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John Zielinski

composer - saxophone - flute - synth - voice

The Technophobic Composer

This piece was written in 1992 for a magazine for composers that folded before the article was published. While music technology – and technology in general – have changed significantly in the decades since then, many of the ideas set forth then are still applicable now.

What do the following all have in common: the pencil; the fountain pen; the piano; modern concert halls; tape recorders; compact discs; computers; and computer software? Each of these is a technological artifact that impacts at least some composers as they pursue their art. While few composers are likely to reject the piano or the concert hall on the grounds that they contaminate the art with technology, the same cannot be said about recording systems, computers, and software. As a composer I face the issue of technology on a regular basis. As a music technology consultant I attempt to help others to address this same issue. This article will explore the basis of composer technophobia, attempt to help the reader to determine to what extent (s)he is a victim, and, perhaps, give a little shove to the composers who want to get over it.

In the general population of any industrialized nation, an individual can be seen to fall into one of several categories of technologist. This can safely be extended to subgroups of that population such as composers (or musicians in general).

The category with the fewest members is often called “pathfinders”. These individuals are not at all content with the state of the practice or even the state of the art. They believe that there are better ways to use technology in their endeavors, and they are actively involved in locating, modifying, or creating that technology. This is the group that attempts to create the future. Its members aren’t afraid to live on the “bleeding edge”. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to take a wrong turn when you’re out in front attempting to lead the way. Fear of those wrong turns is sometimes enough to move a person from pathfinder to pioneer.

“Pioneers” share many of the traits of pathfinders. They, too, are dissatisfied with the current scene, but are unwilling or unable to take the chance of being the first person in a new area. In some cases the limiting factor is economic. Playing with new technology can be expensive, and fear of economic distress makes the pathfinder’s wrong turns an undesirable commodity. The pioneer would prefer to let someone else venture out into the new territory and establish its relative safety. Once the coast looks reasonably clear, however, the pioneer is ready to stake a claim and help to establish the new order of things.

After the pathfinders have pointed the way and the pioneers have proven the fundamental viability of the new world, the “mainstreamers” begin to follow. This proceeds slowly at first, but each new devotee adds to the momentum of the movement, further demonstrating the safety of the new technology. This is characteristic of the introduction of any new technology in any discipline.

Now, if human beings were simple creatures, each of you could easily classify yourself into one of the above categories. Human beings, and especially composers, are far from simple, though. Within each of these groups there will be those in the vanguard, those who follow closely, and (finally) everybody else. That is, of course, unless whoever is leading the way gets lost, or worse, in the wilderness or fails to let anyone else know about the discovery. But that’s not quite the end of the situation.

For composers, technology impacts three major areas. The first of these is the creative process. Technology can help the composer to generate ideas (technology as inspiration), verify what the “inner ear” suspects (technology as objective witness), and/or document the result (technology as scribe). The second area concerns what I refer to as “making the noise”. In this case, technology represents not a way to develop the composer’s concepts, but the way to realize these concepts as sound (whether that be piano, orchestra, or digital signal processor). Finally, there is the area of getting the music out to other people so that they can experience it. Technology comes into play when transmitting performance instructions (e.g. scores), when the music is performed for a live audience in any place other than a naturally occurring space, and when a recording is made to allow people to experience the music repeatedly or at their leisure. Any individual could easily be a pathfinder in one of these areas and a mainstreamer in another. On top of this is the reality that there are no clear lines of demarcation. For example, the same technology that fires the creative process (e.g. the timbre of an instrument or its breadth of expression) is often (usually?) required for performance.

“All well and good,” you say, “but how does this help me to understand technophobia and decide if I have it?” If we define technophobia as the fear of technology, then one could say that anyone other than the pathfinders have it. On the other hand, unless an individual totally rejects technology because of fear rather than esthetic choice (even after it has become part of the mainstream), then no one is really technophobic. Considering all technologies – both high and low – available to composers, the overwhelming evidence supports the position that there are no technophobes, only latecomers.

“Okay, so I’m a late mainstreamer not a technophobe, but I definitely feel uncomfortable putting a computer in the compositional process or dealing with things like digital audio.” The next section of this article will attempt to address how those feelings get rooted and suggest some ways to get past them.

As I said earlier, technology touches composers regularly whether that technology is the pencil or the digital computer. So what is it about a specific technology that makes it more or less threatening? If my clients are representative of the general composer population (and I think that they are), then I believe that I can provide some insights on this.

In broad, general terms there are four domains into which any piece of technology may fall for any particular individual. With emerging technologies there is a significant chance that the domain will vary widely from person to person. Established technologies, for reasons that should become apparent, tend to fall into the same domain regardless of who the person may be.

The first domain is often called “shelfware” by technocrats. Originally coined to describe software that is developed or purchased, but promptly moves onto a shelf never to be touched again except when dusting, the term can be applied equally well to hardware. (I’ll lump all manner of manmade objects into the category of hardware for simplicity’s sake.)

I’ve seen a lot of shelfware over the years -- “failed” experimental instruments, “failed” traditional instruments, electronic equipment, computer software, and on and on. Heck, I even own some myself.

There appear to be a few concrete reasons why a piece of technology moves to the shelf. First and foremost, the thing didn’t meet the composer’s expectations. It got in the way of the creative process. It didn’t make the right noise. It didn’t help or (worse yet) it hindered getting the music out to the people. As often as not, this is the fault of the composer, not the artifact. Too many people have come to expect technology to deliver miracles. When your expectations are that high, nothing can ever measure up. It’s also possible that this is the wrong tool for the job. For example, a lot of people have purchased sophisticated scoring programs for use as the musical equivalent of a word processor. Unfortunately, a program that’s great for a copyist or a publisher is usually too complex to fit smoothly into the creative stream. Right job, wrong tool. Of course, there have been, and continue to be, a lot of things that have gone to the shelf for other reasons. (How many of you still write for or use the fortepiano [not the pianoforte] or the Theremin on a regular basis?) Sometimes the problem is poor design and/or poor construction, but in nearly all cases it’s an issue of unfulfilled expectations. The truly unfortunate thing is that the composer never blames himself. Instead the fault is ascribed to the technology. 

The second domain can be characterized as “the thing’s way or the highway.” In these cases you’re forced to work the way the thing wants, whether you want to do it that way or not. The funny aspect of this is that there are a lot of areas where we’re all very accepting of the domination of the artifact. Just look around you and consider things like the telephone or the trumpet. Unless you have a somewhat unconventional outlook, you’re not going to be very successful using either of these artifacts unless you play by their rules. A lot of times we only grudgingly give in.

Once again, I’ve seen some very specific reasons why this domain exists. This time, however, it’s an even split as to who’s the source of the problem.

There have been and will always be things that have been poorly designed. Sometimes the designer didn’t understand how people would use the thing, and sometimes the designer just didn’t seem to care. Sometimes a thing tries to be the Swiss Army Thing – one piece of technology that does it all – and falls flat on its face because either it does nothing well or it’s too hard to learn and understand. Whatever the root cause, there’s always the possibility that you could do things your way if you could ever figure out how the darned thing was supposed to work, but you’ll never really know because it’s just easier to give in to the thing’s way.

Even with well designed technologies, there will be times when we can’t do things our way and we’ll be upset about it. Unfortunately the spotlight of blame usually comes shining back on the person.

Did you really know what you needed before you acquired the thing? Notice that I said “needed” not “wanted”. A lot of times our wants don’t satisfy our needs. Okay, the thing meets your needs, but does it meet your wants? For example, I may need a tool to help me create legible scores with a minimum disruption to my creative process, but what I want is a tool that will catch all of my stupid mistakes. If I fail to consider my wants, I’m not likely to get a warm feeling about the thing no matter how well it meets my needs.

Did you take the time to survey the market and learn about all of the amazing technologies that are out there before you acquired the thing? I’ve seen too many people who have acquired SuperThing because a friend, acquaintance, colleague, or hero (whose needs and wants were probably different) uses it. The problem is that these same people didn’t even know that WonderThing, which would have been a better match for their needs and wants, existed. Worse yet, they find out about WonderThing a week or two after they’ve already bought SuperThing.

Did you take the time to learn about the thing before complaining about it (RTFM)? It might be a simple matter to get the thing to do it your way if you only take the time to learn. This is especially true of technologies that are similar, but not identical to those with which you may already be familiar. It’s relatively easy to jump to the conclusion that because thing A that I use works this way, and thing B looks and sounds very similarly, then thing B must work the same way. Finally, have you considered how this thing fits in with all of the other things that you use as a composer? While it might be fine by itself, as soon as you try to use it with something else you discover that it’s the worst thing in the world.

Before going on it’s worth noting that these first two domains tend to apply more to younger or newly emerging technologies. Further, pathfinders and many pioneers expect to run into these domains and don’t complain too much. Mainstreamers, on the other hand, expect a relatively smooth ride and rarely expect to own a piece of shelfware or an object that expects the person to change. Oddly enough, by the time that a technology gets into the mainstream the culture has changed in such a way that people don’t even realize that the artifact has changed the way that they do things, but more on that point a little later.

The third domain allows you to do things the way that you always have or, at least the way that you have always wanted to, but with greater ease and/or efficiency. Everybody is familiar with this domain because we deal with it every day. Most established technologies fall here. The “fit” may come from the fact that the culture has prepared you and set realistic expectations, or it may be because you didn’t commit any of the mistakes that I’ve described above. Regardless of why we get the fit, this is the domain that gives us the instruments of the orchestra, pens, pencils, Ozalid reproduction, and all of the other things that the majority of modern composers take for granted. Because this is the most familiar domain, it is the least threatening. The down side of that fact is that it becomes very uncomfortable for some people when they try to step outside of the domain.

The final domain is the one in which a technology transforms what we do. Here, the technology changes the very process that occurs. Here, experience with the technology will generate further changes to the process. Ultimately, the technology becomes inextricably bound to the process. Working within this domain can be very exciting, but it can also be very painful. This is truly the territory of the pathfinders and the bravest pioneers. If the experiments (and that’s what they are, at least initially) are successful, then someday the technology will move from here into the previously described domain. People will accept, for instance, that music is notated using ink and paper to be performed by players using mechanical devices in a man-made structure that was designed to enhance the acoustical phenomena. But, somewhere along the way, somebody had to be first, and somebody else probably said that they were crazy. Sometimes the “somebody else” was right.

Keep in mind that although it may seem that this domain applies only to new and emerging technologies, it can just as easily apply to new uses of existing technologies. The key is that the process changes regardless of whether or not the technology does. Just as often as not, a technology driven change to the process will lead to a further change in the technology in a more or less iterative fashion.

By this time you should have a pretty good feel for where you fall as a composer-technologist, and you should realize that any feelings of technophobia that you may have are curable. You need to give careful consideration to whether you are a pathfinder, a pioneer, or a mainstreamer in each of the major areas of you life as a composer. You need to be aware that you can avoid the shelfware and “the thing’s way or the highway” syndromes by careful self-questioning, investigation, and planning. Finally, you need to determine whether you want to streamline your processes or change them. There are still, however, a couple of warnings that I need to give you.

First, keep in mind that technology will always fail you – usually at the least opportune time. You will run out of ink for your fountain pen at 2:00 AM when you have an 8:00 AM deadline for your score. Piano strings will break with an awful noise during the pianissimo section of your concerto in the world’s most acoustically perfect auditorium. Disk drives will suffer head crashes, but only after you’ve made the final changes to a new signal processing algorithm and before you’ve backed it up. These things are unavoidable, but you needn’t be afraid of them. You could get hit by a de-orbiting satellite, but that doesn’t keep indoors all of the time, does it?

Second, once you decide that you want to broaden your technological horizons you may fall victim to techno-lust. Techno-lust is a condition in which you’re never quite satisfied with whatever technology you’re using, and so you continue to search for the technological equivalent of the Holy Grail. I’ve seen reasonably well adjusted people start tossing out enormous sums of money on things that they’ll never have the time to master much less learn. While prudent application of technology rarely becomes a composer’s master, techno-lust is another story. If your technology is keeping you from your music, then you may be suffering from techno-lust.

Technology is as inescapable for the composer as for anyone else in the modern world. The goods news is that this has been the case for hundreds of years. The difference today is that the rate of change is increasing ever more rapidly. For some composers rejection of modern technology, or any technology, is an esthetic or philosophical choice. For many others the rejection is based on fear of the unfamiliar. This article has attempted to demonstrate how to turn that situation around to allow you to better realize the music that you wish to create. 

This article © 1992 by John Zielinski

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