Composing with a galaxy of sound. Computers are giving musicmakers the means to explore new worlds
Cambridge, Mass. — HE music rollicked to a close, and the quintet delivered the last chord like a punch line. The pianist rose in her glittering black and gold dress and bowed elegantly to the audience. But the four other players didn't budge. They sat motionless behind their music stands throughout the long applause. Then a stagehand walked up, unplugged them, and carried them off.
With contemporary music, anything goes, and this piece for piano and computer was just one of several computer-music compositions performed recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In this number, the computer was limited to four voices -- each having its own loudspeaker.
Though its roots reach back to the 1950s, computer music is now settling in as the ``new medium'' of the age. It's moved from the high-tech research labs to recording studios, classrooms, and homes. What used to be a lonely, exotic art form has become a respectable alternative to composing with traditional acoustic instruments.
Computer music assumes many forms, but diversity of sound and method is the whole point. Musicians invent bizarre, cosmic sounds of their own, or imitate traditional sounds, such as the violin, grand piano, drums, the sound of a choir -- or of even a whole orchestra.
Even nonmusical sounds, like a door slamming, can be digitally sampled and then speeded up, slowed down, finely shaped, or combined with other sounds in musical ways.
``Composers have many more options than they used to,'' says Barry Vercoe, the composer who founded the Experimental Music Studio at MIT, a leading computer-music center. ``They can write a piece just for computers alone, for computers and five instruments, or using vocal sounds.''
Though many composers are coming to recognize the benefits of computer music, listeners find that much of it remains hard to swallow, according to experts in the field. Can music be reduced to machinery? Can the fine points of expression, interpretation, and nuance be communicated to an audience through electronics?
These are tough questions that, considering the different forms of computer music, demand not an emphatic ``no'' but a careful consideration of what's really going on.
``People do it because there seems to be some kind of creative and communicative imperative . . . , and the computer music medium should be seen in that context,'' Mr. Vercoe says. He describes the field as having a lot of ``rough edges,'' and concedes that pieces for computer alone don't yet have the staying power of those for traditional instruments. ``We haven't yet learned how to imbue the sound with all the subtle nuance that we can get from the traditional instruments.''
But computers have given composers a tremendous opportunity to stretch their imaginations, to shape and invent tones in totally new ways, and to have a galaxy of sound at their finger tips.
The rise of computer music owes much to the increasing accessibility of the equipment.
``You can buy a synthesizer and computer for under $5,000 -- which was unthinkable four years ago,'' says Curtis Roads, a composer and the editor of Computer Music Journal.
Computer music is big business, too, adds Mr. Roads, whose magazine is distributed in 45 countries. ``There are around a hundred companies making products now . . . . A lot of jazz musicians are finding out about it.''
Computer music has also ripened, thanks to newfound ways of applying digital technology. Analogue synthesizers, such as Robert Moog's famous Moog Synthesizer, now 22 years old, are being replaced by sophisticated digital synthesizers that process sound as numbers rather than voltages. This finely honed, high-speed system allows for the unlimited palette of sound and amazing amount of control that musicians have long dreamed of.
Piano keyboards have been hooked up to computers, allowing composers to work in a mode they already know. With such advances, the science world has wooed the musician to its door -- and given computer music a needed boost.
``There's going to be more and more close interaction between the world of science and [that of] musicians, because they're dependent upon these systems and will make good use of them,'' says John Chowning, director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University. ``Composers are now doing work that used to be the domain of scientists,'' he says.
Computers and synthesizers are most frequently heard in commercials, film scores, and recordings. And an increasing number of rock and pop songs heard on the radio use some form of computer-generated or computer-assisted sound.
``We're no longer dealing in acoustic space,'' says Suzanne Ciani, president of Ciani Musica, considered one of the most sophisticated music production companies in New York City. She composes commercial jingles for such clients as Coca-Cola, Lincoln-Mercury, and Clairol and composes and produces records of her own. Ms. Ciani says her room full of 40 synthesizers is ``a new breed of studio,'' where ``creative electronic associates'' help musicians realize their ideas. The studio uses personal computers to design sound, print scores, and record compositions.
Though Ciani was trained in the classical tradition, ``the possibilities in this new area are more exciting,'' she says. ``Imagine having a flute 12 feet long. . . . Or you can have it hold a note three minutes. A flute player could never do that.''
Does that mean traditional instruments are outmoded?
Ciani believes they are now less useful in her field than in the past, but she describes the phenomenon as an ``evolution rather than displacement.''
``We're going to see a widening of the family of musicians, because synthesizers are much more forgiving -- there are fewer barriers to becoming creative with them. In order to be creative with a violin, I definitely have to study for years,'' says Ciani, ``but with synthesis you can get a more immediate response.''
At the request of singer Stevie Wonder, Kurzweil Music Systems of Waltham, Mass., developed a digital synthesizer that, according to the company, duplicates the tone, depth, and resonance of a Steinway grand piano -- or any other instrument, for that matter. It records a sound -- a violin, say -- breaks it down into its fundamental timbres, and stores it, using a novel data-compression technique. When a note on the keyboard is played, the violin sound is produced in all its natural richness and color. The ``Kurzweil 250'' reproduces acoustic sounds so authentically that the human ear can't tell they are computer-generated, claims Jerome Rutzicka, vice-president of marketing and sales at Kurzweil.
The Kurzweil synthesizer is the latest addition to a state-of-the-art synthesis studio at Berklee College of Music in Boston. David Mash, head of the synthesis department, says that with the Kurzweil 250, student composers ``can learn what acoustical instruments will sound like'' before having to hire performers or print a score. Consequently, he says, they are able to learn the necessary skills much faster.
Composers outside jazz and popular music also find that computers have a lot to offer. John Rimmer, a composer from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, likes to combine electronic sounds with live artists on stage. ``I enjoy the dramatic confrontation between the performer and the loudspeakers,'' he says. Involved with computer music for more than 15 years, Mr. Rimmer doesn't consider his work a radical departure from the past. ``Composers have always been trying to expand their palette of sounds, and the advent of electronics hasn't changed that process at all . . . . It's another [medium] to be used in a musical way -- with sensitivity, craft, and imagination. For me, it's no different.''
Dexter Morrill, composer and director of the Computer Music Studio at Colgate University, began working with computers in 1971 and ``liked the sounds very much. I like to be able to have control over the sounds -- the fine-tuning appeals to me a lot.''
Many composers, however, still prefer to work solely with traditional instruments. ``I'm not fond of the [synthesized] sounds I've heard so far,'' says Ruth Schonthal, a composer and lecturer in New Rochelle, N.Y. But she admires those who are making good use of electronic sounds. ``If it's done well by someone who is truly inventive and can make it artistically valid, I'm all for it.''
With the number of computer-music concerts on the rise, the whole range and diversity of the music is going through a process of ``natural selection,'' says Vercoe of MIT. ``Over all history of the development of instruments, there's been constant change, experimentation, trial and error . . . , and [computer music] is just a continuation of that process of evolution.''
Dexter Morrill confesses to having heard his share of bad computer music. Unfortunately, he says, ``a lot of new and fancy systems enable you to make a lot of bad music easily.'' Just because you have good equipment doesn't mean the compositions will be better. What really counts, he says, is musical talent and compositional skills.
``What we have in the main body of musicmaking is a historic filter,'' Mr. Morrill says, ``and we're at the beginning process of that filter for computer music. Work in the experimental tradition is so valuable -- we need to hear everything that is going on.''