computer music' illustrates a confusion of goals ... have often wanted to discuss music in ......
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-Niiiiiber2w-Jtrly 10, 1974
i have often wanted to discuss music inCurrent Contents@. I waited for a suitableoccasion that would excuse my limited com-petence to do so. I have no doubt thatmusic is, in one way or another, importantto marry CC 0 readers. Music has been im-portant to scientists and scholars for genera-tions. A recent article we digested discussedseveral famous physician-musicians. 1 And itis well-known how frequently competence
in physits and mathematics is associatedwith musical talent. Incidentally, Mozart issaid to have been an excellent billiardsplayer. Hemight have made a great physicist,but most of the pool hustlers Ive knowrrwere practical y tone-deaf.
However, yet arrother article convirrcedme with some trepidation to deal here withmusic and computers. The article was writtenby Steve Aaronson, a young science jotsmal-ist who just joined IS I @s staff.2 It is a finedk.play of his talents. But the views of someof the technologist-musicians whom
Aaronson interviewed distress me somewhat.Among such techno-musicians there seemsto be confusion between sound and music,between performance and composition.There is also the promise of a technologicallysimplified road to a dubious sort of virtu-osity, the value of which 1 question.
The confusion created by certain techn~musicians is unfortunate, because it gives awrong impression of what so-called com-puter music is, and just what it may ac-complish in the right hands.
Aaronson quotes Dr. M.V. Matthews ofBell Laboratories: hrstrumcnts are hard toplay. Part of the problem of an instrumen-talist is to become a good enough machinetO be able to rransducc a musical score intosound. Now, 1 see no great charm in thisprocess (my emphasis). If we make betterinstruments that are easier to play, thenmore people spending less hours practicingmechanical skills can play interesting music.
W the other hand, Aaronson also quotes thecomposer Edgard Var; se: l dream of in-struments obedient to thought--and which,supported by a flowering of undreamed-oftimbres, will lend themselves to any com-bination 1 choose to impose, and will submitto the exigencies of my inner rhythm.
I disagree completely with Dr. Matthewsview. I say this even thuugh I have sufferedagonizing moments whew not being a goodenough machine, I could not with either ofmy saxophones make them, through me, ormake myself with them, obedient to thethought of the composer whose score con.fronts me. Despite the difficulty and thefmstration, 1 simply cannot agree withMatthews that there is no charm in theprocess. There is both charm and value. Asa matter of principle, the development of askill, especially when it is one hard to ac-quire, is a valuable thing.
Not enough young people know howvaluable they might find a skill acquiredwith some difficulty. Even modest achieve-ment by some professional standard is worththe effort. This is no special recommenda-tion of the Protestant ethic and the value ofwork. That the beautiful is difficult is an
aphOrism attributed by Plato to Solon. ASfar as personal effort and reward are con-cerned I think it still holds true, and alwayswill. There is charm, even as one learns, inthe pursuit of a skill, whether the skill isathletic, academic, or musical. In the lattercase, I admit the charm may be unapprecia-ted by any but the would-be performer. 1 amsure few people would enjoy my saxophoneplaying as much as I do. That is why I keepit largely to myself. I am equally sure that noone more than myself is as dissatisfied withit as I am. 1 say this havirrg heard somehorribly incompetent musical performances~ public. Obviously, I am dissatisfied withmy inability to be a gocrd enough nsachine,
to translate a score into the perfect soundthat a computer can be made to produce.But the effort ia, nonetheless, worthwhile,The computer generation of that soundwould be amusing but fmstrating to me.
How many generations of parents havegrimly appreciated that there is charm inthe effort of acquiring a musical skill! Howmany have suffered in great discomfort thehorrid sound of their offspring attemptingpiano, violin, or saxophone. They recognizedthat their suffering is the price of findingwhatever talent, large or small, might bethere. It is also the price we pay for incul.eating the development of self. discipline.
The computer can be made, with moreor less complicated instruction, to producethe saxophone sound with perfection. Jt is,of course, an inhuman perfection and thetechno-musicians have faced up to the factthat they must program into sound produc-tion not only the physically exact parametersof saxophone acoustics, but enough varia-tion from them to make the sound pleasingto ears unaccustomed to perfection. Theymay be able to do that, but they will never,except perhaps in some intellectual equiva-lent that 1 cannot imagine, be able to enjoythe particular fantastic feeling that comesfrom handling and using a particular instru.ment--a combination of sensations in thefingers, mouthpiece and vibrating reed, notto mention lungs and skill. My son would saythe same about his guitar or harmonica.
There ia no doubt that a computer canbe programmed to play any score for anycombination of instruments, with an abso-lute technical perfection. It is the good-enough machine that Matthews talks about.But dots that really mean that more peoplewill now be able to play more interestingmusic?
I am somewhat confused by whatMatthews means by more interesting mu-sic. Dots he mean that they will bc able toplay existing music in a more interestingmanner using a computer to produce thesound of musical instmments they neverlearned to play? Why not just elaborate onthe old piano-roll or use the phonograph?Perhaps quadraphonic sound cannot yetmatch the output of a computerized or-chestra but I suspect that Handels Messiahplayed by computer is vastly inferior to itsperformance by traditional orchestra andchoir. Perhaps a rendition of Messidr on the
Moog appeals to a generation that hasgrown up with the electronics of pop music.My ear has not been trained to it, as theirsundoubtedly are, and as the ears of futuregenerations will be trarned to accept evenmore outlandishly perfect and outlandishlymixed sound.
But even perfect sound is not music,neither Matthews perfectly made sound norVar&es imagined sound of instmmentsobedient to thought. But Vari%e, at least,does have a point. As a composer he sayswhat Keats has aaid before: Heard melodies[not sounds] are sweet, but those unheardare sweeter. Mr. Varese wants othera tohear them, as he has heard those unheardmelodies, and to permit him to accomplishit, he wants his new instruments, obedientro though t, instruments that will lendthemselves to any combination 1 ciloose toimpose and will submit to the exigencies ojmy inner rhythm. With the italics I haveattempted to indicate what the computersperfect instruments cannot provide--the com-posers choice and his need for expression.
1 do not mean to discount the role ofskill in creating or combining sound in or-chestration of music, even computer music.Some composers have been much betterarrangers than others to whom, as corn.posers, they were nevertheless much inferior.Such great arrangers, for example, as Tchai-kovsky or Berlioz, used the orchestra tomake bigger, more varied, more interestingsound by imaginative combination and con-trast. But Berlioz, for all his stunning ac-complishment (and enlargement of the or-chestra) was no Beethoven, and even thelimitless acoustic potentials of the computerwould not have made him one. The intrica-cies of soun~ even the unlimited sounds thecomputer can be made to produce, haveaesthetic limitations. They are limited bywhat the imagination of the performer orcomposer can do with them.
Just as the computer would have madeno Beethoven of Berlioz, 1 am afraid acomputer-perfect saxophone will make noCharlie Parker of me. The ill wind that noone blows good has become in the hands ofthe great jazz improvisers a medium ofterrific musical expression. The operativeword is expression, whether the instrumentis a kazoo, a piano, a sax, or a computer. Touse any of them to make music with soundrequires more than the mechanical dexterity,which, in the case of computer music, be-
comes unnecessary. Wit, intelligence, in- marrces. Those compositions were written forsight, and of course, something to express a combination of instruments that the com-
and the drive to express-it--whether in the poser found best suited to his purpose. I do
most formal string and woodwind quintet not mean by that to call all transcriptionor in the wildest riffs of jazz improvisation- useless, or without purpose. Tranwripti6nwill always be essentiaL3 can be a matter of taste (Mozart restoring
Not having grown Up with synthesized Messidr), of cultural translation (Stokowskismusic, (the electric organ, the Moog) or orchestrations of Bach), of necessity (pianocomputer-written music, I discussed the transcriptions of any march you can namematter with two young electronic musicians for high-school processions), or of virtuosityemployed at 1S1. They assure me that it is (Liszt transcribing for the piano things onlyjust as difficult to master the nuances of the he could conceivably use the piano to play).Moog as it is to master the violin.4 In their But transcription does not exploit the p-opinion, the seduction of perfect sound tential of the synthesizer or of the com-available from these instruments too often puter in generating music. In the latter
lulls the performer into a false sense of ac- case, the composer exercises his imaginationcomplishment. Hence, only true musicians in selection of the thematic patterns hisreally explore the potential of the instrcr- purposes demand and in the creation ofmerits, just as in the case of in