Monthly Archives: July 2013

On computer/electronic music

I like listening to a little electronic music. For example, the soundtrack from the game “Endless Space” is excellent.
Occasionally a new instrument will replace the mass appeal of an older instrument. The guitar replaced the lute, the piano replaced the harpsichord, the trombone usurped the sackbut, and there are many more examples. In some cases this happened hundreds of years ago, yet we still have lutes (see my pic) and harpsichords. Contemporary music, as the word implies, always has a temporary element. It will be replaced to some degree. Music that can transcend its temporary qualities becomes a classic. The Beatles’ music seems to be a candidate, maybe some of the better pop artists. I play music on a 16th century lute that was composed by a singer/songwriter who has been dead nearly 400 years. I play the modern guitar, but to play 16th-century music on a 16th-century instrument is an indescribable experience, and makes one feel as if time, the great ravisher of empires, is just an illusion after all.

Yes, people like the new and the novel, but people will always want to experience the intimacy of being present when music is performed by real musicians using real instruments. There is so much less that separates the listener from the medium and musician. When it’s from a wind player, you are hearing and feeling sounds that had their beginning a few feet away from air moving through a person’s lungs, lips, a mouthpiece, maybe a reed, and a horn. The string player plucks or bows a stringed instrument. The vibration is born from the tension of the string, the pressure of the fingers on the neck or fretboard, travels but a few feet (or maybe a few dozen if in a large auditorium) to strike your eardrums and make the hairs on the back of your neck vibrate. We may have concerts in which the audience enters a space and the performer flips some switches, turns knobs, or merely just sits typing and clicking on a computer. I think that has a different intention than a string quartet or solo classical guitarist.

Practically speaking, there is an awful lot that separates the musician from the music and music from audience when performing computerised music, and likewise to the listener, there is no resonant connection to the instrument or musician. I think it’s possible for programmed music to be excellent enough to stand on its own as an expression of music for music’s sake. However, if listeners are looking for an intimate musical experience, they will always seek out musicians who channel their musical energies from the core of their person through direct and intimate interaction with an instrument, their physical body actually affecting the timbre and tone of the music.

Ah, but you say, the pipe organ and piano provide no physical connection between the performer and the vibrations, so what is the difference between playing at an organ keyboard and playing at a computer keyboard? Even worse for my analogue argument is the electronic piano. This is essentially a computer with a piano keyboard instead of qwerty. To this, I have two answers for different situations.
First, it really depends on the intention of the composer and musician. Electronic instruments are a great choice if your intention is to present a work that requires novel instrumentation. In this, the goal is not an intimate connection between audience and performer, rather it is an exhibition of music for music’s sake. If this is the goal, then electronic music is quite fitting and effective.
Secondly: Where the organ and piano are still more intimate is in the analogue production of sound. The performer strikes a key which triggers physical movement that opens an air valve to set a carefully crafted pipe to vibrate at a specific frequency. There is still an intimate connection there as with the piano wherein a series of levers cause a hammer to strike a string. People are analogue; they appreciate music that speaks to that physical human experience.