26 October 2008

Composing With Notation Software

There was an interesting and lively discussion on Sequenza 21 recently around the topic of composing with notation software. I would be remiss if I did not cover this topic on this blog at some point (actually, I'm somewhat shocked that I haven't yet in 2-plus years of blogging), for not only have I composed mostly with notation software for my entire musical life, but such software is largely responsible for my getting involved in writing music at all. Since the S21 discussion seemed to me to be dominated mostly by people who were already experienced composers before notation programs were widely available, I thought it might be worth hearing the perspective of someone who has never known any other way.

My Story
When I was in 7th grade (ca. 1994), my dad bought an early notation program called Concertware* for our then-state-of-the-art (it ran System 7) Macintosh Power PC. The program was buggy but highly intuitive and very effective. I had just started playing euphonium in the school band the year before, and my interest in music was burgeoning. Regrettably (but predictably), so was my interest in video games. At first, playing around with Concertware was pretty much just another game alongside NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat III (if that doesn't date me, I don't know what could), but years after my Super Nintendo had started collecting dust, I was still writing music with Concertware.

By the time I reached high school, I had expanded my default template to 8 parts, roughly approximating the school wind bands I had been playing in, with many parts doubled among instruments of similar tessitura. By the end of high school, I had composed over 100 pieces of highly variable but steadily improving quality for this instrumentation, including a 15-minute long, five movement "Symphony No. 1." Eventually, I ventured into chamber music and jazz as well, and during my senior year, I received my first "official" recognition as a composer by winning a composition contest put on by a local new music ensemble. That the piece sounded better played by them than by the computer served to bolster my confidence in the rather odd way that my compositional approach had developed.

While I still miss certain features of Concertware, its limitations became more obvious as I entered college as a music major. After experimenting with both Finale and Sibelius in the computer labs, I purchased my own copy of Sibelius 1 and never looked back. I upgraded to Sibelius 2 when it came out, but have not kept up with subsequent revisions. My college years saw the creation of many new pieces for all sorts of instrumentations. While I began to sketch at the piano more frequently, all of that work went straight into Sibelius the first chance I got, and would often serve merely as a jumping off point for composing directly into the computer, with much of the material becoming unrecognizable in the process. Perhaps my most productive and effective period as a composer came when I decided to move the home computer as close to the piano as I could get it. Despite destroying the legs on the piano bench and at least one chair by constantly shuttling back and forth from piano to desktop, this allowed me to use each tool for the tasks I found it most effective in accomplishing, and in hindsight, it seems to me that this made a difference in the quality of my work.

Composing With Notation Software: Pro vs. Con
First and foremost, let's address what I see as a double standard. If I were a concert pianist who composed primarily at the piano, it is unlikely that I would be criticized by a composition teacher for using my piano technique as a crutch; yet that is exactly what many would say about my use of notation programs. In fact, the two serve exactly the same purpose. In all honesty, I would indeed prefer to be able to work at the piano more of the time, and if I had exceptional piano technique, I certainly would take full advantage of it. Unfortunately, I am one of many musicians who merely play "arranger's piano" (even that's being generous in my case), and hence, the process of sitting down at the piano to compose is always quite frustrating. Even when the results are relatively good, I feel that they are severely limited by my poor technique, which is undoubtedly a more significant obstacle than any of the most commonly cited pitfalls of composing directly into a notation program.

Suffice it to say that I use notation program playback to hear ideas in real time that I am not capable of playing on the piano. In particular, that means thickly scored contrapuntal passages in pieces for large ensembles, but includes quite a bit more also. I use the computer exactly the same way a composer uses any other instrument for the same purpose. To date, I have not encountered anyone who discourages students from working their ideas out on an instrument, and if this technique can indeed be endorsed, then a software-as-instrument framework follows easily. Indeed, many experienced users of both Finale and Sibelius report developing a fluency akin to playing an instrument or typing text. My Sibelius skills certainly blow my piano skills away, so needless to say, I use Sibelius more often. Rather than limiting my composing, this opens up areas that would either go unexplored or yield poor results were I forced to rely exclusively on my very limited keyboard technique. And let's face it, you can't compose much with a tuba in your hands, though on rare occasions, I have written solo music this way.

Then, of course, there is the question of orchestration. I have been witness to many instances both on and offline where a commentator has lashed out at the idea of composing directly into a notation program solely on the basis that the playback does not give a realistic impression of balance among the instruments, in part because the synthesized sounds are not realistic, and in part because the program enables the user to artificially balance the parts to get the playback results they want. Perhaps because I was exposed to this viewpoint so early and often, it became something I thought about a lot, and subsequently, something that I was determined not to fall into.

Let me be clear that my primary reason for relying heavily on playback is temporal and not orchestrational. I have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours of my life rehearsing and performing with large wind bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and collective improvising ensembles. It's true, one can most definitely not learn to orchestrate from a notation program, nor can one learn from a composition teacher or the books they've published. As a member of a large ensemble under a skilled conductor preparing the Hindemith Symphony in B-flat or Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (to name two pieces in particular that taught me more than a phone-book-sized orchestration book ever could), one is not only partially responsible for creating the balance oneself, but also has a front row seat for all of the spot checking of particular subsets of the group in particular passages of music, as well as the conductor's advisements to these players based on his/her prior experience with the piece. I don't think I could overstate the value of this information to me as a composer, and yet, I almost certainly would not have learned it had I majored in Composition, Theory, or Musicology. In fact, when I was in school, many such classes met in the afternoon during ensemble rehearsals, hence preventing almost anyone from being meaningfully involved in both.

Despite being told repeatedly that composing directly into a notation program dooms one to orchestrational failure, I feel very strongly that one who brings a performer's pedigree to their work as a composer is destined to succeed as an orchestrator**, whether they compose at the computer, the piano, or off in the woods somewhere. Furthermore, after working with a notation program for a substantial length of time, as well as hearing some of their music performed, the composer begins to catalog the specific strengths and weakness of the playback in terms of its resemblance to real life players. Armed with this knowledge, the program becomes an even more effective and powerful tool for the composer to exploit.

Consider it granted that a lack of firsthand experience with the instruments one is writing for is a significant handicap, and that a lack of hands-on experience with the notation program one is using to write for those instruments is also a significant handicap. I don't think anyone would dispute those points. Conversely, as someone who started composing directly into a notation program, who has constantly refined this technique over the course of the last 13 years, who has concurrently performed others' music as well as his own with a myriad of large and small ensembles, who has undertaken countless hours of individual instrumental practice, and who has listened to quite a bit of live and recorded music, I have the utmost confidence in my compositional process and its suitability to my aspirations. If this is a crutch, then I'm happily crippled.

Chicken or Egg?
Here's something that was written in the S21 discussion cited above by Dennis Barthory-Kitsz, a self-described "doom and gloom guy" when it comes to notation software influencing composers:

Like any highly limited tools (including musical instruments), notation software eases the creation of music for which it was originally designed, but stands in the way of other music — save under very creative or persistent hands...

...The consequence of conservative tools is conservative composition — so much so that some composers brought up with these tools are only dimly aware of the possibilities outside them.

In fact, one could simply replace "conservative" with "innovative" in the excerpt above and have a statement that was no less valid, yet also misses the point. Speaking from my personal experience only, my composition reflects first and foremost what is in my CD collection; after that, the music I've performed; and a distant third, the very few scores that I have studied in any kind of depth. If there is anything responsible for the fact that none of my pieces to date necessitate a graphic score, it's that hardly a single thing I listen to was notated as a graphic score, that I've only rarely performed from a graphic score, and that I neither own nor have ever checked out from any library a graphic score of any kind, with the possible exception of examples contained in books on people like Anthony Braxton and John Cage. Is this an extreme condition brought on by an early predilection for composing directly into the computer, or am I perhaps entitled to claim that to this point, graphic scores just aren't my thing, even if Braxton and Cage are (sometimes)?

For a composer to be "only dimly aware" of 20th century notational innovations seems to me to have nothing to do with the computer and everything to do with the bookshelf and the CD rack. In my case, I've also learned quite a few notational tricks and extended techniques the same way I learned to orchestrate: by sitting in rehearsal while the conductor worked with another section. Although us big instrument folks in the back row often complained amongst ourselves that our time was being wasted, in hindsight, I can't honestly say that this was the case for me. Other than being the mythical genius that creates them out of thin air, the only way to become aware of new musical possibilities is to encounter them.

The qualification that "very creative or persistent hands" may overcome the shackles of notation software is apt; I would also question what exactly anyone who is not particularly creative or persistent is doing writing music in the first place. As for trudging off into the woods to compose without the aid of anything more than my mind's ear, I've attempted it many times, but it has rarely yielded anything more than a fleeting idea that happens to work as a jumping off point for computer- or piano-based composition. Sad as it is to say, I am not Mozart. Or Beethoven. I do not work entire pieces out in my head and then write them down just as they came to me. I'm more of an improviser who appreciates the opportunity to revise on occasion. Perhaps this is consistent with what critics of computer-based composition are fearful of; conversely, I feel like the explanation can be found in the musical artifacts and experiences I've surrounded myself with.

Here are 3 pages of music which required a little bit of creativity and an awful lot of persistence. As best I can recall, the first two were composed directly into the computer while the third was composed "in the woods" and edited slightly upon entry into Sibelius using the playback as a tool.


*Here is the underwhelming Wikipedia page for Concertware. If anyone knows any more of the story, I'd love to hear it.

**I also feel that my performing experiences led me away from a conception of composition and orchestration as separate pursuits that are negotiable in isolation from each other and towards a vision of orchestration as an inevitable consequence of one's compositional voice, and one that is not negotiable without also altering said voice...but that's quite a tangent, and hence a topic for another post.


Kalvos said...


I was pointed to your blog -- I missed it because my name was spelled incorrectly. (It's Dennis Bathory-Kitsz ... no extra "r".)

About the conservative vs. innovative comment, I don't think you can make that reverse substitution because innovative is not just alternative -- it's innovation on an existing system, which one already needs to know.

The more important point, I think, is that you are young and grew up in the era where computer-assisted notation was prevalent. Like the prim piano teacher of old, this notation trained you in a certain way. I've observed that young composers find it more difficult to use advanced practices because not only don't they know them but also they have to fight the notation program to achieve them. Your own examples are fairly elementary and easy to achieve; show me instead how to create the notation to have 2/5ths of a quintuplet, a triplet interleaved with a duplet, and the remaining 3/5ths of the quintuplet in one measure. Though commonplace notation of new music for half a century or more, it's nearly impossible to achieve in either of the two mainstream notation programs -- at least without enormous kluges.

It's also very difficult to tell from a composition how it is scored, and how advanced the notation may be. Even a simple score may use such elements as staggered barlines that are unsupported by notation software. They make a difference in how a piece sounds, but how would you hear them without the score to guide you?

That your life was not filled with innovative scoring is not unexpected. Most people's lives are not filled with classical music at all, which doesn't diminish the reality that it uses a highly sophisticated notational system that isn't present in most pop and is often inappropriate for much jazz. The more demanding any discipline, the more in-depth the study.

In any case, since you play tuba, you might be interested in these. The first ("Llama Butter") was written for and premiered by Mark Nelson just before you started with computer notation. The score below is in ink, written a few months before I started using Finale, in 1993:

Llama Butter

This score to "Phylum Euphoria" was commissioned by Jiri van der Kaay for euphonium, and was written eleven years later, and scored with Finale. He liked "Llama Butter" and asked for a piece with a similar feel to it:

Phylum Euphoria

Thanks for your blog!


Stefan Kac said...

Hi Dennis,

First of all, sorry about your name. Mine gets mangled a lot, so I should be able to do better.

I don't doubt that you're on to something here, and would cede general authority on the matter to you as someone who has actually observed students coming up over the years, something which I haven't had the opportunity to do. I just find the argument as you've made it to be a bit too broad and universal, or at least I think this is implied by your words.

Just as you seem to assume that the use of notation software is always inhibiting, you seem to assume that if everyone was just exposed to innovative notation and new music, then everyone would be so seduced by it as to start to work that way. While the computer obviously has its limitations, and while greater depth of study has only benefits and no drawbacks, there simply is no saying what might happen in individual cases. I was, in fact, surrounded by classical music (in the air and on paper) my entire childhood, specifically baroque harpsichord music and classical opera, and later, classical piano music. Somehow, I ended up as a jazz tuba player, so who's to say that things would be different if it had been new music? I loved the baroque music (still do) and just abhorred the opera (still do).

Again, this is not to say that the phenomenon you're describing is not a legitimate concern. It's the implied universality of it that I can't bring myself to agree with. Let me know if I'm misreading your comments. I also think that the longer the notation programs are around, the better we will get collectively at using them and not abusing them. In any case, given all that they are good at, it would be foolish, I think, to underutilize them out of fear.

One of your earlier comments compared notation software to an instrument in terms of its limitations. Is that to imply that for you, it is ideal to compose "in the woods" without any method of sound creation as a tool? Or do you believe in using all the tools available, but only for the purposes they are best suited for?

(And about that rhythm, I'd like to sit down 100 new music composers and give them each 3 chances to sight read it within a reasonable degree of accuracy. How many do you think could do it?)

Kalvos said...

Hi Stefan,

I'm not being universal -- rules, exceptions, etc.

Rather, I'm looking at the history of music notation and composition in the past century (and before). There's a pretty steady progression of notational change until you hit the mid-1990s when music notation programs really came into play.

I first observed it in the elementary schools, where I taught K-6 music (1986-91) and later was part of a program called the Vermont Midi Project (1996-98). Kids in my program were making music from standard notation through writing for farm animals and kitchen appliances -- anything that would create a composition from their imagination (every kid in the school composed). But when computer notation software was introduced by the Vermont Midi Project, the kids were so taken by the ability to have the music played back that they abandoned all the 'effortful' stuff that involved a broader imagination. They were doing 4/4 and major scales, and other aspects of music fell away. Those who became composers are in their 20s and 30s now, and you can see a kind of break in how they work. The horizons of Finale and Sibelius are the horizons of their composition in those who started with those programs (and MusicTime and other kid-oriented stuff). Among the Millennials, the frequency of non-12TET compositions is lower, graphical scores rarer, detailed rhythms sparser, notational invention stunted.

There's the old saying that "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," attributed to Maslow. Once Finale or Sibelius skills are developed, they look like the universal tool for notation -- when they're little more than a pretty good hammer.

There are two other things that come into play here. One is that children-of-minimalism often use simpler materials. But is that a consequence of 45-year-old minimalism or of notation programs that encourage minimalist cut-and-paste? And the other is that notation programs have encouraged people to compose where they never would have done so on paper. So does that mean the body of composers has grown, and is dominated by those whose compositional horizons and "end program" meet?

I'm not saying it's universal, but it is observable.

The limitations argument does apply to instruments (which in part accounts for the move by many composers into electroacoustic music beginning some 60 years ago). Instrumental development effectively stopped at the turn of the 20th century, with rare exceptions like Kingma's quarter-tone flutes. Some music after 1950 would fight the instrument's physical design and pedagogy. I'm sure you've seen that. So I do in fact compose "in the woods", if I interpret your phrase properly, because I've absorbed what instruments can and cannot do, and prefer to avoid the heavy cloak of those limitations -- at least in the imagination stage. Though I can play at least a dozen instruments and sing standard and extended voice, I have never composed using a musical instrument, and my scoring is stronger for that lack of restriction.

Finally, rhythms: I would guess that 100 composers who actually deal in rhythms could do these things, though sight-reading is another matter -- and for good reason. Our notational system is broken so 2/5ths of a tuplet plus interleaved triplet & duplet plus 3/5ths tuplet look absolutely formidable and quite unreasonable on the page. But they sing out just fine -- enter the numerical values into a sequencer and you'll have no trouble with that rhythm at all. Why? Because not only are the notation programs limiting, but the notation itself is limiting ... as anyone who has tried to do a precise transcription of a Coltrane or Ware solo quickly learns.