IV. Comforting Perspectives
My faculty interviewees explained they do not tend to find major MEPS-induced problems in their students’ music, and they were generally skeptical that MEPS could induce negative effects of any magnitude. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that students and professors both felt that the term “stigma” was too strong to describe the misgivings held by professionals and laymen against a composer’s use of MEPS. They acknowledged the existence of teachers who issue dire condemnations, but portrayed these as isolated cases.
One of the professors acknowledged feelings of Romantic nostaligia regarding technology, describing the computer as “the gothic cathedral” of the present day, implying that, while computers may still be in their infancy, they are likely to be perfected over time into a truly transcendent object. Indeed, since the inception of MEPS, engineers have been constantly adding new functionalities, perfecting the programs and trying to find ways of minimizing and eliminating shortcomings. It is difficult to predict which of the issues listed here will still be present in the program a few years hence.
A different faculty member also gave a historical perspective on MEPS, pointing out that:
"[For] composers who maintained positions with orchestras, ensembles, choirs, churches, etc., … quick feedback (audio feedback) on their ideas was a normal part of their procedure. Composers in the 19th century and prior heard much more of their music on a regular basis, and benefited from it. Is Finale/Sibelius not simply the restoration of a practice dissolved by the economic constraints of the 20th century, and the resultant limited access to performers?"
While a look at traditional compositional practices would involve a study that would exceed the space limitations for this paper, the answer to this rhetorical question, is, evidently, yes. And thus, in this way too, MEPS are to contemporary composers what gothic cathedrals (and their choirs) were to the composers of the Notre Dame school.
A method that is in complete contradiction with the remedies described above involves developing a catalogue of compositional strategies that are MEPS-friendly. Instead of fighting the program and viewing it with constant suspicion, changing over to an outlook of interaction and symbiosis might prove quite fruitful. While tedium can force us to surrender and accept certain limitations, it can also spur us toward the creation of new tools. Some Finale users such as Robert Patterson, whom Johnson describes as a “third-party plug-in developer,” have in fact contributed code to simplify or enable certain functions. More importantly, however, surrendering to severe limitations still does not preclude the possibility of composing masterpieces. In fact, composers often speak of their need for limitations in order to compose. Even if we were to take the most conservative and limiting view of these programs – that is, that they would be only suited for the composition of music such as hymns and lead sheets, and we have a composer who (whether or not s/he does this consciously) refuses to figure out how to get the program to change meters, change keys, change tempi, or do anything that goes beyond the program’s default setting, all this still does not literally preclude the possibility of a masterwork being produced. It doesn’t even preclude the possibility of originality. All of the misgivings mentioned above, while numerous, do not restrict composers so much so that they prevent them from expressing themselves and from producing music that they and their listeners find satisfactory.
Finally, one of my interviewees urged me to put this matter in perspective, stressing that, in the grand scheme of things, much more powerful forces face composers than the idiosyncrasies of their notation software. First, thanks to recordings and means of dispersal (radio, television, internet), composers nowadays find themselves “competing with all the composers that ever lived” in ways that had never happened before this era. Secondly, a composer’s career is greatly dependent on political forces within both music and academia. Evidently, such dynamics truly exert a great deal of influence on composers. Unlike the issues we brought up with Finale that will shape a composer’s music inadvertently, the powers of academia and the powers of commerce demand music of a certain type. It is not surprising that, throughout history, some of the most creative composers did not make it their profession (Charles Ives, the insurance man, epitomizes the figure of the American maverick composer).
With the issues inherent to MEPS now clearly delineated and remedial strategies laid out, it is my hope that this article can enable composers to approach MEPS with a greater sense of awareness and control, and that it can serve to diffuse the notion that pieces composed using MEPS cannot escape being irremediably flawed. Let us not let our anxieties about the quirks of our MEPS become overblown, lest we forget that they are mere eddies by comparison to the currents and whirlpools of mass culture, fashion, politics, and, ultimately, money.
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Friberg, Anders, and Giovanni Umberto Battel. “Structural Communication.” In The Science & Psychology of Music Performance, edited by Richard Parncutt and Gary McPherson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Johnson, Mark. Finale ® 2005 POWER! Boston, MA: Thomson Course Technology, 2004.
Rudolph, Thomas E. Sibelius: a comprehensive guide to Sibelius music notation software. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corp., 2007.
Oteri, Frank J., ed. “How does using music notation software affect your music?” NewMusicBox, August 1, 2002. http://newmusicbox.com/article.nmbx?id=1810
Watson, Chris. The Effects of Music Notation Software on Compositional Practices and Outcomes. Ph. D. Diss. Victoria University of Wellington, 2006. http://www.chriswatsoncomposer.com/chris_watson_phd.pdf