In Defense of Music Technology: Adapt or Die
Last year after an electronic music concert, I found myself defending electroacoustic music to a fellow composer who did not understand why composers in my field insisted on using multimedia in their works. Her companion agreed, and as both verbally snubbed composers who use electronics, I realized that music technology divides even the most knowledgeable of musicians. In my mind, there are not composers in “my” field of electroacoustic music and “their” field of strictly acoustic (and presumably better) music. Electroacoustic composers simply compose for electronics like they compose for a choir or orchestra, and many can just as easily create a symphony as a computer music piece.
Critics have always shunned innovation, whether it be the pianoforte, the record player, radio, the internet, virtual reality, or electroacoustic music. Whatever their motives – fear, ignorance, embarrassment – these critics wish to maintain the status quo, until their stalwart stance dooms them to obscurity. Unless a composer hides in a cave armed only with a pencil and manuscript, he or she will succumb to the digital revolution. The contemporary composer knows that posting one’s latest clarinet trio on YouTube is as important as learning how to write a string quartet, that a collaboration can mean anything from working with an alternative band down the street to jamming with a Kenyan drumming ensemble over i-Chat, and that publishing a score globally takes only a few clicks and broadband.
The musician who chooses to ignore technology may find that his or her music quickly becomes obsolete, though not for lack of quality. Competition committees pass over works with sloppy handwritten scores and noisy analog recordings, instead accepting polished computer scores with MIDI realizations. Music enthusiasts swipe audio files off an artist’s website instead of attending a live recital. Traditional mediums like physical recordings, music magazines, and terrestrial radio fail as Amazon.com, vlogs and blogs, and Pandora become the music distributors of choice. Composers who insist that they do not embrace technology still need to record their performances digitally, depend on Finale to publish their scores, and use e-mail to communicate with other musicians. Even the artist who reads this blog has chosen to accept new technology.
Today successful composers exploit electronic innovation by self-promoting their music through blogs and internet radio, hosting concert premieres through virtual worlds like Second Life, collaborating internationally through video chat, and composing new hybrid works with live performers and Max/MSP. Revolutionary composers not only utilize existing contemporary technology, but push the artistic envelope by inventing new digital marvels that further transform music. Cutting edge musicians turn to independent companies hosted by a single CPU in a music fan’s basement, and performers reach new audiences as advanced communications shrink the market. A digital tsunami has struck the world and only the technologically evolved will survive.
Sabrina Peña Young is an Intermedia Composer teaching at Murray State University and an experienced blogger. Her specialties are composition, technology, world music, percussion, and film & video.