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Digital Music Applications for Composers

A "How-To" in Outline
by Daniel de Quincy


In my student days during the 1970s, electronic music meant to me a universe of new sounds never before imagined. It seemed to have little bearing on the music of the past, little relevance to anything so archaic as notes on the score. The "Switched-On Bach" albums of Wendy Carlos, and the orchestral simulations of Tomita stood in the background as curiosities. Performances or reconstructions of traditional classical music, and of the new art music of the time were, to say the least, problematic for those of us who were playing electronic music instruments of the Moog type. Instead, we made music that was profoundly untraditional in nature.

Out of frustration with that stage in the technology, I eventually abandoned electronic music - and didn’t rediscover it until the 1990s. By this time, digital technology had completely transformed the design of electronic musical instruments. Computer hardware and software was being implemented into their design. The electronic technology that I had known previously provided a way of doing entirely new things in music, making entirely new sounds. The new technology that I now use does all of that, and does it much more effectively. But, as I learned to my great satisfaction and pleasure, digital technology also provides a new way of carrying out some of the more traditional tasks of the composer. It has become a new way of doing old things.

By "old things," I mean, for example, writing a composition using conventional music notation. Today’s music software does for music notation what word-processing does for text, which means greater ease and clarity in writing, and the considerable added advantage of carefree desk-top publishing. Apart from dispensing with the bother of pen and paper, the composer may write just as always, i.e. with notes on the staff. (Find out in "Step One" how conventional word-processing utilities apply the utilities of "cut, copy, and paste" to the musical score.)

The example allows me to define in a descriptive way the remarkable scale of the technological progress that has been made in the field of digital electronic music. During the 1970s, I attended a workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where some of the latest developments in electronic music technology were demonstrated. One of the outstanding features of the MIT program in the field of electronic music was the application of mainframe computers to the task of perfecting electronic applications for music notation. It happened that computer music notation presented a far more difficult puzzle to solve than did the matter of simple text. The layout of musical notes on a score is far more intuitive and subtle in its application than the layout of letters and words. Indeed, it was many years after the invention and adoption of the PC before practical musical notation programs began to be seen on the market. Today there are several professionally styled programs on the market.

I use such a program in my own work as a composer. I have come to regard writing on score-paper as very inconvenient and tedious. And remembering the days of copying final scores painstakingly to "onion-skin" makes me forever grateful for the impeccable pages of score that I take from my computer printer without a care. I use beautifully printed copies of my scores merely as a matter of course and as throwaways in the course of revisions.

As an example of a working score, I am posting here the first three pages from a recent score of mine, for a work entitled "The Mouth of Brahman." I emphasize that this is a "working score," because it is NOT my intention to present it as the acme of professional desktop music publishing. In knowledgeable hands, computer music software is capable of publishing completely professional and finished scores using conventional computer printers. I only want to demonstrate here what serves me as the equivalent of the traditional composer’s sketch-book and manuscript. (It should be noted that many music software programs provide for a printing of individual parts from the score, simply at the touch of a button - or more correctly, a click of the mouse. This means that, when the conductor decides on the spur of the moment to do your piece, the parts may be produced for a pittance and in a jiffy.)

The Mouth of Brahman
Daniel de Quincy




But digital music technology offers you, the composer, a great deal more than just notational software. Even more significantly, it is now possible to perform instrumental simulations of your scores with a realism and beauty of sound that is simply astonishing. Now that you have seen a few pages from the score of "The Mouth of Brahman," listen to an orchestral simulation of the score that I have created in my home studio.


On the next page, I will take you in broad outline, but step by step, through the process of creating what you have just heard. Without detailed technical explanations, you will see the entire process, from writing the score using music software on a computer, to performing the notes, and then recording them for audition or distribution, on the Internet or on CD.


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