27 October 2008

More Squiggles

As yet another follow-up to the post on composing with notation programs, here are three more pages from my oeuvre that required some extracurricular fiddling with Sibelius. All three are from my "Reflections on a Theme of Eric Dolphy" for two pianos (extra credit to anyone who can identify the source of the theme from these excerpts).

I'm well aware that, all in all, the examples I've given are not exactly overwhelming proof of extensive subversion of the "normal" operation of the software, nor even unqualified successes in attempting something less. There seem to be two major categories of tasks that I turn to quite a bit: free meter (Sibelius calls this "irrgeular bars") and feathered beams. Since I use them both a lot, and since, really, they're not all that difficult to obtain in Sibelius, neither seems to set me back much in the course of working on a piece, even if I am in fact composing the music as I enter it into the computer.

The most annoying thing about inserting a bar of a irregular length is that you have to know exactly how long it needs to be beforehand, then insert a bar of this length, and then enter the notes. Hence, it is usually not possible to compose directly into such a bar as you will inevitably revise the lick a few times before settling on something, hence changing the length; instead, I often compose what I want, then count the durations of the notes, then create the irregular bar, then copy and paste the lick into the irregular bar. It sounds very awkward trying to explain it verbally, but after several years and dozens of pieces, it's like riding a bike.

While irregular bars obviously cannot be longer than the width of the page and margins will allow, there is an easy way to make any barline invisible; hence, by hiding the barline at the end of the system, you can give the impression of two adjacent systems comprising a single, very long irregular bar. This is what I did in "You've Been Promoted To Kriho," a piece from my first set of examples two posts ago (of course, you have to do the same calculations of the lengths of the bars, deciding ahead of time where you want to break the system; again, sounds complicated, but it's really not, and as you can see from the fact that I can't shut up about it, I actually find this kind of thing fun to do and to talk about).

Quite possibly the greatest feature of Concertware (one that Finale and Sibelius would both do well to make available as an option if they haven't already) was to enter what it called "Free Time" as the time signature, at which point you could write to your hearts content without any bar lines whatsoever. Concertware used a cursor the way a word processor does; in combination with the "Free Time" feature, this offered a glimmer of the sort of uninhibited functionality that some notation software detractors would no doubt like to see. (And come on, who didn't love "Free Time" in elementary school? The mere phrase itself lent this feature a certain attractiveness in its ability to spark childlike curiosity in the user.)

I find it very interesting that notation software finds itself under attack simultaneously as both too easy and too difficult, too forward looking and not forward looking enough. There are those who want to move forward with the full gamut of 20th century notational innovations in tow, and for whom current software is simply inadequate for this task; and then there are those for whom the compositional process itself is inextricably bound up with pencil and paper, without which the act has become something with which they are not familiar. Nonetheless, I suspect that it will not be until we have had the opportunity to observe a couple of generations who have never known any other way that we will be able to say for sure what the effects have been, and with necessity (last I checked) still being the mother of invention, I have a strong suspicion that these generations will turn whatever tools it is they have available to their distinct advantage, the habits and predilections of their forebears be damned.

No comments: