Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Computer Changed Everything. Again.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another article about the good old days and how we had to walk uphill seven miles to school, on our backs, while juggling ferrets.

The ferrets. They bite.

It's not exactly news that the computer changed lots of stuff in lots of artistic fields. Poets and novelists and painters and (guess what, a new category) computer artists and ... composers have seen everything change, in every level of the supply chain from (here's this silly phrase again) the creative process to production. High end tools quickly, and breathtakingly, became available to the masses. Well, to the masses who could afford computers.

And we all know how the masses ruin everything when they get their own way.

Heck, even I (you know this was going to get to me, and breathtakingly quickly) dabbled in high end typography. Typography! Moi, not trained as an artist (the A++ I got for my profile drawing in seventh grade doesn't count, and why not?) was able, with font specimen books, a scanner, three bits of software (Adobe Streamline, Adobe Illustrator, and Fontographer) to completely rock out the computer font world, right when Windows 3.1 — the release that allowed unlimited different fonts to display and print — was released. People clamored for fonts, fonts, fonts, and a new kind of kitsch sprang forth, unbidden: the flyer with way too many fonts.

But this post is not about fonts. Or is about to be not about fonts. But before I leave this topic. The grunge font fad in the mid 90s? My fault. Sorry.

Here's your taste of the old days. I wrote my first piece ever for my high school band in 1975. This places my year of birth somewhere between 1957 and 1960 by virtue of the use of the word "my". I purchased (uh, got my dad to purchase) special 24-line music paper with teeny weeny staves in Burlington. On every page of manuscript, even before I started writing, I dutifully captioned each staff: Flute 1&2; Oboe 1&2; Clarinet 1; Clarinet 2; Clarinet 3; Alto Clarinet ... and so on, and so on. On every page. Every. Page.

And then it was time to write. On each teeny line I wrote in all the parts I was hearing, with a #2 pencil. Every part, of course, included the notes and rhythms, dynamics, and rehearsal numbers (rehearsal numbers! I had to think way ahead here). That the piece I wrote was a pretty obvious amalgam stealing all the coolest parts of band pieces I'd played in All-State and All-New England isn't even germane here. Hey, it was my first piece.

I can't use the expression "before the ink was even dry" here, since I used a pencil. So, um ... before the piece was even finished, the first few pages were already smudgy. I had not yet discovered the composer's first most important tool: fixative. "Fixative and forget it", we used to say in my grad school days.

We were complete and total nerds.

Carbon-based scores would deteriorate this way, naturally. The way you work around the smudgies is to make a photocopy, of course. And naturally, no photocopiers in town could handle the large-format music paper.

But I finished my piece. Meaning I was nowhere near finished. Because nobody in my high school band (all of whom were born between 1957 and 1960) could play from my score. And not just because of the photocopier paper size issue. Everybody had to have their own parts, showing only what they played, and transposed. Now, Dad was okay buying me exotic music paper, but he drew the line at buying me a copyist. I had to copy and transpose all the parts myself. And when would I find the time?

Well, as it turns out, our chorus and band did an exchange concert in Scarborough, Ontario that year, which necessitated a seven-hour bus ride each way. It is during those two bus rides that I copied maybe a third to a half of the parts — which, of course, didn't have all that many straight lines. The other parts? Copied whenever there was time.

Duration of composition: five days. Duration of parts-copying: about three weeks. Piece's performance time: 7 minutes.

Once I got to college, it was time for some serious musico-copyage gear, and my teacher got me hooked on some nice people in Utah to get my scores produced. Utah! The nerd gear changed, though. Scores of odd sizes photocopied double-sided were 30 cents a page. Ozalid scores were 9 cents. Ozalid? To take advantage of the steep discount, I now had to (get my father to) buy music paper printed on sheer, semi-transparent paper, buy a bunch of calligraphy pens and an electric eraser, and learn music copying again. The staves were printed on the side on which you didn't copy, so that the electric eraser wouldn't erase the staves. Worse still, I had to become an afficionado of earthworm-shaped eraser parts for the electric eraser.

And when the nicely coil-bound scores got back from Utah, they looked nice. And smelled bad. 'cause, you see, the cheaper ozalid process used ammonia, just like blueprints. So in my conservatory years, you could always tell the composers — they were the ones who smelled like cleaning fluid. (The early music majors always smelled like laundry day, but that's another issue entirely)

And those ammonia pages? Eventually the odor faded. But so did the pages, when exposed to light. After three or four years all my scores had pages with brown edges. Luckily I discovered this about when I was ready to call them all juvenilia and chuck them on artistic grounds, anyway.

And the nice folks in Utah (it was Orem, by the way) wrote to say photocopy prices had come down to Ozalid rates and they were getting rid of their Ozalid stuff. Apparently they got tired of smelling like composers.

So then music copying for me reverted to the carbon-based process. I now used mechanical pencil (HB leads, or something like that), regular erasers, regular paper (I think a lot of it was actually green paper), calligraphy pens for the beams, rulers, fixative, and non-photo blue pencils. The non-photo blue pencils were for drawing guidelines on large scores so that the beats would line up properly — and would not show up when photocopied (hence the name).

When in Rome, I was seeking such a pencil for my last hand-copied score, and went into an art store. With the Italian vocabulary of a three-year-old, I tried asking for one (Cerco una matita "non-photo blue", azzurro chi non ... chi non ... non é visibile quando ... quando ... Xerox?) The proprietor pointed me to the dark blue pencils. I bought the lightest one.

The last essential piece of equipment was the sock. Yes, the sock.

When copying large scores in pencil, my arm and the side of my hand would tend to sweat. I mean, don't yours? Sweat makes smudge, smudge makes ugly, ugly makes Davy a dull boy. So to keep the sweat from interacting with the page, I cut off the toe end of a sock and placed it over my writing hand and forearm. I was not a very good date.

I wrote a violin concerto movement — it was going to be my dissertation piece, but it wasn't -- for violin and 18 instruments. When I got into Tanglewood, I was eager to get it played, and I didn't get much notice. Certainly not enough time to do proper parts. So I was introduced to the paste-up part. I absconded with some free photocopying at the Princeton music department, and cut up each page of the full score into the lines of the individual parts, then pasted all the lines for the instruments onto blank pages, and ... whoa, my eyelids are drooping with boredom as I type this. Well, I had a bunch of paste-up parts that took a couple of days to do, instead of proper copied parts, which would have taken about two or three weeks. And boy were those parts ugly. They looked like laundry day.

And that was my glamorous life until computers.

And of course, just about everyone else was doing music notation on their computers before I was. Because, you see, I had the sock. I doubt anybody else did. When I got a publisher and wanted pieces engraved, I went to my friends at Scores International, who engraved pieces using the SCORE notation program. It cost something like $14 to $20 per page, and it came out of my pocket. This part is unremarkable except for a few details. Composer Danny Kastner owned and ran the business, and he had not fifteen, but thirty minutes of fame — first as a contestant on The Apprentice, and then as a victim on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

I also named one of my fonts after Danny. It is called Kastner-Casual.

Meanwhile, some of my students were using notation programs and brought in their sketches as laser-printed pages that looked, to a newbie, like engraved music. What does a composition teacher do with an engraved score? "I can't comment. Your piece is finished. It's already been engraved." But the telltale signs of a sketch were there (and this particular sign persists to this day) — usually the score ended with 20 to 30 blank measures, all of them with whole rests. Uh huh. So the audience can't applaud for a minute or two after the piece is over, right?

Once a student working on a deadline for an ensemble piece used her engraving software to play what she had so far to me over the phone. It was a bunch of beeps and squawks that sounded like amoebas having an argument. I said it sounded fine, and to keep going.

One of my students had a side business engraving music, and offered to engrave a piece of mine using Finale. My employer gave me some professional expenses, and I had to use the money before the end of the fiscal year or forfeit it. So I told the editors at Peters that a piece they'd taken would be engraved in Finale, and I got a stern letter back: Beware of students using Finale. The ties look too flat and the spacing is awful. Bye.

The student engraved the piece. He made the ties loopier and fixed the default spacing algorithms. The score looks neither half bad nor half good.

In the summer of 1993 we were living in Spencer, Massachusetts and Beff was doing adjunct work in the Worcester college scene. A potentially more permanent job came up at a place where she had already adjuncted. "Familiarity with Finale music software" was a stated job requirement. I used my academic discount to buy Finale, and we both jumped into the steep learning curve that was Finale Music Notation Software, version 3.0.

Those even nerdier than I tell me that by not using Finale 1 and 2, I missed nothing.

Our hardware was about a generation and a half behind state of the art — a Macintosh SE with an internal 20 megabyte hard drive. It wasn't the ideal platform for complicated music software, but it was what we had. The first thing we discovered about Finale 3.0 was that when you double-clicked on it, you had just about enough time to go out and raise a family before it was ready for you to start working. And that it could play back the music you entered such that it sounded like amoebas arguing.

I decided to learn Finale with the immersion technique (since it didn't also teach you a foreign language). I had just written my fourth piano étude, a complicated monster of an étude if ever there was one, that would take me, the computer, Finale, and the entire cosmos, to the limit. I embarked.

It was excruciating.

Hard as it was to get the notes in just right, I discovered what point-zero software really means. After I'd spent a week getting about four-fifths of the notes in, I opened up my file to the message "This file can not be opened by Finale".


Slang word for intercourse.

Most recent backup opened. "This file can not be opened by Finale".

Slang word for intercourse.

Less recent backup opened. Ah, the first half or so of the piece was there, and could be opened. More notes added. Saved to another file. "This file can not be opened by Finale."

Slang word for excrement. Slang word for intercourse.

Backup reopened. Enough new notes entered to fill a page. Saved. All is well. New file started, at the halfway point in the piece. Notes entered and saved without incident. Printout sent to the editors, eleven pages total. Marked-up edited copy returned with unbelievably particular edits. Time spent to edit score to editors' specifications: five full days.

Thus, my trial by fire, and copious use of slang words. Much-welcome Finale fix arrives on floppy disk.

Subsequently, I became pretty good, and fast, at getting scores into Finale, and learned all the tricks for getting stuff to look good — or at least to the Peters editors' standards. And the first time I had to do parts for a large piece, it pretty much paid for itself.

First symphony, hand-copied. Parts farmed out (to copyists in Utah, it turns out). Time it took me: zero. Cost to me: $4300.

Persistent Memory, Finale files. Parts done by me. Time it took: one and a half days. Cost to me: $0.

And whereas my scores had usually been published "in facsimile" (translation: we saved a bundle on engraving), now they can look "engraved", scare quotes intentional.

My method of working has not changed during the computer age. I still write short scores (when writing for large ensembles) onto oblong paper before doing the full score. I usually do the writing during the day and the entering of the same music into Finale in the evening. The sketches have all kinds of chicken scratches and notes to myself, and (importantly) room to change my mind.

What has changed is the default working method of a lot of composers, particularly younger ones — the ones who never cut the toes off of their socks. Thus has my life teaching composition changed, as well.

First check out this very interesting blog post by John Mackey about his working method. It's a method that works exceedingly well for him, but which wouldn't work for me at all.

For the sake of contrast, here is some music I wrote this morning. It is not yet entered into Finale. But I will, Oscar, I will.

I would have a hard time deciphering those chicken scratches and arrows, personal notes, etc., of mine in a lesson, though it might would be fun doing that. Much more likely, it wouldn't be fun.

Meanwhile, it is now more common than not in a composition lesson for the victim either to give me a flash drive with a Finale file, or a MIDI file, or a PDF, or all of those — or to bring his/her own computer with all the Finale or Sibelius files ready for playback and live(!) editing. I can make suggestions that the victim will either make note of in the actual file with the text tool, or do an actual live revision as I watch (or pretend to watch). And the part of the lesson where I struggle through a complex score at the piano — gone! Or at least much less common.

Speaking of PDFs. Well, obviously now I can send out scores and parts as PDFs in e-mail instead of taking the time to print and bind copies, package them, and go to the post office. Did I mention ... I have a tabloid-capable laser printer and binding equipment?

And with the MIDI playback. I'm actually not fond of MIDI for a lot of stuff, but I have found one and only one way to make that feature useful. Hearing the notes I wrote played back in quasi-real time gives me some indication of when my compositional timing is off. More often than not, I add beats or passages when the MIDI "tells" me I made a boo-boo.

Score production isn't the only thing for composers that's been vastly transformed by the computer, too. CD-burning has long replaced cassette duplications for performance recordings, videos of pieces can be published on YouTube, and lots of recordings of hard-to-find pieces are now available in various corners of the Internet.

And much to the chagrin of Beff, I now get to keep all of my socks.