By D. Geoffrey Bell
The process of musical composition has changed dramatically over the last fifty years. With the advent of personal analog and digital technologies, composers have adopted an evolving set of technological tools that have transformed the way music is written. This, in turn, has had a significant impact on performances by many choral groups and other musical ensembles.
Pencil and Manuscript Paper
As a young composer, I was accustomed to sitting at the piano, testing various melodies, harmonies and rhythms on the piano until they sounded just right. I would jot my final choices down on manuscript paper, using a standard wood pencil. I quickly learned to refine my set of tools. A mechanical 0.7 mm pencil proved far superior to give clear, consistently readable notation, and a white vinyl eraser was far more effective than a pink rubber eraser for removing mistakes. Purchasing manuscript paper was frustrating because each ensemble required a different grouping of staves. Eventually, I assembled a collection of many manilla file folders, each containing a specific format of manuscript paper for each type of ensemble.
India Ink and Vellum
When I became a composition student at the University of Calgary in 1974 under the tutelage of Dr. Richard Johnston, I was introduced to the world of translucent manuscript vellum, fountain pens and India ink. This seemed positively medieval to me, but this was how a “good copy” of a finished musical work was written down at the time. (Personal computers were just starting to be available to hobbyists, and few people thought that they would ever become a household item. Music writing software was only a futuristic dream at this point.) The copying process was specific: place the vellum manuscript face-down on a desk, and carefully inscribe the music on the back using a fountain pen and India ink. A small error was left to dry; then the ink was carefully scraped off with a razor blade, and the correct notation was inscribed. Since the staff lines were on the other side of the vellum, they were not damaged if an error had to be removed. If a large error was made, that page went in the garbage bin, and you started over.
The finished work was taken to a special photocopier at the Canadian Music Centre in the university library. The side with notes was placed against the glass, and the photocopier’s light was bright enough that the staff lines showed through the back as the copy was made. If a work was sufficiently important to have the pages bound, they were sent by mail across the country to the head office in Toronto to be copied and bound, then returned by mail weeks later. I had to have my compositions completed a couple of months ahead in order to have bound scores ready for the jury at my senior graduation recital!
Electronic Sound Synthesis
Before I became a university student, my father introduced me to “Dripsody”, written by Hugh Le Cain in 1955. (Between 1945-1948, Canadian physicist Hugh Le Caine invented the “Electronic Sackbut”, considered to be the first electronic music synthesizer.) We engaged in serious debates; was it music? How much of it was created randomly by a computer? How much was the intentional, creative work of an intelligent, thinking human? Was this new “computer music” just a novelty that would fade quickly, or was it the beginning of a whole new genre of music that would last and develop? Whatever it was, I was fascinated, and knew I would have to explore and create such new music if I ever got the chance!
During my time at the university, I studied electronic composition with professor Warren Rowley. We experimented with the creation of musique concréte using reel-to-reel tape recorders. This involved recording live sounds with microphones, then altering them by changing the tape speed, playing the tape backward, or by creating physical tape loops that circled through one machine repeatedly while the resulting sounds were recorded on another machine. Some loops were small enough to fit on the same table as the tape recorder. Others stretched across the room!
The chance to sample environmental sounds and musical sounds, then manipulate them to create new sounds, laid important foundations for my creative development. It’s unlikely that musicophiles will clamour to purchase recordings of my “Nocturne for 3 Pot Lids, 2 Knives, Voice and Cookie Tin”, but studies such as this certainly informed my development as a composer.
Sound Synthesis and Multitrack Recording
The other key equipment in the electronic music program was the Moog Studio Synthesizer. (In 1963, Robert Moog introduced the first Moog synthesizer; it was monophonic and analog, using transistors to replace vacuum tubes that had been used in previous music synthesizers.) The studio model was state-of-the-art for the early 1970s. It included four modular units that housed analog oscillators, filters and an analog sequencer; a musical keyboard, and a ribbon controller. The power had to be left on night and day to keep the oscillators in tune. The synthesizer keyboard and ribbon controller were monophonic, only able to play one note at a time.
Every sound had to be built from scratch, accomplished by plugging patch cords from one module to another to another. I quickly learned to wear patch cords hanging around my neck so they would be handy at a moment’s notice. An eight-channel tape recorder allowed the composer to build a piece of music, one track at a time. Of course, larger projects required more than eight tracks; the composer had to mix a few tracks together, then “bounce” them onto a single track so more instruments or voices could be added. The process was very time-consuming because each piece of music involved so many steps: building specific sounds, recording individual voices, bouncing tracks and creating a final mix to record on stereo tape.
The development of portable synthezisers opened up a whole new realm for live performers on stage. Before this key development, keyboard players relied on various forms of pianos and organs as their mainstays. Suddenly, many rock, pop and jazz keyboard players had the opportunity to explore and create completely new instrument sounds and timbres, well beyond the scope of previous known instruments! Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, and Herbie Hancock are notable examples of keyboard players who embraced the new portable synthesizers, exploring new sonic possibilities.
The Moog company released a promotional recording to demonstrate the musical capabilities of their instruments. It featured “Snow”, by Chris Swansen. I was awestruck! Would I ever be able to create such amazing electronic music?
As a keyboard player in various rock, jazz and blues bands before starting university classes, I had some experience playing analog synthesizers, both monophonic and polyphonic. The sounds were still created using electronic oscillators, modified by filters and shaped by “envelopes” that controlled attack, decay, sustain and release. After learning my way around the equipment in the university Electronic Music Lab, I put everything I had into creating a completely synthesized, carefully composed, rock work.
As I was developing my own compositional skills and knowledge, accomplished composers and performers were making headlines in the world of music by creating complete, satisfying musical performances using completely synthesized instruments. “Switched-on Bach” by Wendy Carlos (released in 1968 under the name Walter Carlos) was an entire album of Bach performed on a Moog studio synthesizer. Some musicians were enraged, dismissing the entire idea as a cheap trick. Others were enthralled by the new, electronic interpretation of serious music. The debate raged on; how much of this was computer-generated performance as opposed to skilled human performance? Was this a legitimate way to perform Bach’s music? Was this just the next electronic evolutionary iteration of the pipe organ? Would people ever attend a concert that was performed primarily on a synthesizer?
The Mellotron was also introduced in 1963, offering an alternate approach. It had one or two 35-note keyboards that played individual tape recordings of real instruments such as flutes, violins and ‘cellos. It was designed to provide the richness of orchestral sound that could be played by a single performer. This opened a new debate; would the Mellotron put flautists and string players out of work?
Digital Sound Synthesis
The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was introduced to the world in 1979. Unfortunately for me, the Fairlight all-in-one polyphonic synthesizer arrived at the University Electronic Music Lab just as I was graduating. It introduced a ground-breaking combination of digital synthesizer, sampler and workstation. This opened up an exciting new world of possibilities for composers and performers, significantly streamlining the process of creating new music. Digitally synthesized sounds had a clear, crisp quality. The sampler allowed composers to record and save ANY sound, assign it to any note on a musical keyboard, then play the sound at any pitch up and down the keyboard! On my last visit with Professor Rowley I saw the cardboard boxes being opened, but I never got to play a note.
MIDI – Musical Instrument Digital Interface
MIDI controllers such as keyboards and the EWI (for woodwind players) were introduced in 1982 to allow human performers to create, control and perform music using the vast array of new synthesized and digitized sounds. Repeated, identical performances played by a computer gave way to nuanced, musical performances by real musicians.
The percussion family was not left out when the Musical Instrument Digital Interface was created. Electronic drum machines, MIDI drum pads, computer-generated percussion sounds, and digitized drummers were all developed. Composers have an arsenal of sounds available to create music using “virtual” instruments.
Altering and Replicating the Human Voice
Well before electronic synthesizers were invented, other researchers experimented with manipulating and replicating the human voice electronically. The original Vocoder was patented in 1939, providing the means to artificially reproduce human speech, or create a hybrid combination of human speech (or singing) with an electronic signal. The Vocoder was adopted as a new instrument in popular music in the 1970s, offering a whole new range of vocal sounds and effects. Early adopters used the Vocoder as a novelty “special effect”, producing a robot-like voice that punctuated the music. Later pop artists used the Vocoder as a significant, central musical voice or vocal effect, such as Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” in 1981, and Imogene Heap’s groundbreaking tour-de-force, “Hide and Seek” in 2005.
The Vocaloid software followed; the first generation used algorithms to analyze a human voice, then create a computer-generated voice. In 2010, the world was introduced to Japanese 3D hologram pop star, Hatsune Miku. A talented back-up band played live onstage on the sidelines, accompanying a completely computer-generated singer, seamlessly combining 3D animation and a Vocaloid voice. The concert audience responded just as enthusiastically as if they were being entertained by a live singer and band!
The next generation of Vocaloid software digitized real human singing voices and stored them as musical instrument files that could be played back, controlled by a computer or MIDI keyboard. More recently, some of these voices can read and “sing” music and lyrics from a score. The voices still have an artificial quality at times, but carefully edited scores are able to produce some remarkable results! Composers of cinematic scores and pop music have begun to create new musical works using all-digital musical resources.
Personal Computers and Home Studios
The advent of the personal digital computer made all of these technologies available to everyone with access to a computer. In 2011, new Macintosh computers began shipping with GarageBand software installed, effectively providing every user with a home recording studio equipped with digital instruments, pre-recorded instrumental “loops”, a built-in microphone, and sampling and mixing capabilities.
Auto-tune software is another development in the digital manipulation of sound that has become pervasive in pop music. Vocalists who don’t have accurate intonation can have their singing processed by software to correct their tuning. Many pop stars and recording studios have embraced this technology wholeheartedly, and the evidence can be heard in their recordings. Other singers choose to perform and record using their natural singing voices, even though their intonation might not be perfect all the time.
In 1988, the first version of Finale computer software was released, specifically to provide composers with all the tools they need to write music; the first version of Sibelius was released in 1998. Finale and Sibelius became leaders in the field, with other software developers offering a variety of competing products.
Today, most music publishers will no longer look at hand-written scores; submissions must already be typeset and be accompanied by a good-quality recording! To this end, music-writing software now has the ability to play the music back using MIDI computer-generated voices, or digitally sampled voices and instruments to create a “virtual orchestra” on the computer. Garritan, BBC Spitfire and NotePerformer are contemporary examples of digitized orchestral instrument libraries. The less-expensive products tend to sound more artificial, but the high-end products can sound very convincing.
Many orchestral movie scores in recent years have been created using digital orchestral instruments and voices! Many live performers today do not use scores printed on paper. Instead, they read a PDF file scrolling by on a digital tablet or screen.
15 Minutes of Fame
Laptop, tablet and smartphone users are now able to download apps that allow them to download, create, manipulate and upload music with ease. It is completely possible to write brand new lyrics and music, make a digital “recording” and post it online without getting up off the couch!
In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would have their own 15 minutes of fame. As outlandish and unlikely as his prediction sounded at the time, the pervasiveness of the Internet, the “500 channel universe” (coined by John C. Malone in 1992), and personal technologies allow anyone to post text, art, photos, videos and music across multiple online platforms. Items that make an impact are frequently re-posted by others, and sometimes rebroadcast by the news media. Anyone can try their hand at being an author, artist, photographer, composer, performer, entertainer and critic!
This, of course, is a double-edged sword. The Internet is flooded with creative works by millions of people trying to promote their own work and ideas. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of works available to the consumer. At the same time, many established fine arts organizations now have powerful tools to promote their work, maintain relationships and interact with current supporters, and cultivate new audiences.
What is the Result of These Developments?
Clearly, many popular music genres have adopted electronic technologies wholeheartedly, to the point where they are an integral part of the music. Recording studios have moved from tape to digital recording and mixing. The world of classical or “serious” music has heard some efforts to incorporate electronic sounds into the music, but this often seems to be more a novelty than a trend. New Music societies continue to explore new sounds, including the use of electronic technologies.
What is the Impact on Choral Music Today?
Do any of these developments matter to choral composers, conductors and choirs? The answers depend on the music being performed and on the style of performance. A traditional choir that performs strictly classical or sacred works may have felt little impact over the past fifty years, maintaining a tradition that sounds much as it did fifty years ago. At the other end of the musical spectrum, groups that specialize in “New Music” may have experimented with many aspects of digital technologies, with results that challenge the abilities of the performers and the ears of the listeners.
The majority of conductors and choirs will likely find themselves somewhere in between. We certainly have choirs using microphones, P.A. systems with mixing boards, added reverb, and digital recording studios. Some use auto-tune. We see performers reading PDF scores and using electronic tuners and metronomes. Some choirs sing along with MIDI soundtrack accompaniments. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir projects have been tremendously successful, using technology to gather voices, mix them, and broadcast virtual choir performances. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused choirs to stop meeting in person for a while, many choirs tried their own versions of singing together using technology. Still, a survey of modern choral music shows that the majority of choral composers and choirs have not fully embraced all of the possibilities and potential available through electronic and digital music technologies.
Does it matter? Can these advances in music technology be applied to create new, meaningful music experiences?
Four Questions to Consider About Your Own Investment in Music Technologies
- Think back over your last ten years of concert programming, or music you have learned over that period of time. How much of it involved digital or electronic music technologies?
- Reflect on your personal collection of recordings. How many of them are primarily electronic, or feature electronic or digital music?
- What are your plans for upcoming concert programming, or for music you plan to learn or commission in the next five years? Do you have plans to “push the envelope” to explore new electronic sounds?
- Are you curious about taking your own “next step” to explore new possibilities with technology and music?
The Composer’s Perspective – Putting New Sounds to Work
Each time composers sit down to write a new piece of music, we have all of these tools at our disposal. The sheer number of possibilities can seem daunting! Until recently, I kept my choral and electronic compositions separate from one another. They seemed like they should remain completely discrete from one another. During the early stages of writing this article, I attended a concert of new choral music, which only confirmed my earlier beliefs. I did not enjoy or appreciate the use of electronics in one piece; while some of the effects added resonance and sonic interest, others just seemed like gratuitous sound effects, distracting my attention from the skillful performance of the choir.
Not long after, I listened to Ēriks Ešenvalds’ “Stars”, and was enthralled with the ethereal, other-worldly sonority generated by a simple drone effect from water-filled glasses. Surely there must be a way to use electronic or digital sounds in a sensitive, musical way to enhance the effectiveness of a choral work without detracting from the choir’s performance! I looked further, but could find few examples that I found to be musically satisfying.
As a result, in 2020 I wrote my first work for choir accompanied by a hybrid of natural, electronically modified and completely synthetic sounds. The goals were to support the choir rhythmically and harmonically; to incorporate sounds from nature such as wind, wind chimes and birdsong; and to add depth and resonance using electronic sounds that were musical and sensitive, all without overwhelming the choir. I am satisfied enough with the results that I plan to write more choral works with electronic accompaniments.
Looking Ahead to Plan Your Future Musical Journey
Many choirs have established a tradition of commissioning a new work each year, or holding a competition for the creation of a new choral work. In recent years, more choirs have shown interest in works that combine choral and electronic performance.
As you look back over your own musical journey up to the present, I invite you to consider our collective musical and technological journey over the past fifty years, then to consider the many fascinating possibilities we can explore in the future!
Learn more about D. Geoffrey Bell and his music at www.dgeoffreybell.com.