Is Music in Danger?

When I attended the Audio Engineering Society convention in October 1987 (my first time in over eight years; full report in this issue), I was impressed by the incredible technology now available to composers of music. I was also dismayed, however, by the extent to which so-called purist audio, as well as "acoustical" music, have been consigned to oblivion by the pro audio community. It was clear, both from the exhibits and the many conversations on which I eavesdropped, that audio professionals are no longer concerned about fidelity, in the sense of trying to reproduce sounds accurately. A "real" sound has become to them merely raw material of no value except as something to be processed, manipulated, folded, bent, and spindled to produce any sonic effect except the original one. About a third of the products displayed at the 83rd AES convention were tools for doing that.

The second third of the exhibits consisted of equipment for creating music-type sounds from scratch. There were synthesizers galore, as well as electronic pianos, electronic clarinets, electronic guitars, electronic saxophones, electronic harps, electronic drum machines, and devices for converting the sounds of acoustical instruments into audio signals without an intervening soundwave stage. What about ambience, or reverberation? You get that from a black box called a room simulator.

As of now, anyone with a few grand (or good credit) for the necessary hardware in his basement can become a record company, producing everything from the musical ideas to mass-produced cassettes for public sale. The likelihood that much of the resulting product may not be worth one's time of day is irrelevant; what is relevant is the effect all this will have on the music scene as we know it. That effect will be cataclysmic.

Using a computer and a suitable program, anyone who can read music can compose on-screen, typing the proper notes into the staves on a blank score sheet, and immediately playing back what he's written to hear what it sounds like. He can have the computer synthesize different instrumental sounds (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and hear what a melodic line sounds like played by a flute, an oboe, several violins, or any completely new kind of sound he may have devised and stored on a floppy disk for future use. He can transpose, modulate, or harmonize any individual note or phrase or entire statement, all automatically with a few keystrokes.

If he can't read music, he can work on a synthesizer keyboard, correcting mistakes as he goes, and using the computer to record every note. Then, he can punch a few other keys and sit back while the system prints out the finished music score on paper—ready for Xeroxing in small quantities or for printing in vast quantities.

It is easy to see the effect this is going to have on the music publishing business. The publisher's printing and distribution system may still be needed (although a computerized music score can be sent cross-country by telephone), but his typesetting services won't be, and most composers and arrangers will be thankful for that. Until now, all the notes on a printed score had to be keyed in or handset by a typesetter, which affords a golden opportunity for so-called entry errors. These typos in music scores are a much more frequent occurrence than non-musicians realize, accounting for a significant amount of wasted rehearsal time during which players must pencil-in corrections. The typos do not occur when the the computer prints out the score that has been personally auditioned and approved for musical integrity by the composer. This is then simply photocopied for the printing press. If there's an error in it, the composer has no one to blame but himself.

Actually, our electronic composer doesn't even have to bother with a music score. The means exist now for him to create a performance of his music via the computer, bypassing not only the music publisher but also the arrangers, performers, and recording engineers who have traditionally been the composer's pipeline to his record-buying audience. Using a MIDI (footnote 1) setup, he can assign different parts to different electronic sound generators, instruct each as to its entry cues and volume levels, then punch a key or two and let the system play the entire composition all the way through while he records it on tape, all ready for processing and public release on CD and cassette. And if he's not concerned about CD, he can even do his own mass-production at home, with a bank of cassette decks. In other words, it is possible for one person to be his own composer, arranger, performer, and record distributor.

All this gives new meaning to the term "computer literacy." Someone who is a computer illiterate at the close of the 1980s is going to be effectively separated from the means of making music. The complexity of the technology required to write music electronically means that a flair for composing will no longer be the sole requisite for doing it. A composer will also need a certain amount of technological know-how. This will undoubtedly exclude a lot of potential composers, including, inevitably, some who might have become the immortal greats of the late 20th century.

Musicians have always tended to be nontechnical people, often taking a perverse pride in claiming they don't know which end of a screwdriver to hold. Such people are going to find an increasingly rough road ahead for their composing. The electronic revolution in music-making is going to limit the number of people who are able to do it, or force them into collaborations with techies who can execute their musical wishes—musical interpreters, as it were (footnote 2).

It is also apparent that the days of the "live" music performance are numbered, at least in the area of high-tech music. The public rock concert is not likely to disappear from the music scene; there's too much emotional payoff for audiences and performers alike, not to mention the financial payoff to the performers. But the nature of those concerts will change dramatically. Increasingly often, they will be "live" performances only in the sense that the stars are onstage in person; their performances will be canned. In order to sound as good in person as they do on records, touring recording artists will be forced to play their synthesized recordings through the PA system while mouthing the lyrics and faking the playing, as is already accepted practice in MTV music videos. They may in fact have no choice but to do it this way, because modern recording techniques are already making stars out of performers who can't even play their instruments very well (footnote 3).

Recording Engineer/Producer magazine recently cited a case where, during an album project by a well-known rock star, his heavily edited lead track got trashed by the MIDI controller, and he was called on to play it over again, on the spot, for a retake. Faced with the prospect of actually performing live, he caved in, "consumed the rest of his recreational pharmaceuticals," and canceled the session. This illustrates how modern recording technology can become, not just a crutch, but the means for doing a musical performance.

I must say I view the prospects of the coming electronic music revolution with very mixed feelings. I admire the inventiveness that goes into the design of this high-tech instrumentation, and I applaud anything that will reduce the tedium of a creative activity. I am particularly pleased at the prospect of new, unheard composers who may be able to offer their work to the record-buying public without the approval or endorsement of some record-company bigwig whose criterion for releasing anything is its appeal to the lowest common denominator. But I decry some of the other things I see growing out of this.

I think the passing of the creative middleman—the performer or conductor—will be a tragic loss to music, because he has traditionally brought renewed vitality to works which would otherwise become tedious with repetition. (Many composers' performances of their own works are uninspired.) And, speaking as a lover of real orchestral music, I see this explosion of electronic music-making as a threat to one of the most glorious sounds known to civilized humanity.

Symphonic music has always had little appeal to the American public. On major-label recordings, it has been subsidized by sales of pop records and recorded with equipment that was on hand to produce the real money-makers. With 100 musicians playing at music-union recording rates, it is absurdly expensive to record an orchestra, and the record companies would be delighted to find a cheaper way of doing it. There are already synthesizers which can sound somewhat like massed violins, cellos, tubas, and clarinets, and their ability to imitate real sounds is improving every year. It's just a matter of time before some record-company executive decides the sound of a symphony orchestra can be faked well enough that "most record buyers won't know the difference." I don't look forward to that time.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: MIDI is a standardized digital "language" by which a number of electronic instruments can be synchronized and individually controlled.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: This is not unheard of. The aging Frederic Delius was too blind to transcribe his own music, and hired a young Eric Fenby to do it for him.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 3: According to a drummer friend of mine who owns a percussion shop in Bristol, England, this increasing emphasis on electronics and computers to produce recorded music is paradoxically going hand in hand with an increase in sales of real, acoustic instruments. Never in non-classical music has there been such a quality gap between what is heard via playback media and what is heard live.—John Atkinson