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A World without orchestras – computers rampant?

Any consideration of how things are, how they were, or what they might in future become is always likely to be inaccurate if for no other reason than that one is too close to observe the situation in a balanced perspective. In the 1930s some cinemas in the largest cities had screens so huge that the seats in the very front row of the stalls were the cheapest in the house because the view from them was so incredibly distorted. In a sense this is what happens with all our experiences; the here and now is so close that it is hardly possible to view what is happening in relation to what has happened in the past, and perhaps even less to be able to guess what might happen subsequently; hence politicians, who are so boastful and confident of what they will do, are later so often proved to have been wrong. They have not remembered what happened in similar situations fifty or a hundred years before.

We have a fairly good idea how the history of music has evolved and we are fascinated by the quaint things, as they now seem to us, that were accepted as being the normal way that the art of music functioned. So probably we need to remember that for a long period before the evolution of the large opera or symphony orchestra there existed no such thing; yet music was certainly a flourishing expression of the human spirit. Who needed orchestras in the days of early church music, or the troubadours, or folk music? Almost without being aware of it orchestras for one purpose or another seemed to evolve, so that for the past two hundred and fifty years or more (at a round figure) the world at large - the civilised world - has been aware of the phenomenon of the orchestra, so much so that even people not remotely interested in the art of music know - roughly – what an "orchestra" is. The technical term "to orchestrate" which we know is a highly specialised branch of the art of music: the process of allotting the constituent parts of a piece of music, its melody, harmony and rhythms, to various instruments, so that the whole sounds satisfying and balanced, has been used in analogy by others to described what is being "arranged" – political ideas and plans, business strategy, or whatever. The very expression: "to orchestrate" has passed into universal language independently of the art of music.

In the past two or three decades the notion of writing music for huge bodies of human performers – orchestras – has been challenged on two important counts: the practical one being the exponentially escalating costs of employing professional performers. In the very earliest days of the orchestra performers were cheap to come by; most court orchestras in the service of wealthy aristocrats were mere lackeys: domestic employees by day: coachmen, grooms, gardeners, footmen, estate workers; or very poorly paid employees of theatres. Even in the early twentieth century orchestral players came cheap. Nowadays – and this has more than once been remarked before in these commentaries – orchestral musicians are - no matter how much it might be denied - relatively well-paid compared with lots of other occupations.

The other challenge might be regarded as more insidious: the changing taste of creative musicians abetted by the new technology: that of the computer.

It is, after all, a very demanding and indeed at times irksome business: creating new music. Not only does it demand imagination and immense insight on the part of a composer, but an astonishing amount of sheer physical labour in the act of writing – with one’s own hand – every solitary note in the whole score. Hence, Haydn was in the habit of appending at the very close of virtually every score he had composed, the grateful observation "Gott sei dank!" or in other words: "Thank God, that’s finished!". Only a composer of major works knows what labour is involved. The pop composer or the writer of popular music of earlier times does not. For him the sum total of the written notes might amount to TWO pages of manuscript, and even the printed copy promoted by Tin-Pan Alley and the numerous publishers of all kinds of popular music had merely to print a two-page copy of "Tea for Two" or "I’m dreaming of a white Christmas". If it were orchestrated for small orchestra or dance band it would even then only amount to perhaps one small A-4 size sheet of music for each player. Whereas an orchestral score and all the necessary parts: perhaps ten copies of each of the string band parts (1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos, and basses) plus a separate part for another twenty or thirty wind players could amount to hundreds of hand-copied, or later on when publishing became more efficient, printed copies of each individual part in the whole score. So the labour involved on the part of copyists or the time-consuming skills of engravers when music came to be printed was astonishing.

The number of pages of a Wagner opera runs into thousands when considering not just the score itself, but all the individual copies for the singers and the players. The number of pages of – say - a Brahms symphony runs to 166 for the First Symphony, and from this had to be extracted and then printed all the separate string and wind parts. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony contains 284 pages of full score from which, of course, the engraver had patiently to make all the necessary copies. Most ‘contemporary’ music - in the widest sense of the word - of the twentieth century was at one time hand-copied; it had become too uneconomical to engrave it. Even players in good amateur orchestras will be familiar with the hired copies of much 20th century music; hand-copied parts, very often only the score having been engraved. So it is little wonder that present-day composers have turned with gratitude to the computer, Once a score is "in" the computer, there is never the need any longer to copy the parts by hand or to have them engraved by craftsmen. The computer does it all at the mere click of the mouse. This is an almost unbelievable situation. The down-side of all this – and it must be stressed, it IS a downside, no matter what the complacent younger composer will argue to the contrary – is that there is a terrible temptation to compose the easy way by allowing the computer to take over the act of creation. Not only in putting the score together, seeking easy ways to take the drudgery out of thinking how to orchestrate a passage, nor in getting the machine to extract the separate band parts in nothing more than a few seconds, but in an even more insidious way: supplanting the human performers by computer-generated sounds which seek, however lamely and heartlessly, to imitate the sounds of human players in an orchestra or indeed any other kind of human performance group. This is something I hear almost every week in my dealings with students of composition. I would prefer NOT to hear these absolutely ghastly computer-generated sounds; I would be happier just to read the score and let my imagine provide the "real" human sounds which are intended. If students think they are doing me a good turn by sending me discs with their computer-generated sounds in imitation of the real thing, they are quite mistaken.

However, there is no denying that this technology has come to stay – nothing I might say will stop it. There have been anxious warnings from many musicians in very recent times about the decline of the orchestra – smaller audiences, the cost of it all, the changes of taste – and it will undoubtedly come about before long that the art of music will change fundamentally. The younger generation and those not yet born will accept this new situation without a qualm, for it will be the natural way of the future age. Maybe the orchestra and many other forms of music making will somehow continue as a kind of precious relic of former times, perhaps even lovingly appreciated and cherished, but not perhaps in the "live music" way it has been up until now.

The computer has some advantages that are unique; apart from the most obvious ones. For all musicians who are in any way involved with either composing, copying, transcribing, publishing or printing music the computer suggests its own sound-world of new timbres. Now this I have no quarrel with; it is a new and utterly fascinating world of sound, but it has not the slightest connection with or indeed relevance to, the orchestra, the human voice, or any other kind of previous musical language. If this situation is accepted perhaps we can live with it and regard it for what it is – something utterly different from what has gone before.

Arthur Butterworth




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