A percussionist recently got in touch to ask if he could buy a copy of one of my percussion scores, Zoom (1994) for some chamber performances this summer. (You can listen to me playing the music here, and my remix of it here.) I told him I’d check if I had a hard copy in storage because my Finale (notation software) files vanished long ago, along with whatever Apple computer I was using at the time. (Note to self: get better at archiving.) After digging through several boxes of I-just-can’t-throw-this-one-away books in storage, I finally found my original score, the paper still crisp because it had been sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard for twenty-four years. Ah, paper—a technology that lasts.
As I was cleaning up I thought about how I’ve shifted my composing focus from notation to recording. I used to compose scores for acoustic percussion, specifically mallet percussion. A musical score is a set of directions for musicians and its virtue is that it gives non-improvising players a reason and a way to play together. I haven’t worked on a score in a long time. These days I compose through electronic music production and the reason is the possibilities of the computer and music software. Just as you can take a photo with your iPhone and then process it with photo apps, you can do a lot with sound on a computer: my studio weighs five pounds and its DAW software encapsulates the entire history of recorded music.
My music is still based in performance (always improvisation because it reveals to you what you didn’t know you knew), but I develop pieces not by notating pitches and rhythms but by shaping timbres and creating almost-but-not-quite acoustically real textures. For example, the music on recordings such as Quietudes or Piano and Metals Music could be acoustically played on piano, kalimba, and gongs. But the compositions also involve sound design which makes possible some impossible situations. On Piano and Metals Music, the gong is a small Thai gong, but its sound is sampled which means I can play it high-pitched or super low-pitched on my keyboard, in effect making it an impossibly sized mini or gargantuan gong. To perform this music one would need a lot of custom-made gongs, but in the digital realm, re-sizing/re-pitching an instrument is easy. Similarly, the kalimba I sampled (from a Hugh Tracey instrument) has a sound so quiet that you need to be ten inches away to hear it, and even then its sound is thin. The kalimba can’t match the piano’s thunder, but on a recording they fit together. So the advantage of producing music for recordings is that you can create sonic spaces that are impossible in the real world.
Sometimes I think about returning to composing for acoustic instruments because I play a real marimba every day and ideas for pieces are always close at hand. One appealing aspect of composing scores for acoustic instruments is that the sound of the instrument and the conventions of notation—time and key signatures, staves, dynamic markings, mallet choices, and so on—offer constraints that help the composer make decisions and help the musicians understand the composer. The conventions of writing for acoustic instruments give the composer something to push against, something to resist. Conventions are why, on the one hand, most string quartet music sort of sounds the same, but also why, on the other hand, a remarkable string quartet piece can seem to transcend its instrumentation. Another thing about notated pieces is that they travel a well-trodden path. Musicians have been reading music for a very long time, and notating one’s music opens it up to performance opportunities and audiences.
Zooming out to a broader historical and cultural perspective on music-making however, puts notation into a different context. First, notation has its limits. Music always exists as sound before it exists as symbols on a page, or as Nassim Taleb puts it, while theories come and go, phenomenologies stay. From this perspective, music notation is like a constraining definition of what music is. Second, most of the world’s musicians—past and present, “folk” or “art”—don’t read music or know it as a notated thing, yet they nevertheless know music deeply. They may not have a score in front of them, but theirs is a recombinant art: they have thousands of compositions and musical building blocks committed to memory, coded into their bodies. (For example, consider a performer of classical Hindustani music who improvises upon the notes of a raga.) Third, some observers have fretted over the rise of the DJ in the late 20th-century and the prominence of electronic musicians who don’t play a musical instrument, don’t know C major from G minor, and don’t play notes from a page yet put together fantastically intricate productions. But maybe this shift simply illustrates contemporary Western musicians aligning themselves with the sounds and uses of so many vernacular musics around the world. Think about this: with most un-notated music, most of the time, there’s a beat that repeats, syncopation, short melodies that vary on a theme (or super long ones that weave around a theme), call and response (but no fugues), drone or a few chords, and community involvement.
I like music notation, but I like electronic music production too because of the sensations it generates. I like acoustic instruments, but they’re not inherently magical. What is magical is a musician’s sense of touch. Touch is the x-factor that is audible when you hear Yo-Yo Ma bowing Bach, or Autechre unleashing their Max/MSP software patches, or when a drummer plays the bell timeline on a beer bottle and it sounds like a bell. (Conversely, lack of touch is a red flag telling you something else altogether about a musician.) Touch is everywhere in music and the main difference between playing an acoustic instrument and playing electronic music production is that one has many more layers of mediation between your touch and the resulting sound. In electronic music one’s touch can be amplified and beautifully mutated, but also, if you’re not careful, distorted and dissipated, even buried completely. In music production, the instrument is your relationship to your techno-musical system, a cascading feedback loop of inputs and outputs feeding back into inputs. Zooming back to looking for my score of Zoom: musical notation is mediation too, a set of directions connecting the composer to the performer through rules for recreating a set of relationships. Like the produced audio recording, the written score is a template for touch, a guide to some hoped-for musical success.