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Saturday 5 May 2007

Classical Music in Peril!

Classical Music is dying! Fewer recordings! Fewer symphonies! Fewer jobs! And now now computers are taking our symphonies away!

Ooooo-kay. I love computer music just as much as the next guy. Actually, I probably love it more than the next guy. But Mozart on a laptop symphony? For the love of gods, why? I mean, if they were using historical tunings and historical instrument sounds, that would be cool, I guess. But modern instruments, modern tempos and equal temperment? Geez, why make music at all? I mean, I can just sit at home with my ipod if I want to be bored by classical music. This is all so . . . pathetically sad. Art music is nowhere near dead, but these guys imagine themselves at a graveside memorial, or in Dr. Frankenstein's lab, trying desperately to create Zombie Mozart and Zombie Beethoven. Augh! Braaaaaains! D Minor Mass! Braaaains!

This isn't even interesting as a proof of concept. Except for the MIT research. Measuring how movements and physiology map to well-known pieces could have very cool applications. But the rest of this?

For a budding composer, the economics of a virtual orchestra are compelling. Matthew Fields, who has a doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan but now works as a computer programmer and writes music on the side, has spent $50,000 on a professionally produced recording by 18 musicians. Last year, he commissioned a recording from Mr. Smith's Fauxharmonic Orchestra for his complex six-minute work, "Fireheart," for about $800.

As a composer, getting players interested in his work is essential for building a reputation, Mr. Fields says. Without the recording, the piece "would simply be dismissed as unplayable and unworthy of playing," he says.

I'm sure nothing convinces instrumentalists that a piece is playable and worthwhile like the composer being forced to a computer realization that he paid out of pocket for somebody else to do. Maybe the Journal took this guy completely out of context and made him sound like a tool, but two words spring to mind there: "rich dilettante."

Maybe he's too busy computer programming, or maybe he's just really unpleasant and doesn't have any friends, but my solution for these sorts of problems has always been to write for folks that I know. And to do computer music. But not as a pathetically sad, desperate replacement for "real" musicians. This poor guy probably needs a hug right now. I hope he has a dog or a cat or something.

I used to have a small percussion ensemble. I wrote for their ability, so some parts were complex and others were not. I think it's more useful and interesting for a composer to work with the shortcomings of what they have then to fight them. This kind of shelling out mad bucks for recordings is fighting fate.

This is not to say that performers shouldn't get paid for their time, whether they be playing the music of reputationless composers or "less traditional pursuits, from film scoring to marching-band music." (um, did the journal reporter fall out of a wormhole while interviewing John Philips Sousa? Since when is marching band non-traditional? Oh, those crazy experimental marching bands!)

On the other hand, if every single orchestra performance of long-dead german men were computer-realized instead of with live musicians, I don't think I'd have too much of a problem with it. Who cares if you leave dried or fresh (or plastic) flowers at Mozart's tomb?

So, to summarize: art music is not in trouble. Fake orchestras are not new (hello, film music). Looking for arts coverage in the Wall Street Journal is like looking for financial advice in Maximum Rock N Roll


Here is the transcript of a radio interview with Matthew Fields who seems like an ok guy, but is kind of old for the "budding composer" description. I think the Journal took him out of context.


Patty said...

Thanks ... I hadn't seen that article. I took the little listening test and, yes, I can tell "real" from not so.

There is something about a musician playing an instrument ... it can't be duplicated precisely, because it isn't precise. imo of course.

Just found your site ... I'll have to check in on occasion!

Patty said...

PS ... NOT to say that I'm opposed to electronic instruments. (Heck, my husband teaches electronic music at a local CC!) I just think they can be their own instrument. You know what I mean?

Sorry to ramble ...

Hmmm. Now I see that you are originally from SJ. Where I live. And have for more years than I want to 'fess up to. Bizarre.

fields001 said...

This is absolutely hilarious! The fact that my music has routinely been played all over the world for decades and has nothing to do with dilletantes should not distract us from the sharp insights on the ersatz and the genuine here, and on the bizarre world of journalists. You sure you're not a musical reincarnation of Mark Twain?

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...


I hope I have not hurt your feelings!

I'm downloaded some music from your website, will give it a listen.

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