is, even if you’re not sure. I recall Van Gogh’s honest comment: “I’m forever doing what I cannot do in order to learn how to do it.” I love that quote, and identify with it, something I’m always doing, too.

In the case of the learning to hear inside the timbre of musical instruments, it was very worthwhile to work on building “the LSI Philharmonic,” as I called it, which debuted in Digital Moonscapes. Now I’ve been experimenting with the newer libraries like Gary Garritan’s, and suddenly he has shifted the paradigm ahead a lot. His new Stradivarius is a performable virtual violin. It could be any instrument, and they’ll be adding more soon. He collaborated with an Italian team, fine, bright musical people. Their virtual instruments are performed using a non-trivial collection of MIDI controllers, to input naturally all the gestures that an acoustic musician would use. You can’t get away from that. If you’re going to express, EXPRESS! Use your muscles and do it! Listen, see, think, feel—yes, feel your way along. It’s a very intuitive process, but you have to first learn how to do it, and practice doing it. Like learning to play the theremin, which is damn hard. Or consider my Circon [circular controller] with its large calibrated semicircular dial and wand. It’s not as hard as the theremin, but still a serious instrument to learn. Once you become reasonably good at it, it’s very expressive.

FJO: That’s the instrument you have on Heaven and Hell?

WC: Yup, bingo!

FJO: We’re not there yet.

WC: Okay, okay. But the sounds, now we’ve gotten to a stage where you can combine some of the photographic reality of samples done properly in a non-trivial synth model with an engine that is doing all the things that the best synthesizer is capable of doing. And you tie those into a sufficient number of control devices so that a decent musician can practice—there’s that word again, no cheap shortcuts. Practice. Don’t blame me; that’s the way we learn as humans. That’s how we become adept at anything, how you learn to speak, to walk on two legs without toppling over.

If you’re blind from birth and have eyesight restored later as an adult, at first you can make nothing of all the sense images. Why? You have to learn to organize it in your brain, and that’s what expressing musical ideas similarly requires. You gradually learn how to turn what you’re feeling inside into the nuances of sound to reflect the inner process. That’s what’s happening now in some parts of electroacoustic music making, and we’re getting pretty good at it. It’s becoming a fairly exciting time to create new music once again. Even if these steps are not revolutionary, but evolutionary, it’s fun to be a part of it. The improvements are great enough that what was once a compromise medium, with a surprisingly limited palette, is getting to be a pretty mature, versatile alternative to the traditional instrumental media. For me it feels like a bit of “if you can’t joint ‘em, beat ‘em,” perhaps. Anyway, bless the innovators and developers most responsible for keeping the flame alight, even brighter than before!

FJO: Well, that begs a rather loaded question, if you’re going to be writing orchestral music, which Moonscapes is…

WC: …Of course it is…

FJO: … So why not do it with an orchestra?

WC: The answer is yes. There’s also a matter of access and expense. In the case of that particular album, there are several important things that couldn’t be done with a traditional orchestra. If those are important to you, like the violin that becomes a cello that becomes a trumpet, for example, or special tunings, or timbral manipulations, if such things are important to you, you can have it in this medium. To combine this medium with a live orchestra would be even better, and great fun. I would love to be part of a joint concert with cutting-edge technological instruments on stage as part of a large acoustic ensemble, and to compose music for such forces. There have been a few concerts like that, but too few, in my opinion. Well, Jerry Goldsmith conducted several live concerts of his film music which worked like that, duplicating the eclectic sources from the original soundtracks.

I don’t see why we can’t expand forces in contemporary orchestral music in the same way that the earlier orchestras were experimental. “Do we want two horns or four horns standard?” “Pitched in E, F, or G?” “Should they sit with the brass or the woodwinds, to which, by the way, ought we add some clarinets?” (Yeah, they sound good, and blend well.) “How about saxophones?” (Well maybe not saxophones.) Those decisions were being made at a time not that long past. And the percussion section grew larger and larger, so that you were seeing a battery of four or five musicians for percussion only. Such decisions were more or less nailed down before our lifetimes. And now we’re beginning to define where modern orchestral music ought next go. It’s obvious to include an electroacoustic section, at least a couple of synthesizers of some kind. You mentioned Glass; his own ensemble includes a lot of electronic instruments along with acoustic instruments. Modern orchestras will have to consider this as the obvious next expansion. It certainly seems safe, sane, useful, and probably the right way to be heading now, doesn’t it?

FJO: Well, I’m thinking in terms of where I thought this was going to go, and where maybe it still could go, is just how damn hard it is to get a new piece done by an orchestra.

WC: Well, that’s, again, where I have felt that the people who control the budgets and who have the truly intimidating job to attract a large audience, they’re not likely to include much mid-to-late 20th-century music and now 21st-century music, contemporary music, if it isn’t by somebody who has the name to attract a large audience. When I was a student, most of the time if you performed a contemporary work by a living composer, the piece would probably turn off most of your regular audience. Your readers already know this. It’s a real shame it happened, because it wasn’t always so. Frequently in the previous centuries, the newest pieces would be the very reason why much of the audience came. A new Beethoven Symphony! Another concerto by Brahms! But things mutated by the middle of the 20th century, and through to the present.

Excuses were later invented, that audience members are always reactionary, and the great composers were always misunderstood in their own time. Convenient propaganda, Frank. Music which attracts, is memorable, and contains a wise blend of older and new unique ideas became taboo for composers. They seemed to have joined the lemmings in marching off the cliff into the sea, carrying their needlessly convoluted, hostile music with them: sploosh. Soon the people who control the purse strings became even more wary of contemporary fare, especially experimental works. We all know how it plays out, everyone loses.

FJO: But now I think the tide has turned. There are some new-music composers who are superstars right now. You think of somebody like John Adams. He’s a superstar in the orchestral world.

WC: Reason for hope, I’m glad. Adams has also wisely navigated a personal path through the unthreatening world of minimalism. But he turned it into a more serious music form, using some of the same micro-motivic, repetitive material. You yourself have called those formulaic, and perceive these patterns come out of serial methods, even strict dodecaphony. But he combined it eclectically, as a creative artist should, and made it one more part of his own voice. It seems any art form now must be eclectic. We are exposed to so many disparate influences all our lives. Many artists are appropriating rock and pop elements, putting them into non-pop pieces, combining new-age formulae into serious composition, too. I hope the experiments eventually bear fruit. As for “symphonic new-age”, when it’s blown up into one of those popular ponderous vocal symphonies, just puts folks like me to sleep. There are so few “new ideas per square minute” [grins], as it were, so little happening per many units of time, that it’s not enough to hold one’s attention. But then pieces so “accessibly thin” on content, however fashionable for awhile, ultimately fail on that basis, don’t they?

FJO: Now, in terms of its harmonic language, Moonscapes sounds to me like a harbinger of a lot of the orchestral music that’s happened since. It’s O.K. to have a big Romantic symphony again, and to have music that’s modulating and developing tonally.

WC: It also has quite a few jazz and pop-inspired elements, too.

FJO: And that sort of eclecticism, I’m thinking of the kind of music that a whole bunch of composers are writing now. Everybody from—he was writing then, too, but—John Corigliano, Joan Tower, John Harbison, Christopher Rouse. All the composers whose names you see now getting the big performances by the symphony orchestras, many of the ingredients of that music are the same ingredients that are in Moonscapes, to my ears at least.

WC: No one’s ever said anything like that to me before, Frank; it’s rather nice to hear. We all face the same current quandary, the old “Quo Vadis?”—where do we go from here? I don’t know. You work on these as steps along whatever path you happen to be taking, and I seldom look back. Do most composers listen to their own music? If it weren’t for the fact that I had to re-master most of the important albums recently, over several years, I probably wouldn’t have listened to any of it. It turned out to be rather a nice experience, though. When you sweat over every detail and nuance, put a good deal of yourself into it, take your time, make the effort—how bad can it be? So it was an agreeable experience to hear the collection, and for the time being I won’t need to hear them again. Already know them so well, I can hear them in my head anytime. You mentioned Digital Moonscapes. I haven’t actually listened to it since I re-mastered it.

My leisure listening tends to be, well, unsurprising: a lot of 20th-century music, of course, and the masterworks from before then, too. But from about the late 50s on, and even right now, I find most of what I’ve heard too tied to the extremes: either ugly music or stingy music, and neither of those turns me on very much. So I don’t bother with it very often. I’m certain I’m overlooking some promising exceptions, but I’ve been waiting all my life to witness an upturn and have rather lost patience.

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