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Sounding Off

Mark Wherry By Mark Wherry
Published January 2009

Sounding Off becomes Sounding On, with a positive stance on the use of technology in musical creativity. No, really!

I recently read an interview in The Guardian newspaper with John Adams, a composer who, perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries, deserves the distinction of being described as relevant. While there are no hints at the moment of a fiscally themed opera on the horizon, Adams has never shied away from choosing controversial subject matter for his work, such as Nixon's visit to China, the testing of the first atomic bomb, or the death of a hostage during the hijacking of a cruise ship. I'll admit now that he is among the composers I admire the most, but I'll leave it for the musicologists to evaluate any impairment of judgement based on this admission.

Amid the comments Adams made in the interview that are germane to this discussion (and let me digress for a second to say that, as someone ridiculed by friends for using the term 'Western art music,' it was great to read Adams' own description of "contemporary serious music") were, perhaps unsurprisingly, his views on technology. In speaking about the state of contemporary music, Adams warned of a potential "overflow of extremely mediocre music, partly because composing has become dangerously easy," attributing this to the fact that "everyone can carry around software programs on a laptop and compose a new piece in a single evening."

Even as a fan of technology, it's hard to argue with this point: for one thing, it is easier to make music with the assistance of technology. And if you make it easier to produce a 'thing', you're likely to end up with more of it, which almost inevitably leads to the fact, even statistically speaking, that most will likely be mediocre. If you subscribe to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's view that a person will have their most useful creative moments when faced with a situation offering a level of challenge equal to their skills, it's impossible for an easy process to yield meaningful results. So the proposition that anyone could use a laptop to compose a piece of music in one evening that will not be mediocre seems unlikely, to be polite.

Adams went on to say that the trouble with technology in music is the way "software dictates the parameters of what you can do, how you can think", and this suggests a perhaps more interesting (or indeed dangerous) issue for the modern composer to consider.

It would be hard to argue that the operation of a tool does nothing to shape the result it produces, and this is as true of music creation software as it is of any other tool. Taking only the simplest examples, how many pieces of music are written at 120bpm with a time signature of 4/4 just because it's the default? And how many times have the pretty representations of musical data on a screen dictated your creative decisions?

However, it's perhaps not the fault of technology that the music it facilitates is in danger of being mediocre, but rather the composers who use that technology.

The notion of thinking before doing is no more apropos when using music software than any other kind of creative facilitator. But whereas pen and paper requires its user to think about what they're going to write before they commit something to the page, music software does not. There's nothing to prevent the user thinking of an idea; but there's equally nothing to stop them finding a drum loop, adding a bass drone, and sprinkling an arpeggiated synth line on top to produce a pretty passable piece of music — and indeed, something that would hardly sound out of place on most action-oriented TV shows! But that's Sounding Off, and this is Sounding On.

I'd like to contend that the fact that technology makes composing easier should be seen as a good thing, inasmuch as it can both enhance creativity, offering the freedom and challenge to have significant ideas, and democratise it, allowing everyone with a computer the opportunity to create music. I think this is actually a wonderful thing. It might result in a larger proportion of mediocrity, but — not wishing to make too much of a comparison to a potential variation on the infinite monkey theorem — it might also result in a masterpiece that would not otherwise have been written.

Now, who's got a banana?

About The Author

Mark Wherry once saw John Adams conducting Harmonielehre and wishes he could either compose or conduct a work of similar worth. He doesn't mind which.