A while ago, we ran a piece on the New World Symphony’s latest innovation in programming, their “Pulse” concert series, which features, among other things, DJs spinning electronic music against the background of the symphony, all tricked out with light shows, non-standard concert dress, and a later starting time. Concerts like the NWS Pulse series continue to garner quite a bit of press coverage and discussion, and all signs point to the integration of technology–and the trappings of the age of technology–into classical music as being here to stay.
The long-awaited launch of Apple’s iPad 3 has resulted in a lot of buzz about the gadget’s new features, with people from all walks of life weighing in and giving feedback about its strengths, weaknesses, innovations, and pratfalls. The musical community may not spring to mind when the iPad 3 is mentioned, but it turns out that the handy device is making great inroads into the daily lives of performing musicians, and they have input, too. The Bay Area’s “Classical Voice” ran a piece prominently featuring the reaction of composer Morton Subotnick, who has been a pioneer in the field of electronic music. Subotnick, who was born in 1933, has seen the whole of electronic music unfold before his eyes, and he is already making great use of Apple’s latest iPad–and he has high hopes for what it can do as a tool for introducing young children to music and composition:
“Can you hear that?” says electronic music pioneer and composer Morton Subotnick as he plays on his new musical drawing app for iPad. “That’s just drawing. It’s like finger painting. Then you can get [kids] to play. It’s [designed] for kids from 2 years old up, and you can erase it. So for music, if this were a ride, it would be like it was a piece of music. Or you play it as you do it. You can also do ‘scrubbing’ as if you were DJ-ing. And now I can take that same [snippet] and go to Africa with it and it’ll give me African instruments in African scales.”
All of this is possible thanks to a humble app, named “Making Music: A Pitch Canvas,” which will be available next month. Subotnick, who made a name for himself founding the San Francisco Tape Center and the California School of the Arts in Los Angeles, embraces what some might consider a high-tech toy as a genuine tool for musical learning. “A lot things you already know how to do you’re now doing with the iPad,” he says. “Sometimes it gets better. Sometimes it isn’t any better at all. It’s just that the iPad is more fun. But eventually you begin to develop a whole new way. Think of Facebook and [social networking] … people didn’t need that when the computer first came out….Gradually, we began to think of things that technology seems natural for, but we never thought of doing them until we had it. The iPad is moving quickly because it’s worldwide at this point. My guess is that you’re going to see a lot of new kinds of ideas coming out.”
It doesn’t take much looking around to see that Subotnick is right: with iPhones, iPads, and mobile devices of all stripes allowing music editing and other music-related activity, the portable technology invasion is making heavy inroads into the music industry. The most obvious application for these devices comes in the pop music world–apps such as Sound Hound, Turntable, or even the I Am T-Pain app (which–surprise, surprise–can make a recorded voice sound like rapper T-Pain’s auto-tuned voice) and programs like Pro Tools are all natural fits. But is there anything of real use and innovation for the classical musician?
Bay Area composer Matthew Cmiel, who owns an iPad but prefers to do most of his work by hand, offers a typical perspective on the matter: “I do most of the stuff myself. I improv and I write things by hand, and I think a lot about structure and pacing and timing, etcetera.” Cmiel, who is also director and conductor of the San Francisco School of the Arts Orchestra, explains the role that this kind of technology plays in his musical life: “At some point, I’ll start moving to working on the computer, using my laptop at [that] point for most of my scores. I will usually copy my [music] into a PDF [file], store it on my iPad, and use it to show around to people [so I can] engage, so I don’t have to carry around so much music.”
Cmiel’s experience is much like many other classical musicians’. According to “Classical Voice,” many musicians are open to learning how to use the latest music tools (think Sibelius, Pro Tools, Scorch), but classical composers and musicians aren’t yet using music software to the extent that their pop music counterparts may be. Much of this disparity reflects doubts and concerns in the classical community about how much the general music establishment really understands the specific needs of the classical world.
Take Apple’s GarageBand or Sound Design. There are a host of pre-set parameters in the program, and the program boils music composition down to a cut-and-paste, pop-loop kind of process. Says Cmiel, “[Student composers] don’t have an understanding of how things actually will sound or work. They trust the computer too much to figure it out for them. That’s certainly a concern I have with technology. If you’re holding a hammer, then every problem in your house can be solved with a hammer, somehow.” While the technology can make traditionally tedious tasks easier, there is a certain trade-off, which results in a fear that today’s music students will have a diminished understanding of some aspects of musical art.
“Students don’t always know [about] these automatic settings. When someone hands me a score, I can tell whether it was made on Sibelius or Finale in all of .02 seconds because they don’t change any of the presets,” says Cmiel. “A lot of pieces start in 4/4 [time]. And they all start in quarter note = 100, [Sibelius’ default], which is a really inorganic tempo. People are letting the program limit the way they can be creative themselves.”
The question, then, is what do musicians really want from this personal technology? The general consensus seems to be that they want more options: more options for creativity, format, bells and whistles. Says Subotnick, “What I think is missing is imagination that would include [music software],” says Subotnick. “There’s nothing wrong with the iPad. The reason it hasn’t entered into so-called serious [music] — it’s not a problem with the iPad. I think the iPad has a definite place. I was just talking with a large ensemble, [about] a commission for three years from now, to do a piece where these expert musicians will be able to play with them through the whole piece.”
Subotnick makes the most important point of all, though, which is that the iPad is not a musical instrument, it is merely a tool and a platform: a newer form of canvas on which to paint musical ideas. “I found my own voice just because it was a pretty clear road,” the composer says. “There was nobody else doing what I was doing. Now, there are people — it’s hard to find something that nobody is doing. So you really have to search. There’s so much to choose from. That almost produces the opposite kind of challenge. But the word challenge doesn’t necessarily mean bad. It means, How do we solve this problem? And the problem is wonderful.”