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November 22, 2006

"MIDI Realization"

There’s music in the sighing of a reed;

There’s music in the gushing of a rill;

There’s music in all things, if man had ears;

The earth is but the music of the spheres.

              George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

“For the past year, I have struggled with a computer – a micro computer. I say ‘struggled’ because a computer is beautifully precise, but I wanted to use it to produce musical results – in other words, as a musical instrument. How could this keyboard of only 10 keys compare with that of a grand piano? But I came to realize that those ten keys could produce an almost limitless number of combinations, each of which is a signal that could determine a characteristic of sound: pitch, texture, attack time, duration, loudness. And the computer can be programmed to change any or all of these features with incredible speed.”   (Tomita, 1979)

Midi Realization: Two words that have become almost obscene to the music world.

 "I long for instruments obedient to my thought and whim, with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, which will lend themselves to the exigencies ["urgencies"] of my inner rhythm." Edgar Varese, June, 1917.  

The concert/“classical” music world was the first to experiment with electronics to produce musical compositions. And French composer Edgar Varese (1883-1965) was the one of the first to produce a piece of purely electronic music, Poeme Electronique, commissioned for the Philips Radio Corporation pavilion at the Brussels Exposition in 1958. The production required 450 speakers for playback and was only 8 minutes in length. It was an unexpected success.  

Electronic music leaped forward with each increase in the underlying technologies, culminating with the commercial and artistic successes of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-on Brandenburgs (1979) album and Tomita’s The Firebird (1975) album.  

But it would be the commercial music world that would push the technological advances in electronic music, replacing pianos and organs with keyboard synthesizers in pop and rock groups. The so-called serious music world dropped the ‘ball’.  

In 1981, two individuals working for Sequential Circuits (maker of keyboard synthesizers) devised a standard digital interface that would allow any synthesizer to interact with any other synthesizer. Until that time, each synthesizer company had its own interface that was only operational with its own equipment. Thus was born the MIDI standard. MIDI stands for “musical instrument digital interface”. This standard allowed for a digital instrument to interact with any other digital instrument – and eventually with computers – to produce music.  

It would be that MIDI standard that gave a re-birth of interest for concert music composers to look at and work with electronic instruments and sounds once again. The MIDI standard covered not only the rock and pop sounds of the commercial world but it also contained the instruments of a standard symphonic orchestra.  

As computers became more plentiful and affordable to the average musician, the available sounds also became more sophisticated. Now, MIDI has become universally synonymous with music sequencing programs and both hardware- and software-based music synthesizers and samplers.

But once again, it appears that the serious music world is about to drop the ball, not because they are not keeping up with the technology, but from pure snobbery, ignorance, and arrogance. "It cannot be 'music' if it has been created using MIDI ."

If I may use a word from my Oklahoma upbringing: hogwash!

In the past several months, I have encountered extreme resistance from various record labels, publishers, and 'serious' musicians for the acceptance of a performance of a musical work that was produced using computers -- a 'MIDI realization'. They only want to hear a live performance. One website that offers composers a platform for the podcasting of their music to world refuses to accept any MIDI realizations. Don't bother applying. It is in the rules.

However, they will listen to and consider 'electronic music', i.e. music produced by synthesizers using computers. But the sounds must not replicate known orchestral instruments. They seem to want to accept older sounds from the mid-20th century -- bleeps, swooshes, noise generators, etc. So-called transcriptions of an orchestral work using software sounds and sequencers to produce the music are unacceptable. I have not been able to present a work for publication or for CD distribution if the music was written for orchestra and produced using computers. One CD label went so far as to say that “the critics would kill us” if we issued any such recording.

 Therefore, any recording or performance or Bach’s keyboard music should be rejected unless it has been ‘realized’ on a harpsichord; Bach did not write for piano and did not like the 2 or 3 that he encountered during his life. Beethoven was upset that much of his keyboard music could not be played on the new pianos of his day because the ‘strength’ of his writing was damaging these ‘weak’ instruments; he was writing for 'future' pianos. And finally, please verify that the instruments in any orchestra performing Wagner’s music include Wagnerian tubas and horns.

 (Perhaps we should even get rid of Liszt's piano transcriptions of Wagner's music, only because it is Liszt!)

The problem as I see it -- and as it came up in a conversation with a friend who teaches MIDI in a well-known university -- is that there is a plethora of downright crap being produced and distributed on the internet. It seems that every want-to-be Mozart out there thinks he knows music and has placed some of the worst material -- both in musicality and production -- out there for the world. This is a major problem for all of the new technologies that have become financially available to the general public.

 Many argued back in the 1970's that placing home video recorders, affordable cameras, and later, computer editing programs into the hands of the public would, in the end, produce an explosion of product that was artistically lacking. And it did. But this also lead to changes in the art of filmmaking itself as more and more creative people were able to experiment with what had been an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Of course there are hundreds of really bad films and videos being produced.

The word now is that "well, it's okay for film/video, but don't try it with music. Musical performance requires a human touch".

The arts -- any of them -- require an educational background of some sort in order to understand what makes one painting or musical composition good. Re-hashing the music of composers who have been dead for decades does not produce anything really original. And originality is what produces great art. That, plus the use of new ideas and technologies.

MIDI realizations can and do produce good, sometimes great, 'music'. You hear it every day on television. Over 90% of the music heard in commercials and TV shows is produced using MIDI and computers. Rarely is a live musician used except in exceptional circumstances.

Therefore, it is time to stop referring to the phrase “ MIDI realization” and start referring to a computer that is used to produce music as a musical instrument. It is not the method of performance that is important. It is the music of the performance that is important. It is time for composers and musicians to stop apologizing for using computers to generate music.

I would think that a record company or a publisher would relish the idea of having any recording of a piece of music available to decide the music’s worth, artistically and financially. Would they prefer to hear a 40-year old mono recording containing hiss, RF interference, and a poor performance? Or would they rather hear a clean, computer generated performance?

Many, many years ago, there was fear that the pipe organ would eventually replace small ensembles. It did not happen. There was fear that electronic organs (Hammond, etc.) would replace pipe organs. It never happened. There is currently fear among musicians that computers will replace live musicians. It will never happen. But there will be circumstances where computer-generated music will be used and accepted in place of live musicians. And those working musicians out there today will be 'weeded out', leaving the best among them to continue working.

Music produced through computers and sequencers can be artistically fulfilling. It can -- and does -- allow composers to have the ability to hear their music without the expense of hiring an orchestra or without having the need to go take teaching jobs where ensembles are available. And it allows them to push the traditional orchestral sound (virtually unchanged in 100 years) into new areas of creativity, even allowing composers to write music that 'live' musicians cannot physically play.

Bank on it: the use of MIDI, computers, and software will eventually become its own art form for the production of music. The creators of this music will get better and better as the programming of the underlying technologies gets better and better. And the world of music -- commercially and seriously -- will be better for it.

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