Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Edmund Morris wrote a column in Sunday's New York Times condemning the decline of physical exertion in art. He writes, "I worry that further withdrawal of the body will increasingly depersonalize creativity in our computerized age." I agree.

Berklee used to require entering freshmen to learn the penmanship of music notation. They eliminated the class several years ago and replaced it with a class in Finale, the industry standard for music notation software. During the same period, the composition departments began accepting recordings produced by computer sequencers instead of live bands. According to Berklee, this was the future.

The best resource at Berklee are the project bands. Years ago, someone had the brilliant idea that since performance majors were required to participate in bands, the school should assign a few bands to play student-composed music exclusively. So-called "project bands" meet several times a week, and they include quartets, chamber groups, five-horn groups, and a big band. They are available to any student who wants something played, whether it's a ten-minute arrangement or simply a few bars of a tune. I can't overemphasize how valuable these bands are to budding composers -- and yet most weeks, I was the only writer in the room.

Instead, my fellow composers were upstairs in the Learning Center, programming their music into computer sequencers. They don't have to conduct. They don't have to copy parts. They don't have to learn the limits of each instrument, what a trumpet can play that a trombone cannot, and they don't need to worry about how long it takes a band to learn each passage. They can sit with the computer indefinitely, tinkering until it's just right.

Music is supposed to be cooperative. Painting and poetry are crafts practiced in your basement, but music requires interaction. Among the qualities necessary for prolific composers, in addition to talent and skill, is leadership. You have to assemble a band that wants to play your music, and then you have to teach them how.

This requires another craft that can't be replicated by a computer: notation. It's fine to litter your score with ink splatters as long as you understand; but each player needs an individual part that is clear and coherent, and designing parts is an art in itself. You have to mark cues and align rehearsal letters. You have to plot multiple-measure rests for each instrument, and you have to conserve space to fit each part on as few pages as possible. There are a thousand tricks, some simple and others clever, but each one is a judgment call. Notation software attempts to accomplish all of this using algorithms. It's just not possible.

And even if it were, the process is invaluable. There simply isn't any better way to learn the contours of your music than to draw its characters by hand. It's a slow and patient process. You feel the melody as it rises and falls, and you see each pause. You can't prepare a saxophone part without hearing, as you write, what the trombones are playing at each moment. There's no way to duplicate that experience. You have to hold the pen.

Morris paints a stark picture, but his criticism is insightful. A writer whose hand has never cramped, who has never ruined a shirt with spilled ink or broken an expensive quill, is less of a writer. These aren't the archaic tools of a craft that has fallen into obsolescence; they are fundamental elements of the experience required to establish your voice. In art, what comes easily isn't worth doing. The ability of technology to cut those corners doesn't make it easier to become a great artist. It just delivers mediocrity to the masses.


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