Orchestral Music for Film, Television, and Radio

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Essays and Reviews

The Aesthetics of Electronic Music
by Daniel de Quincy


Life in this world presents conscientious men and women with the prospect of an unending struggle against their very own prejudices. Who can say which are more easily dispelled, or which less worthy of the human spirit: the blatant prejudices of the ignorant, or the subtle prejudices of the enlightened? Here, we will examine exclusively musical prejudices, and particularly those that are prevalent among classical musicians. We will uncover the specific hidden prejudicial assumptions that stand in the way of clear judgment with respect to electronic music.

The first of these involves the distinctions that are drawn between acoustic and electronic sound. This most embarrassing of the prejudices that will be examined herein will tend to bring into question the acuity of discernment that we find among, and that is necessarily required of, sensitive musicians – in short, taste. For clear discernment with respect to the veritable sounds of music is surely the most highly valued possession of the classical artist, the physical/sensual foundation upon which all aesthetic issues are measured and decided. Thus, if the classical musician begins by assuming that electronic sounds are inferior to acoustic sounds, from an artistic point of view, then it is appropriate to examine the criteria on which this judgment is based.

Taste in art is, after all, a question of perception, as is true in all matters pertaining to qualitative values. You simply cannot explain the beautiful or the good to someone who does not perceive it first-hand. You may try, but you will not succeed. This applies naturally to all questions of value, artistic and moral. If the world could but acknowledge this, our life would not necessarily be more elegant and kind, but it would assuredly be more quiet. There is no purpose or virtue in an argument about values, and no excuse for its shrillness.

Quite apart from any ill-advised persuasive functions, aesthetics (as the science of taste) is perforce a very sensitive subject. It becomes more sensitive with every passing day, since questions of aesthetics must always have the effect of distinguishing among the people. And, it is now highly unfashionable to make such distinctions. This is the direct result of the ever-widening success of democratic ideology and ethics. We now live in a world of comparative social openness. In theory, people of all classes and races are gradually being welcomed onto a more "level-playing field," as our sportingly juvenile culture is fond of saying. From a philosophical point of view, we see an attitude of utter dismissal toward all attempts at an objectification of aesthetics. Practically speaking, however, most of the development along these lines has something of the illusory about it, founded as it is on mere wishful thinking. In matters of artistic taste, like it or not, choice quite naturally and necessarily remains and will always be a social divider.

Thus, it has come about that I have lost many of my musical friends, with whom I once worked and played in amiable fellowship. I have only to tell one of these fellows that I am now playing an electronic synthesizer, and suddenly I feel the subtle disdain of a superior taste as it contemplates the debasement of humanity in a decadent age. For most classical musicians, electronic music is an industrial perversion of something organic and sacred. How could I possibly, they ask and wonder, abandon a violin for a machine? In this way, I have become accustomed to chastisement for the soulless modernism of my ways.

Many musicians seem to wear their opposition to the music synthesizer as a badge of courage and honor. Painted in gules on a field of bittersweet azure, this badge is an emblem of rage. But, it also depicts the nostalgia of people who feel their world evaporating before their very eyes, people who find themselves on the barricades of culture – where, of course, classical musicians are not alone. On every field of art, as in politics, a mixture of resigned melancholy and stubborn resistance informs every losing battle of the old against the new.

In this essay the issue of discernment or taste is not raised as a call to war or revolution. On the contrary, it is intended as a way of finding common ground on which to discuss more intelligently these unnecessarily contentious issues. Let it be clearly stated, moreover, that no question will be raised here about the conventional spheres of musical discernment in which classical musicians need no defense or support. Classical music relies upon the most heightened powers of discernment of which humans are presently capable, and the best classical musicians have shown that they live up to this standard to an extraordinary degree. They do justice to the materials of their art, which, both in composition and in performance, reveal a fineness of shape, texture, color and form that is indescribable and practically limitless in extent. All the fineness of discernment that classical musicians take as their solemn duty and pedigree, we shall take for granted in this essay.

Moreover, something else may be taken for granted here: to boot, that a great measure of the art’s fineness inheres in the essential acoustic nature of our traditional orchestral instruments. Still further, it is granted that this is something which stands to be lost forever as a result of the technological and cultural developments that I will nonetheless take here as my subjects for praise.

Many of the arts share in this loss, and to a like degree. It is obvious, for example, that most people have by now almost entirely forgotten the distinction between the oil painting and the art print.1 Even among people who reside in the more comfortable rungs of the social order, for whom money is no object, the salience of oil as distinct from print is not particularly significant. Mass produced printed copies of "The Water Lilies" are placed in glistening metallic frames and sold for sums well in excess of perfectly lovely and available contemporary works in oil that sell at a comparable price. This results not from a preference for Monet, for without taking anything away from the greatness of the Master, his current popularity is something manufactured in the public mind with merely propagandistic tools by public relations experts. Nor is it the product of aesthetic discrimination per se. In fact, it reflects in general an indifference to the purpose of a work of art – a purpose that cannot be separated from the medium in which it is created. And that indifference is doubtless the product of a debasement of perception, and is reflected in the fact that, given the choice between viewing da Vinci in a book, or on the Internet, and the inconvenience of a journey to the Met, the latter is the least often selected.

We are focusing here on the so-called "surface" of a work of art. There is something very edifying in this respect about taking in an exhibit that purports to lay out the full spectrum of developments in Modernism through the successive decades of this century - such as can be seen, for example, at San Francisco’s spectacular new museum.2 One walks through the galleries so that, while passing up the successive stories of the structure, one moves at the same time as it were from the past toward the present in art. A progression in the attitude toward the artistic surface of the work can be easily observed. In fact, it is impossible not to notice the decline of the surface as one ascends higher and higher in the museum.

The early years present a conventional surface, employing traditional materials, and as such its formal quality is for the most part commensurate with long-standing expectations for classical art. Seeing the works of the ‘40s and ‘50s, one may be surprised to discover that, despite the revolutionary nature of its content, the form of the art nevertheless presents a thoroughly sumptuous expression of paint on canvas (or wood, or metal). The craftsmanship of the New York School, for example, is not a bit less admirable than the art of the past.

However, as artists began to cope with the emergence of a mass culture and the infinite reproducibility of the image thanks to modern printing techniques, something discontinuous imposed itself on the historical development of their work. The Warhol pieces might be seen as typical representations of a kind of departure - or arrival, if you will. Yet, even the works of the "Pop" artists, where, for example, the silk-screen is taken to a very high degree of physical perfection, seem positively beautiful, on the surface, by comparison to some of the more recent works in the exhibit.

In one large room, for example, a uniquely intriguing work depicts some of the horror of San Francisco’s recent experience with AIDS. On the floor, a tremendous pastel vinyl mat dominates the greater part of the room. Its surface is thickly opaque and uniformly smooth, as only an industrial product can be, wholly without character or individuality. In one corner of the room, hanging from the ceiling, an apparatus descends, looking very much like a giant intravenous contraption of some sort. A bottle-like container sprouts tubes which stretch nearly to the floor, arriving at the only place where the rubber mat shows its singular feature: i.e., a hole the size of a pizza through which one can see another rubber mat of a different pastel color. All in all, the effect is one of encountering something monumentally nauseating. The power of the work, which is considerable, cannot be expressed by its description in words, and this suggests that the surface does actually contribute to the meaning of the work in a significant way. Yet it may be said that this factor has here (paradoxically) been reduced to a mere abstraction. The work will doubtless be recognized as a Minimalist masterpiece. What it says about contemporary standards regarding the surface of the work of art is remarkable.

The role of the artist is emphatically not to endorse the fashions of the time. Nor is taste subject to majority rule. At least, we may note that a science of aesthetics cannot possibly be founded merely upon standards of popular taste. Yet, returning to a theme introduced above, that is exactly what is asserted in a hundred-and-one ways by the prevailing culture, which, in as much as it is dominated by the middle-classes, is instinctively democratic. Already at the dawn of the 18th century in England, when the middle-classes were coming into their own, Joseph Addison was elevating the importance of popular taste. This great literary figure, and Whig politician, wrote the following: "Music, Architecture, and Painting, as well as Poetry and Oratory, are to deduce their Laws and Rules from the general Sense and Taste of Mankind, and not from the Principles of those Arts themselves; or in other Words, the Taste is not to conform to the Art, but the Art to the Taste."

We cannot use the word democratic in connection with middle-class culture without some reservations. The dominance of any class in society cannot be expressed in any way other than through . . well, dominance. Thus, Addison’s magazine, "The Tattler," began as a political review, and ended as a tract that aimed at setting standards of ideal conduct, manners, and, of course, taste, for the general public. Upon its success, and in a way that would be otherwise surprising given the death of Purcell himself not too many years before, English music commenced to exempt itself from participation in the unprecedented flourishing of musical art that was enjoyed in the rest of Europe through the 18th and 19th centuries. Not until the century past, when some of the bloom of middle-class dominance in its culture tended arguably to fade, did England produced a composer of historic significance.

While middle-class sensibilities may be chastened to a degree in England, they have nonetheless come to prevail at large ever more forcefully in the ensuing three centuries, primarily due to American influence around the globe. It may be that we have seen enough of the results to be able to draw some conclusions - even though it is true that the very notion of conclusions in this area is inimical to the so-called democratic ideal. We should ask, If taste is to be determined in a democratic way, how could it ever be possible to make a competent judgment about it? One could only take a poll, and supplant that poll in due time with another poll. Such a restraint on science or philosophy is unthinkable. As for what men call democracy, we shall look that bogey-man in the face and stare him down.

The only way out is to rise in altitude, so to speak, viewing the culture without the intervening lens of class ideology. From that perspective, we cannot fail to see that the middle-classes have produced a revolution in matters of taste. For this reason alone, it must be examined carefully, without resorting to dogmas of any kind. We will therefore leave aside for the moment the virtue, or lack thereof, in a democratic view of the arts. Let us find a more descriptive approach to this question.

It turns out that middle-class taste tends to the abstract in art and in life in ways that are not fully appreciated. In "The Immortal Story," Orson Welles portrays a businessman who keeps his accountant up far into the night reading from the ledgers. Money, in its embodiment as ciphers on a page, is the only core reality that the middle-classes will attest to in the early hours of the morning’s confrontation with the essential self. This reality is not the stuff of fiction or poetry. Hegel, the philosopher of the middle-classes, expressed this notion in its fullness when he declared that the truth is concrete: the perfect expression of a world hypnotized by the bean counting burdens of business and industry. In the common view, it describes the fundamental ethos of the culture, and people refer constantly to the materialism of the middle-classes. But this reflects a profound misunderstanding.

If the truth is concrete, and not abstract, then it should inhere in the veritable material life of the world. One should see it, feel it, touch it, taste it. And, above all, love it. Materialism should be defined as a love for the material. Can that in any degree be ascribed to our culture? Obviously not. Clearly, our culture has transformed the human environment into a mass-produced flummery of plastic abstractions that scarcely tarry between the factory floor and the civic dump. Plato would be proud of our manufactures, retaining as they do no spark whatsoever of individuality or character. They approach perhaps more closely to the begetting forms of which he spoke, and this must be their virtue. Our major accomplishment as a society is to have turned the chair into a polyethylene ideal. It has little to recommend it but the function of sitting.3

A related question for us must be, How is the classical musician to cope with the abstract idealism of the currently dominant middle-class culture, indifferent or unconscious as it is of the exquisitely material surface of musical sound? Every artist must learn to cope with the social environment – the too present reality of audiences and markets. Yet, it must be remembered also that, in a larger view of human history, it would be at best premature to assume that our current social arrangements have any greater permanence than others that have come and gone in their time. In other words, for classical musicians who have a lengthy historical tradition to think of and to preserve, the whole issue begs a kind of studied detachment. We are not bound to judge our musical art by middle-class standards, for these are at best unproved and possibly transitory. The age of middle-class dominance has been comparatively brief. For most of China’s history, for example, the business-transacting classes were nearly at the bottom of the social hierarchy – somewhere in the vicinity of concubines, whores, and slaves. With minor variations, this has been the basic historical pattern for most high civilizations. It may be said that our current elevation of the middle-class is something of an aberration in cultural terms. It may not last.

To be sure, our classical musical art is not merely for the moment but for the ages. Classical musicians answer to a long line of musicians in a tradition that spans the millennia. Like the police, we serve Emperor, King, President, or Committee of the Revolution, all indifferently, and always in our own way. Therefore, we return to the question of musical discernment per se with an acknowledgment of our greater responsibilities to the heritage we serve. We cannot judge evolutionary pressures in the material medium of our art with a resigned nod to popular taste. We must evaluate the introduction of new instruments and sounds with discretion and with as much attention to the material demands of the art as to the spiritual. The popularity of electronic music technology in the domain of popular music is, in this sense, of no concern to us. The insensitivity to the material surface of musical sound that it evinces is not to be taken by us as a model. On the contrary, our concern for the surface must be as acute as ever. What, then, can be said in objective terms about the surface of electronic musical sounds? Let us remember however to examine this on its own terms and without prejudice .

The surface of the musical work of art is, of course, a function of the physical characteristics of the instruments employed. There is a sound that wood can make which, in a space designed to carry it, will instantly transport flesh and blood to a place of pure spirit. It may be that the experience of music is the best proof we have for the notion that the path to heaven lies through the physical body. Translating from the Latin that appears in purfling on the back of a famous and magnificent old violin, "Mute in the Forest, Dead I Sing." A holy ghost lives in wood. The point of this essay is emphatically NOT to deny the incomparable glory of the violin, the piano and the clarinet.

Yet, I will affirm with absolute conviction born out of steady observation, that many accomplished classical musicians often assume that they are hearing violins, and pianos, and clarinets when, in actual fact, they are not. If this is not an issue of taste, it is most certainly an issue of discernment. Before describing this in its most blatant form, however, we must describe the larger context in which it becomes possible.

It is worth noting to begin with that classical musicians very rarely make the effort to distinguish in conversation between, for instance, the sound of a living and present violinist on the one hand, and the sound of a recorded violinist on the other. One says, "I am listening to Heifetz," not necessarily "I am listening to a recording of Heifetz." This does not mean that we are unable to make the distinction; only that it is not ordinarily considered to be a distinction of supreme consequence. Even for those who know the experience of hearing an artist like Heifetz playing in a beautiful hall, there may be some appreciation of a recorded performance as well. In fact, few would deny that there is a genuine aesthetic experience of beauty to be had in a recording of fine music.4

Although on reflection it is quite obvious, it is often forgotten that for better or for worse when we speak about the sound of violins, pianos, and clarinets, we are speaking as much about their recorded (electronic) sounds, as about their original acoustic sounds.5 It goes without saying that a trip to Symphony Hall is capable of rendering an experience that can be had in no other way. For the most part, however, we content ourselves with electronic recordings. It must be recognized that even many people who appreciate classical music rarely attend live concerts. (A disgraceful fact that is never discussed concerns the many classical musicians who cannot afford the price of a concert.) Therefore, it is an incontestable fact that, at least for the vast ruck of music lovers, the sound of the violin IS the sound of the recorded violin.

In fact, classical music is primarily enjoyed today in its electronic incarnation. Now, anybody who really gives the matter some thought will recognize that in art, as in other areas of life, our technology acts both as servant and master. We scarcely know if we rule our machines, or if they rule us. Too much ink has been spilled on this subject without a decisive answer, so it will not be pursued here. Yet, it must be admitted, even ignoring this fact, that electronic technologies have had an implacable influence on the aesthetics of music in our time. We have used these technologies to bring us the musical product of a hundred assembled musicians on a paper-thin disk of plastic that weighs less than an ounce (one celebrated orchestral conductor demurred to distribute recordings of his performances, saying that no art could take the shape of a pancake). In the process, we have altered the way in which we hear. We no longer listen as a matter of course for what people listened for when they only heard music in concert halls (or played on acoustic instruments in the home).

However deplorable it may be, few of us would agree to sacrifice the benefits of recorded sound to the cause of perpetuating our ancient musical sensibilities. Yet, it is not helpful that most of us have assumed we could somehow have it both ways. The emptiness of this illusion is apparent in a variety of ways. Most significant is probably the deleterious effect on the business of live music, with concomitant effects on the economic viability of the individual classical musician. But there are other more subtle effects that pertain more directly to specifically aesthetic concerns.

Take, for example, the development of orchestral recordings with regard to the changing musical aesthetic that they embody. Contrast the recordings of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when analog electronic technology reached its apogee, against the sound of current digital recordings released on CD. One must come to the conclusion that von Karajan was attempting to emulate the sound of the concert hall, but that Boulez is not. One must conclude that something has changed in the aesthetic presumptions on which these artists have based themselves. With respect to this changing aesthetic, it would seem true indeed that the "medium is the message."

A particularly compelling example of a changing aesthetic may be found in the experience of the Kronos Quartet, one of the pre-eminent string quartets of our time. These musicians learned from their producers that many listeners accustomed to hearing their performances on CD were coming away from their live concerts with something less than enthusiastic satisfaction. The sound that they had come to expect from digital recordings of stringed instruments did not comport well in their minds with the acoustic sound of the quartet’s deliciously beautiful acoustic instruments. This was especially the case when the venues in which they played were acoustically unsuitable (more and more common in an era when halls are designed with rock stars and electronic amplification in mind). Even under ideal conditions, however, sounds blend entirely differently in a hall than on a CD through earphones or home loudspeakers. The celebrated "bottom line" is that a great deal of what is appreciated in art is dependent on what people have become accustomed to, and today’s audiences are more accustomed to the sound of a CD than to the sound of a naked Stradivarius. And, so, behold, the Kronos Quartet discovered that they need a "sound-man" and, yes, microphones, mixers, and amplifiers – even for Carnegie Hall.

Thus far, we have discussed only conventional electronic recordings of acoustic music. Is it possible for electronic music, per se, to be understood in isolation from similar considerations? But to answer this, we must first ask, What are we talking about when we refer to the sound of explicitly electronic music? We must then admit that we are talking about something that is anything but clear.

In the past, the sound of electronic music was the product simply of oscillators and filters. But, now, the technology of music recording is penetrating ever more deeply into the methodology of electronic music as a result of more recent developments in digital technology. Deferring a discussion of the technical details for a subsequent chapter, I will simply make reference here to the invention of so-called "sampling" technology, which has resulted in music synthesizers that actually employ minute recordings of acoustic instruments played by real people in real concert halls.

Many classical musicians are simply unaware that electronic music synthesis is no longer dependent on the imitation of instrumental sounds by purely electronic means - as in the days when the "Switched On Bach" album made such an indelible impression, both for the musicality and unmusicality of Wendy Carlos’ performances on the Moog analog synthesizer. Today, very frequently, electronic music is nothing more than pre-recorded acoustic music, taken apart and reassembled. Today, living orchestras such as the London Philharmonic are being employed to record the elements of orchestral sound in such a way as to be available as raw material for a new kind of artist, using a new kind of electronic music synthesizer.

Sampling technology is having a particularly insidious and deceptive influence on the use of orchestral music in movies and television, and therefore on the livelihood of musicians. It is a subversive influence through which the electronic musician carves out a place for herself in the living body of the host, and it is no wonder that classical musicians approach this development with some trepidation, not to say prejudice and antagonism.6

More to the point - and here we come to that rather embarrassing matter of discernment mentioned long ago - many classical musicians are not aware that sometimes when they think they are hearing conventionally recorded instrumental music, they are in fact hearing reconstructions of instrumental music created by electronic music synthesizers using sampling technology. This is clearly a blatant error of discernment. Yet, it should come as no surprise that it is not easy to distinguish between electronic realizations of acoustic music produced with conventional recording technology, and other realizations produced with sampling synthesizers, since both employ nothing other than the self-same recording technology.

But then this fact only highlights an underlying error that is consistently made when judging the value of electronic musical instruments: namely, the erroneous assumption by which one regards the relevant comparison under the circumstances to be between acoustic instrumental sounds, per se, on the one hand, and their synthetic reproductions on the other. Actually, synthetic reproductions of acoustic instrumental sound should properly and realistically be compared to electronic recordings of those acoustic sounds. Until this is realized, classical musicians will continue to be embarrassed by their inability to discern exactly what kind of instrument they are hearing through the loudspeaker.

This much said, it is also worth saying that classical musicians frequently make similar errors of practical judgment even when sampling technology is not being employed – at least, they do so when their attention is not sufficiently focused. For it is a fact that electronic synthesis of the acoustic instruments has advanced to a very high level, even when it comes to traditional synthesis techniques using analog oscillators and filters, and their digital counterparts. This is not to say that the quality of a synthetic instrument has in any instance achieved parity with its acoustic model. But, the degree of verisimilitude has reached a point at which errors of judgment are common whenever the attention level of the listener is attenuated or distracted in one way or another. Again, it should be emphasized that the sensitive ear is being asked to make a distinction between, on one hand, highly advanced music synthesis technology and, on the other hand, electronic recordings of conventional performances – not live performances where the distinction would be more easily made. Classical musicians with sensitive ears, therefore, are quite capable of erroneously assuming the presence of an orchestra in movie soundtracks that actually have been produced by electronic music synthesizers, using either sampling technology or even the modern analogues of exclusively synthetic procedures. The classical musician is invited to listen more closely the next time she goes to the movies. Is that a real oboe, lamenting in the sunset?7

It only remains to be said that, if parity has not yet been fully achieved between electronic music synthesis and "the real thing" (as represented in its recorded form), yet the innovations in electronic music technology have also not reached their ultimate level of development. In the view of this author, further development is primarily a function of so-called memory in computers, a perspective that opens out on an expanding field of optimism. Grove’s Axiom in computer science, named after the CEO of Intel Corporation, refers to the rate of acceleration in the power of computers (effectively doubling their computing power in each and every biennial period). If this may be taken as a portent for the future, as it has been a measure of the past, then it will transpire in our lifetime that simulations of orchestral music will become indistinguishable from fine recordings of traditional orchestras.(For a representative sample of the art of orchestral simulation from the syNThony studio, please click HERE.)

Instruments vs. Machines

We turn now to other erroneous assumptions concerning the nature of technology itself as it relates to music. It will be seen that our perception of machines is as much dependent on subjective as on objective factors. Our lack of clarity reflects our ambivalence about machines.

It has been claimed that the words "good" and "evil", as used with reference to the Tree of Good and Evil in Genesis, might better be translated from the ancient Hebrew into terms more connotative of craft. There is no doubt that these particular Hebrew words were more commonly employed in the context of technology than our ordinary translations would imply. Yet, there appears to be some deep consilience of meaning in the varied connotations of all of these terms. The good is frequently conjoined with the useful (as it is with the beautiful, and the lasting). Thus, the Biblical Fall of Man has been related to the human proclivity to reason out the past, present, and future, taking responsibility for what happens in a determined effort to take control over Nature – and usually with the aid of a mechanical technology. It is of our technology that we are most proud, though this may be of the essence of what the Greeks called fatal hubris. The story in Genesis is essentially a only variant of the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods, and was sentenced to eternal torment as a result.

What distinguishes the human from the other species more than a reliance on technology? Technology is a manifestation of our peculiar kind of reason and intelligence (just as an indifference to technology is the intelligence and wisdom of our fellow species - and a higher reason and intelligence it may yet prove to be). Almost everything that we do in the world is mediated by some kind of machine or other. Today, some people have taken to believing that even birth and death will succumb to this temptation, babies cloned, the aged revived. No reservoir of human behavior will be left to Nature in her primitive innocence. While we make parks even of mountains and forests, we will become artificially supported extensions of technological processes, dependent even in our biological processes on machines (are we not already?).8 Possibly our natural fears of this impending future as humans contributes to our aversion as classical musicians to the idea of making music with machines.

Yet, I must insist that the very definition of a machine is open to question, and highly dependent on hidden (unacknowledged) cultural assumptions. In the world of classical music, for example, it is customary to call a violin an instrument, and there is something perverse about calling it a machine.9 This may be due to the fact that every violinist comes to feel in time that there is something alive about the instrument – if, of course, sufficient trouble has been taken to get on intimate terms with it. The violin seems to be a princess awakened with a kiss. But this is just the point.

Conversely, thinking further along these mythic lines, we might note that the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is based on a fantastic sham. The sham appears to be a function of mere human credulity, especially with respect to magic. But in actuality, the sham is that in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice magic is non-technical in nature - even an ignorant apprentice is capable of this magic. In practice, nobody brings wood to life without considerable experience and devoted work – in other words technical skill.

True, magic also requires something spontaneous and inexplicable, as does music. And without this other intangible quality, violin playing is pathetically (in common parlance) mechanical. Indeed, this criticism is regularly applied to unsuccessful violinists whose failure cannot be attributed to a lack of technique. In fact, absolutely whenever that ineffable "something" is missing from music, one is always tempted to call it mechanical. As such it is denounced and derided, and rightly so. Thus, for our purposes in this essay, it cannot be remarkable to say that the violin in itself is, after all, just a machine, for we all know that it takes a sensitive human being to make something substantially more of it.

What is a machine and what is not turns out to be more subjectively defined than might otherwise be imagined. True, there must be some utility in distinguishing between different kinds of machines, even to the point of implying a kind of quantum leap by which a machine becomes an instrument. But it must also be acknowledged that there can also arise some question and debate as to where the boundaries lie.

For example, it is clear that if a violin is an instrument, then surely the piano is too, despite its markedly more mechanical character. In the piano, at least, we find components more familiar to us from the world of machines: i.e., levers and springs, hammers, etc. But it is no less capable of music than a violin.

What, then, shall we call an organ? In the experience of classical musicians, the organ is without question an instrument. Yet, the matter is not at all clear from a technical point of view. For, in this regard, and with particular significance for the matter at hand, if pressed by the actual facts classical musicians will have to admit that even electronic machines can be called instruments, and electronic organs conventionally are so called. It is important to note that one rarely hears complaint about fine electronic organs in ecclesiastical or concert settings where classical music is often performed to audiences of classical music lovers. The same people who would not under any circumstances condescend to hear an electronic synthesizer (simply because it is electronic) may yet sit in contended communion with God while listening to a common electronic church organ.

The history of the organ raises other questions that relate to this discussion in another way. The issue of music synthesis may be approached in a way that bypasses entirely the bogeyman of electronic technology. For the attempt at orchestral simulations in music is actually hoary with age. Is not one of the glories of the traditional organ its proliferation of instrumental stops? Do we not love on all our best organs the ranks of trumpets and horns, the reeds, and choirs of strings? Who listens to the music of Bach or Franck on the organ and complains that the flute stops are nothing but a fake, hopelessly unlike the "real thing?" But if Bach could love the organ, can we not love the synthesizer?

Naturally, there is a distinction to be made between the fully electronic organ that produces electronic sounds though loudspeakers, and the electronic organ that plays through a set of conventional pipes. But it should be noted that even new pipe organs are not installed with pre-electronic keyboards and bellows. These electronic mechanisms are taken for granted and accepted with smiles despite the fact that they represent, by and large, electronic technology in its pre-digital infancy, and that they are inferior to the MIDI keyboard in many sundry respects.

We here refer necessarily to the digital technology called MIDI (leaving, however, a description of this technology aside). The state of the art in electronics today makes possible the construction of organ keyboards that are musically MORE sensitive than the keyboards on electronic organs that have for generations been enjoyed by classical musicians without objection. This is because MIDI technology allows for more levels of nuance in the way in which the keyboard triggers the tones. Indeed, this may be an instance of going back to the future. On Bach’s organ, the wind was produced by the physical manipulation of a bellows – say, by the feet or by other hands - and the keys could pass greater or lesser degrees of air according to "touch." In this way, it was possible to alter the quality of the musical sound. Conventional electronic organs, or organ keyboards, cannot do this, but the MIDI keyboard can. And, of course, the MIDI keyboard can play real pipes, as opposed to electronic speakers, and can do so as easily as the ordinary hybrid organs. Obviously, as this discussion implies, electronic music technology can as easily enhance the sensitivity of our instruments as diminish it. Any focus on the "electronic" aspect of electronic music must be viewed as inherently prejudicial and without objective support. And this conclusion presumably leaves us free to focus on the "music" part of electronic music.

However, this may be premature, for the question may also be framed in terms of the piano keyboard, again as it relates to the development of MIDI technology. We will phrase it in this way: does the traditional piano keyboard have more or less right to be called machine or instrument than the MIDI keyboard?

We may approach this question obliquely, returning to the subject of music recording from a different point of view. It has rightly been said that the scrolled player pianos of the early 20th century (such as the incomparable Aeolian Piano, represented the highest fidelity that has ever been achieved in the area of music recording. Audiences today may judge for themselves by obtaining digital CD presentations of legendary pianists from the turn of the century. Better still would be to play the original "piano rolls" as they were intended to be played, in acoustic pianos of superior concert quality. The level of nuance recorded by the non-electronic but still mechanical technology of the player piano far surpasses what can be achieved even by digital electronic recording technology of the present day (utilizing microphones).

How could it not win the comparison for fidelity, since the piano roll is designed to play on an acoustic piano, and not from an electronic loudspeaker? The point may be plainly evident, yet it is necessary to make this point because MIDI technology, which is associated with the electronic music synthesizer, may also be used to play an acoustic piano. Moreover, the MIDI keyboard is capable of recording the performing musician, and today is often constructed with weighted keys to mimic the action of the traditional acoustic keyboard. The full range of pianistic nuance may be heard in the ancient piano rolls of the Legendary Masters, and it may also be heard in the MIDI recordings of the present. Both types of recordings may be played on concert instruments, and, for that matter, may be performed on concert instruments in concert halls. No classical musician can realistically be disappointed by these performances, at least so far as the music itself in its audible dimension is concerned. (Alas, we shall never be able to resurrect Josef Hoffman by means of something like holography at the keyboard of our marvelous mechanical piano - or will we?)

To rehearse our discourse thus far, it is evident that there is some inconsistency in the criteria by which classical musicians evaluate the difference between a machine and an instrument. While everyone can agree on calling the violin an instrument (if played properly), they might also mostly agree that the MIDI keyboard is only a machine, even though it is capable of more niceties of touch than electronic organs that are conventionally called instruments. Can such conundrums be allowed to stand?

It is true that there is no special value for the sensitive thinker in mere consistency of logic. For the musician, and above all the classical musician, all purely logical conclusions must ultimately be subordinated to a more immediate, if subjective, experience of reality. The goal of this essay is not to prove a thesis, but to uncover new perspectives, to shed light on matters that are usually left in the dark. No doubt, it is unpleasant to look forthrightly at this matter that has so many frightening implications for musicians as a practical matter of employment and unemployment. We are dealing, admittedly, with a question that is usually framed in terms of the replacement of old instruments with the new. Therefore, as noted above, the classical musician feels in an adversarial position with respect to society, today more than ever. A defensive position with respect to the technologies that are supplanting and undermining her precarious position is to be expected.

Yet it cannot lead to success in the long term. And it can do no justice to the claims of classical music to be a living creative art. This is especially true in a time that may properly be called a time of crisis. The claims of the art of music are under attack today in a way that is unprecedented. Composers of contemporary music, those to whom the classical tradition is perforce most particularly entrusted, are rarely heard in concert, leaving them without audiences and without remuneration. At the same time, it is a commonplace of contemporary aesthetics that the Beatles are the Mozarts of tomorrow. Today, even the Spice Girls are called artists. (Of course they are not properly to be considered artists, but this will not long be true if PBS has its way). The plight of symphony orchestras throughout the land during the most prosperous years of our national life, the agonies of classical music purveyors in the recorded mediums and on the air, the abandonment of music education in the schools – all of these emerging tendencies may spell the end of the culture of classical music. Shall we add to this the intransigence of prejudiced musicians who are unwilling to see their instruments evolve, let alone to evolve with their instruments?

These developments may spell the end of the art - unless, that is, a revival is accomplished, and there is no need to rule this possibility out flatly. It may be recognized in time that we as living classical musicians, and we alone, bear the burden of perpetuating our tradition. But living up to that responsibility will require a more objective view of our position, not to mention the examination of our hidden assumptions and prejudices.

To live in the present is not necessarily to be unappreciative of the past. It is not to be unconscious of what is lost. Something is always lost in music when technology rears its ugly head. How did it feel to the masters of vocal polyphony when the world wanted to hear nothing but trumpets and reeds, and cymbals crashing? The classical "instrumentarium" is always in flux, with gains and losses in full measure every step of the way. Consider how even the sheer number of wind instruments, which was considerable in the seventeenth century, gave way to a reduced compliment of standardized winds in the eighteenth century. The Renaissance orchestra was far more diversified. But, it was destined that various forms of chalumeau, hautboy, and Schalmei (the shawms) all should have to give way to the oboe and bassoon. The whistling diversity of a great many fipple flutes was replaced by barely two varieties of transverse flutes. Viols gave way in their time to violins, and as lovely as the violin may be, there are still those who mourn the loss.

The violin and other modern instruments have paid us back generously for the beauties abandoned to the past. As instrumental music began to supplant purely vocal music in general, for example, a vastly expanded range of pitch became available to composers and performers. One may conjecture that the expanded spectrum of pitch itself called forth the tonal harmonic practice that has been the glory of Western music. Only that practice could reconcile the natural tendency of the Pythagorean Comma to displace the harmonious unity of our musical scales and modes. But that called forth yet another revolutionary demand, namely to tune our scales in a different way.

Indeed, how did it feel to the masters of modal music when organizational technologies of pitch began pointing toward equal temperament? Are we prepared to declare that nothing of significance inheres in the loss of modal nuance in our music? At least the participants in the old-music revival are not so prepared, and they will tell you in earnest about the special significance and beauty of a true fifth. Perhaps we might entertain the idea that Bach was wrong to write the Well Tempered Clavier. Shall we tune again to the simplicity of Nature herself? And, then, live also without cars and computers, and use only handcrafted goods. We should probably all love that very much, but it is not within the realm of possibility in any case.

On the other hand, something seems more important than our druthers in this matter. The art itself, our Muse, has designs of her own. She may not be exactly progressing – let us leave boasts of progress to marketers and promoters - but she is assuredly unfolding her plumage in an ongoing development through time. She sees opportunities in technology even if we do not. If we open up our minds and ears, She will help us to see those opportunities by astounding us with new sounds and new instruments.

Take, just for one example, the perspective that is just now being revealed through the digital music technology of so-called physical modeling. In an attempt to synthesize the sounds of conventional instruments, much study and research has gone into the minute characteristics of acoustic sounds. Every conceivable variable having to do with the materials comprising the instrument, the space in which it plays, the temperature of the air, have been analyzed and theorized.

Development along these lines has been enormous in the last decade, as in all areas of electronic music. Remarkably faithful synthetic reproductions of instrumental sounds have already been produced and the technology reduced to practice in synthesizers. But, the development actually outstrips the narrow goal of synthesizing conventional instrumental sounds, for, in the course of development, it quite naturally occurred to the researchers that there might be some interest in the sound of a violin bow playing the notes of a trumpet. While this cannot be accomplished in physical reality, it is well within the scope of the mathematical formulas that underlie physical modeling. The end product is an instrument unimagined and unimaginable previously. Thus, music will advance into new realms not yet heard or heard of. New hybrid sounds, half clarinet and half castanets, will enliven a new stage in the art.

At the turn of the millenium, as noted above, classical music is considered by many to be in crisis. Its audience is aging, and the corporate managers of the music business are concerned primarily with receipts, having little interest in the art. The prospects are daunting. Let us operate nevertheless according to the assumption that every crisis hides an opportunity within it.

There are those who advise classical musicians to return to the "Volk" in its expression through popular music. They earnestly believe, for example, that classical composers can attract a public by incorporating elements of rock-and-roll into their music. They laud the appearance of Aretha Franklin with our national symphony orchestras, and see nothing wrong with putting Beethoven and the Theme from Star Wars on the same program. This is not appropriate, and hardly justified. Yet, there is another and legitimate way for us to learn from the popular arts of our time.

The advancement of popular music has contributed its force to the development of entirely new musical instruments. This is an unexpected gift, and it is not the first time that popular forces have made themselves felt in classical music in a positive way. The aforementioned adoption of instrumental music by a formally vocal art was instigated by popular taste in a way that was appropriate and justified. It may be so in this instance as well.

Consider the possibility that the Kronos Quartet represents, with its hybrid mix of acoustic and electronic aesthetics. It is a possibility that admittedly entails compromise. But it is a possibility that engages the creative energy of four outstanding classical musicians. It is for this reason that they succeed in bringing to large audiences the work of a great number of contemporary classical composers, some of whom incorporate musical electronics into their work. If one may judge by the Kronos, the string quartet itself is alive and well.

The classical tradition will find its regeneration in a melding of faithful perseverance and intelligent flexibility, more than in any political maneuvering for support or sympathy from a fundamentally ignorant and tasteless power establishment. In time we may see still more mediocre and intensely boring Mozart galas by the likes of Marsallis and Corea at Lincoln Center. But, we cannot "save" the art by importing popular names from the world of popular music, to render pedestrian performances of the classics with homely lectures before and after. Our duty is as it has ever been to move forward, adjusting to new circumstances, while at the same time maintaining conscientious fidelity to our highest ideals. It can be done.


1. Are people not also forgetting, in more contemporary terms, the difference between film and video? Is the difference not plainly obvious even when both mediums are exposed through the television screen? Some people do not believe this. Yet, the film studios evidently do. Even while availing themselves of the advantages of digital technology for the reproduction and distribution of movies, they remain committed to conventional emulsion film as the primary medium. Note how the distinction was assumed in the New York Times (on Feb 22, 1999) in a story about the introduction of digital film projectors into commercial theatres: "Then there is the issue of quality and consistency. In the process of making prints from a master the copies lose some vitality, in the form of a softer focus and less vibrant colors. Films begin to show serious wear after 30 or so screenings, experts say. Electronic cinema would do away with many of those problems. Movies would still be shot, and edited, on traditional 35-millimeter film, and the end-product would be at least initially on film. Then, using a machine called a telecine, the digitized print would be made, and every subsequent digital copy would be a perfect replica. There would be no wear and tear from each showing. "

2. The structure itself is one of the crowning masterpieces of Modernist Art, by architect Mario Botta.

3. It should not be supposed that mere political discrepancies, such as those characterizing Capitalism and Communism, could alter the general cast of mind in these matters. In communist China, for example, shoes used to be marketed in boxes that said, "Shoes." Naturally, the Chinese have had to make slight adjustments as they enter into global markets. Today, there are "Eagle" brand shoes, and doubtless others as well. The shoes are still the same shoes. There is nothing particularly Chinese about them. There is nothing particularly anything else about them either.

4. It is interesting to note that it becomes progressively more expensive to render an aesthetic experience in recordings as the actual music performed approaches closer to that of our own era. The experience of Beethoven’s Fifth may be successfully conveyed by a relatively primitive radio, as the surviving victims of the London Blitz might recall. The effects of static and other forms of extraneous noise interfere less with the old composers than with the new. This is because of a certain preciosity that imbues and characterizes our contemporary aesthetic sensibilities. If a disenchantment with content is taken to have been the hallmark of the human artistic experience in the 20th century, and if it was met in art with a consequent shift of attention in favor of form, then it was in the beginning principally reflected in the exfoliation of the surface. This is why the music of Debussy creates a surface that cannot be transmitted on AM frequencies. The music of Boulez requires an even more highly sophisticated apparatus. The artists of the past century were in general obsessed about the surface. Those artists who were more prescient of the underlying trends, those in short who debunked BOTH content and form, turned their attention quite naturally also to the artistic surface, rebelling against its preciousness. It took some time, however, for people to approach their art in a commensurate way. When Duchamp sent his urinal (called "Fountain") to the Society of Independent Artists, in 1917, sympathetic people were inclined to say, "Ah, see the marvel of beauty in pure white porcelain." This confusion is still evident today in artists who apparently feel the need instinctively to rebel against the degradation of the artistic surface discussed above. The composer, Rhys Chatham, for example, obeys a frantic concern for surface that causes him to go into ecstasy over musical works that indulge in the revelation of nearly inaudible overtones sounded over nearly inaudible fundamentals in performances of studied profundity and astonishing length at New York’s avant-garde concert hall, the Kitchen. This is music for which people will apparently pay real money, yet it might be more in keeping with his expressed musical philosophy for Mr. Chatham to return to his experiments in punk rock, a music more in keeping with the contemporary consciousness. It at least does not pretend to be classically inspired, or to have a beautiful surface.

5. The musical folklore of Las Vegas recounts an amusing incident of some relevance here. In some casino showrooms featuring the more elaborate productions, managers found that there was no room for musicians. For example, in one typical Vegas entertainment, a tremendous cast of dancers and singers performed on a stage where elephants roamed and airplanes landed. Thus, it came to pass that the musicians were relegated to a room in the basement from which retreat their music was piped up to the showroom. Before every show, however, an announcer would assure the audience that a living orchestra was playing the music off-stage. Then, one day, on an elevator in the casino, a woman gestured toward the loudspeaker through which Muzak was playing. She assured her companion that a living orchestra in the basement was playing at that very moment. "That’s the way things are done in Las Vegas."

6. The Musicians Union used to handle this problem by insisting that musicians be hired whether or not they played. This was in the tradition of railroad firemen who worked long after engines went to diesel. The strategy can protect at most a generation of people, which is by no means an unworthy undertaking. But, it presents no long-term solution in the case of an art that follows and must transmit a priceless tradition.

7. In this connection, special mention should be made of the movie "Farinelli," in which synthesized solo voice is seamlessly incorporated with otherwise conventional recordings of the castrato lead.

8. It may be that our fondness for technology has at long last brought us to a qualitatively new consciousness of ourselves. It has been for me a source of never-ending amusement to hear intelligent people maintain that an insect is merely a very clever little machine – until, that is, I learned from a popular compendium of scientific inquiry entitled "The Mind’s Eye," that a substantial number of apparently sane and reputable scientists are perfectly convinced that the human being is nothing more than a very clever big machine. A charming composer of operettas (Eduard Ingris, famous in Prague during the 1930s) told me once in all seriousness (reflecting I suppose the musical world of Central Europe during the time that he called "the Golden Age") that "no classical musician could ever commit a crime." I may add that no classical musician can ever possibly believe that the human being is a machine.

9. Note that, despite the proletarian status of musicians in contemporary orchestras or other kinds of entertainment factories, one still says, "I play the violin," and never "I work the violin."

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