Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Joys and Frustrations of Electronic Music

Even though I graduated with my doctorate in music composition a mere six years ago, the face of electronic music has changed dramatically.  It's become a complex market of software and plug-ins and virtual instruments created from high-quality samples of almost any real-world sound you can imagine.  "Kids" who are barely teenagers are composing artful remixes of popular songs, and professional orchestrators are creating virtual recordings of familiar classical pieces that are in some respects better than a live performance. 
When I compose a piece of music for acoustic performers, I accept that not every note and articulation is going to be the same in every performance.  Not only will different performers put their personality into interpreting a piece, but the same performers won't play a piece exactly the same every time.  It's one of the things that makes live music interesting, actually.  Hearing what a performer brings forth from a piece goes beyond the sterile and absolute ideal of what's on the printed page.

Purely electronic music is different.  There are plenty of pieces (both art music and popular music) that combine the sounds of electronica with aspects of live performance.  My first real exposure to it was Caution to the Winds (James Mobberly) for piano and tape, which I performed on my senior piano recital as an undergraduate.  Since then, the entire "live performer with electronics" genre has grown by leaps and bounds, and it's one of the few areas in which cross-pollination between popular music and academic music makes the boundaries almost too blurry to identify in places.  Some of these pieces incorporate the electronic aspects in such a way that a performer still has a great deal of freedom; a performance of the piece on one night might be completely different from the performance of a piece on the next.  The work that I'm doing right now aims at creating a finished product, though: music to be heard, not performed.

 James Mobberly's Caution to the Winds, as performed by Kristina Sandulova.

Like the music on a CD or one of those orchestrations of a famous symphony with "virtual" instruments, once a piece of purely electronic music is in recorded form, it becomes fixed.  You always know when a particular swell will happen in the tune, because it's recorded and it isn't going to change.  The notes and articulations will always be exactly the same from one listening to the next, although some people may claim that a recorded piece of music can still vary in the impact it has on them, based on their own emotions when they listen to it.  I won't debate that.  I'm concerned with the idea that once the piece is "finished", there is no altering it.  There is no "next performance" to tweak or adjust or "get it right."  There is the obdurate and unchanging sound of the piece, for better or worse, just as it was created.

This has a tremendously attractive side to it.  I can hear what I have created immediately.  When a piece is composed for live performers, there is really no guarantee that it will ever get performed, and in today's bizarre climate of neophilia there is very little chance that a piece will get performed twice.  A performer has to take the music, rehearse it, make some interpretive decisions, and then create something that hopefully has some approximation to the idealized piece on the printed page.  This process could take months.  An electronic piece is immediately available for listening.  I can actually physically hear the piece as I am working on it, and as soon as it's finished, I can send it to other people within minutes.  On top of that, they will hear exactly the same music everything they listen.  They may hear different things within the music, but the music itself will always be available and consistent.
As you might imagine, this changes the way I compose a piece.  When I am writing for a live musician, I actually want some of their personality to enter into the sound of a piece.  I might leave some things a little vague or explicitly improvisatory because I'm interested in giving that performer the space to create.  When I'm working with electronic sounds, I'm not creating something that another person will infuse with their personality.  I'm creating the finished product.  It's up to me to get the sound of the piece exactly how I want it to be, and if there's something I don't like, I can't chalk it up to a performer's interpretation.  In some ways, it's a bit daunting, and in other ways it's very satisfying.  Getting a rhythm just right in a printed piece of music doesn't guarantee that every performer is going to play it just right.  Getting a rhythm just right in a piece of electronica means that it will always and forever be exactly what I intended.

But it's much easier to get bogged down in minutiae.  Sometimes, I feel like I am painting a face, but I get drawn into the details of the ear.  And because of the technology, I can get very, very detailed about how the ear looks.  I can fine tune exactly where a little mole is positioned, or how a tiny sliver of shadow falls within the curvature of cartilage.  Then, I take a step back and remember that I have an entire face to paint, and what I've done to the ear has an impact on how the rest of the face appears.  Besides, what viewer is really going to notice how perfectly positioned a tiny mole or shadow is?  Does it really matter?

That last question gets tricky.  Does it really matter in the grand scheme of life itself?  Probably not.  Does it really matter in the aesthetics of the piece?  Maybe it does.  Does it really matter to me?  And there is the heart of it.  What makes the whole endeavor worthwhile is how satisfied I am at the end of it.  If getting a particular sound just right will increase my enjoyment of what I'm creating, it's worth it.  Even if no one else notices, it's worth the time and effort.  And if a detail isn't important to me--if it doesn't really enhance my enjoyment of the process or the final product--I can learn to let go of the minutiae and move on.

By the way, if you haven't already heard the first bit of electronic music I created for the Status Quo project, you can listen to it via the link below, just so you can hear where I'm setting the bar with my current efforts.

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