This is a legacy blog. It was about the intersection of music and digital audio technology, and was called 'The Verge'. Today, of course, the existence of a much more famous blog of the same name precludes my use of it.

The main focus of this weblog was to assess digital technology as both an enabler of, and an obstacle to, musical progress.

While the tech press usually fixates on exciting new trends, I have always been more interested in trends of a longer scale: in the large scale cultural implications of digital music production and distribution as a whole; and in the effects that these developments have had, or might have, on the nature and evolution of musical culture specifically.

All of the statements of opinion anywhere on this page, reflect my views and only my views.

* * *

Older blog posts:

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

The Digital Audio revolution: A primer

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer, Part 1

June 11, 2008
There is no better example of the unintended benefits of free market competition than the way in which almost every single development in the world of audio technology (and in computer-based media generally) has benefited the least influential group of human beings in the world:

(You know, those people who used to write music by putting dots and lines on staff paper. Yes, they still exist.)

In the long, dark years between the end of widespread aristocratic patronage and the advent of cheap, computer-based music production, the aspiration of a composer of original music wasn't stardom. It wasn't some sort of American Idol notion of celebrity 'success'. Generally speaking, the composers dream was rather less ambitious. Back then, if you were a composer, your goal was to hear your music played.

That's right. Just hearing anything that you wrote was a big challenge. Unless you were, e.g. a pianist and wrote only piano music (and owned a piano), you had to pin your hopes on either getting a band together to play the music you wrote, or trying to get some sort of grant to pay for the privilege of hearing professionals play it.

These are major obstacles. Both options involve lots of work and/or money, not to mention skills that are at best tangentially related to musical talent and compositional vision.

Running a band or ensemble requires skills like leadership, and hucksterism, and technical know-how, and business savvy.

Getting grant money requires obsessive persistence, and a deep practical knowledge of the organizations that give it out. It also requires that your music fit in with that seasons artistic fashions.

And remember, you are going through all of this work not to get rich and famous, but just to hear something you wrote.

And so being a composer was, for all but a handful, a sort of a hopeless uphill battle. This was especially true if you weren't affiliated with an academic institution of some sort. While other musical types dreamed of playing Carnegie Hall, or Madison Square Garden, or even CBGB, poor little composer person dreamed of the day when some community orchestra would spend a few minutes sawing their way through something he or she had spent 6 months, or two years, writing.

There are some who might think that this was a sort of natural selection, where only the most determined and talented got to 'make it'. But the history of the past 100 years is filled with stories of groundbreaking and influential composers that never heard some of their major works performed. The great American innovator Charles Ives is a notable example, as is the Austrian composer Anton Webern, who influenced a whole generation of major composers: Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti to name only the most prominent. Others, from Ives' friend Carl Ruggles, to the bizarre genius Conlon Nancarrow, to the 'Stratospheric Colossus of Sound' Edgard Varese, fared no better than Webern did.

And these are just a few of the famous names, mind. Many others lived and died hearing only a fraction of their lifes work, while others, even less fortunate, died without hearing any of their music played at all.

Imagine this, if you will: spending all of your free time conceiving music that you never actually get to hear. Kind of alienating really. Poets might dream of being published, but their poems exist, whether or not this ever happens. Graphic artists might (and probably do) have limited financial resources, but paint and ink and pencils and paper and canvas and clay have been affordable and widely available for a long time. There is nothing to keep all but the most destitute of graphic artists from creating works of art.

But a composer needs major resources to realize his or her ideas, or no one will ever hear them. And if one has composed a work that no one ever hears, does it really exist? And what good is it if it does?

Like I said, the least influential group of people in the world.

And then, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with the needs of composers, computer based music production became possible. And then it became affordable. And then it became dirt cheap. And the wretched of the earth became like unto the gods.

Verily, for they could now shape sound from it's component parts, and layer, and sculpt it's timbre as if from clay. And add echoes, yea, echoes to infinity. And they could take these sounds and use them in any combination, howsoever they chose to do, making them louder or softer, brighter or darker, higher or lower in register at the touch of a finger. And they could multiply these voices until they formed a vast multitude. And they could write whatsoever they chose to write and hear it played howsoever they chose to hear it. And miracle of miracles: they could hear it instantly. Yea, Instantly! And at volume levels beyond that which is permitted by law. And having thus conceived their music, they could hurl it into the ether and disseminate it throughout the world in the blink of an eye. And again, they could do this instantly.
Yea, Instantly!

In other words, for 1000 US dollars or less, any composer can now purchase a machine that can 'play' all of the music they can conceive, record it in extremely high fidelity, and burn it to a c.d.

We will show how this all works, and how it happened, next week.

Or maybe next month.

© 2008 Real Music Media