Paul D. Miller on Sun, 21 Jul 2002 20:44:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Music and technology - a dialog between Phillip Glass, Dj Spooky and others...

>hello everyone! This is an online discussion on music and technology 
>Phillip Glass set up - it's an open ended scenario between a couple 
>of my favorite philosophers of music and digital culture... if you 
>have a moment, check it out! The dialog is for the first issue of a 
>magazine on classical music and sound art  and the first issue is 
>under Philip Glass' guest editorship, which kicks off the series. 
>Carte Blanche will be sort of a calling card for andante's online 
>magazine. Future editors will include choreographer Mark Morris, 
>composer John Adams, writer Susan Sontag and director Jonathan 

  Music and Technology: A Roundtable Discussion
Philip Glass, Morton Subotnick, Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), John 
Moran, Michael Riesman

also - don't forget the test issue of 21C is up NOW! Check it out! 
It'll be changing all the time until we get to the print version 
though... there's alot more on the way:


Philip Glass' questions:

How has digital technology affected your compositional process?
Can you discuss new developments (both positive and negative) of the 
new technology on the dissemination of new music?
Is it possible to anticipate a reaction (or moving away) from 
technological dependence in future generations?
Could you suggest some ways which young composers and, to some 
extent, interested listeners can get a grasp of fundamental concepts 
of new music technology?
Does new music technology imply a different way of listening?
Admittedly, new developments in digital technology have been largely 
positive for the composition and recording of new music. What impact 
can and will this have on how composers and performers make a living?

Roundtable Discussion

Philip Glass: How has digital technology affected your compositional process?

Morton Subotnick : I've been working with technology since the late 
1950s and trying to develop technological music. Technological 
music - in my vision - is different from instrumental music; 
otherwise, there would be no reason to do it. From my standpoint, 
digital technology is the fulfillment of a lifetime vision. I never 
expected it to be this good. The effect it's had is to help make what 
I'm doing more complete. It's really hard for me to say exactly how 
that change comes because I've been working with technology from the 
beginning. For composers who had been writing instrumental music, the 
advent of digital technology is probably having a bigger overall 

Michael Riesman : Like many of my generation, I still write music at 
a desk with a pencil. But what has changed is what I am writing for. 
I would have to say that the most significant development in digital 
technology has been the development of digital synthesis and sampler 
technology. The other developments in the digital realm, such as the 
CD, DVD, digital signal processing and hard disk recording, are of 
course useful and convenient, but have not created new ways of 
producing music as have synthesizers and samplers. At present, when 
composing, I am well aware of the capabilities of the electronic 
medium and most of what I do involves both synthetic and acoustic 

Digital technology has also affected the compositional process in 
that it is relatively easy to produce an electronic track, even in an 
inexpensive home studio, which has the sound of a full orchestra. 
When I started writing music, the only way to hear a new piece of 
orchestral music was to have all the parts copied out and get it 
played by an orchestra. This was no easy undertaking if you were not 
already a well-known composer. Although it's not going to sound the 
same, a synthesized orchestra will provide a realization good enough 
to learn from.

Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky): I think of technology as an extension 
of what's already been going on for a long while. Compared to the 
notational symbols of European classical music or the rhythmic 
patterns of West African music, a computer is a formalization of 
those same processes. The computer makes all that was formal and 
structurally oriented become implicit in the basic form of the 
interface. I think about how John Cage used to just stare at the 
piano in his silence pieces. The instrument was a jumping off point - 
an interface that had so many routes available, that the infinity of 
possibility led to chance operations - it's stuff like that that II'm 
interested in these days - "Imaginary Landscape" and other pieces 
like that create open interpretations of what the compositional 
process is all about... Cage wanted to highlight that meditational 
aspect of the creative act. I like to think of technology as being a 
conduit for the same impulses. It also allows me to work with a wide 
variety of material at the same time. It's that kind of simultaneity 
that really distinguishes digital composition from analog - not to 
mention the actual physical "dematerialization." In other words, I 
don't need an orchestra; I can simulate one just fine, thanks. So to 
make a long story short, for me, technology hasn't changed my 
compositional process, it's just extended it into new realms.

Glass: Can you discuss new developments (both positive and negative) 
of the new technology on the dissemination of new music?

Riesman: Well, there's no question that the biggest development in 
the dissemination of new music has been the combination of the 
Internet and the hard disk. The CD is of course an ubiquitous digital 
format, but it does not represent a paradigm shift; it's just a 
longer and more durable version of the vinyl LP. But the Internet, 
together with the development of streaming audio and MP3 compression, 
has introduced new ways of auditioning and acquiring music. It has 
also made it possible for new music to find an audience more quickly 
than in the past, when composers were forced to rely on an 
underground of live performance venues. The Internet represents 
freedom of the airwaves. I generally think of this as a positive 
thing, but I do wonder, in my capacity as a performing artist and 
producer of recordings, how this freedom may adversely affect the 
music industry.

Subotnick: In terms of getting your music out, the Web and 
telecommunication clearly makes it much easier because you don't 
require a publisher. We never sold that many copies anyway, nothing 
close to pop. Now this technology democratizes the whole thing. 
Anyone can get their music out person to person. On the other hand, 
the amount of music that large publishers will handle is going to 
shrink. So if you have an orchestra piece, for example, you'll be 
less likely down the line to get it recorded, because you can't do 
that yourself.

The growth of independent publishing will mean new formats of music 
that are more self-sufficient: small groups of players and directly 
created digital music. The impact of the democratization and the 
reduction of already limited funds for the large companies will 
probably mean fewer composers will get operas and large pieces done.

John Moran: People talk a lot about how the Internet will make every 
composer's music accessible. But still, in today's media-environment, 
I'm not sure how non-commercial artists can compete with the amount 
of advertising dollars that the large corporations can put towards 
blocking out individuals. The head of Sony Classical once told me, 
with utter self-assurance, that unless I started scoring music for 
Hollywood movies, I would die unknown, and no one would ever hear my 
work. I thought that was very inspirational - maybe he was right.

Glass: Is it possible to anticipate a reaction (or moving away) from 
technological dependence in future generations?

Miller: Technology, barring some mega catastrophe, is pretty much 
here to stay. I think of this kind of thing as existing on an 
evolutionary scale - it really is a first step in transforming the 
species. Everything from DNA sequencing to space flight to making 
movies - these all point to the same sense of the environment as 
information that's constantly changing. Future generations won't have 
a "dependence" on technology. They will have technology as a core 
aspect of their existence - as much as the languages we speak, the 
air we breathe and the food that we eat are all aspects of 
technology. I think of these kinds of "systems" as abstract machines 
in the same vein as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari 
dealt with these issues as interpretive frameworks for thinking. 
Whether it's drum machines or aboriginals playing didgeridoo in the 
Australian desert, the thing holding them both together is the 
machinery of culture as an organizing system. In that context, yeah, 
technology is a lot broader than someone just sitting down and using 
whatever computer is around. The dependence is basically part of the 
process of being human - it's all about networks systems and nodal 
points... think of the mathematician Leonhard Euhler's equations for 
nodal points and how they relate to net systems, and the basic idea 
of "scenius" instead of "genius" is just part of the flow... it's all 
about how we link the concepts together. This is just the beginning.

Riesman: I don't think there will be a reaction because there is no 
dependence. There will always be the human voice and the sound of 
string, wind and percussion instruments; acoustic music has not gone 
away nor will it ever. As a performer, I never cease to be pleasantly 
surprised that audiences show up at concerts. I harbor a fear that 
eventually they will stop coming and that one day I'll do a concert 
and no one will show up. But this fear has not yet proven realistic.

Subotnick: It's here to stay and no one's going to move away from it, 
any more than they moved away from automobiles. On the other hand, 
when digital technology and the computer came in, we tried to do 
everything with them. Well, as it turned out, some things are better 
not done on-line. What will happen is not a falling away from 
technology as such, but, once the love affair is over, we will start 
saying, "I still like making coffee better in a pot." Certain older 
technologies will come back into play because they actually work 
better, not because we're turning away from technology. It's the 
freedom to do things one way or another. In the midst of the 
explosion of e-mail, for example, there's a thriving company in 
France now making fountain pens. That doesn't mean people are turning 
away from e-mail, it means that some people say it's pretty great to 
write with a fountain pen.

I see what's happening as a kind of golden age, in the sense that 
finally there aren't going to be any major new options, so instead of 
looking at what's down the line, we can look at what we've got in the 
world and see what we'd like to do with it. We should now be taking a 
personal responsibility to make the technology everything we think it 
can be, rather than just taking advantage of it to get our music out.

Glass: Could you suggest some ways which young composers and, to some 
extent, interested listeners can get a grasp of fundamental concepts 
of new music technology?

Miller: I think that young composers need to think about the world 
around them. It's an environment made up of wireless networks, 
cellular relays, hybrid systems, rootless philosophies, immigrants 
from countries on the verge of transformation, etc., etc. Too many 
people are looking backwards to the 12-tone stuff and the Wagner 
stuff. (It's amazing how many movie soundtracks sound like really 
heavy-handed treatments of Wagner's overtures.) The "fundamental 
concepts" of new music technology are just as much a part of this 
world as, say, Palm Pilots or laptop computers. In the industrialized 
countries, your average child understands video games, how to use a 
telephone and how to navigate the urban superstructure. They are a 
part of the quotidian, constantly updating landscape in which they 
live. Composers, maybe, should check out what the kids are up to. 
It's a real eye opener. I think of Xenakis's "Stochastic" programs 
written for the UPIC Center in Paris that kids were able to use his 
algorithms to create drawings as a metaphor for this kind of thing...

Riesman: The fundamental concept can be expressed in one sentence: 
anything we can hear can have a digital representation and be stored 
and transformed and reproduced, subject to the limitations of the 
input (microphone) and output (speaker) devices. Beyond that, there 
are books and there is the Internet, and there are schools with 
programs in music technology.

I think for a composer, it's not necessary to understand the concepts 
of the technology. He or she can just make use of it in the most 
appropriate way. The same goes for interested listeners. The 
technology has gotten pretty inexpensive and it is not beyond the 
means of many to have hands-on experience with it, and doing so will 
provide the most rewarding level of understanding.

Moran: I think that the same way composers like Rimsky-Korsakov and 
Stravinsky began expressing "realistic" ideas with music (for 
example, thunder or a bird singing), composers can express the 
nuances of very specific events, in ways that are at once musical and 
realistic. I think that the implications of the idea are extremely 

Glass: Does new music technology imply a different way of listening?

Riesman: No. There is only music, and there is only listening. I 
don't believe there are different ways of listening; there are only 
different delivery mechanisms and different levels of attention. 
Unless someone can invent a delivery technology in which we don't 
have to use our ears anymore... Now, that would be a different way of 
listening for sure.

Miller: Not to me. Humans have a certain perceptual architecture - 
the basic structure is the basilar membrane of the ear, the sense of 
gravity and balance that we have comes from there, and the 
frequencies that we can or cannot respond to come from there too. 
Beyond that, I've always been an optimist - I don't think we've 
engaged how much we can hear. We're conditioned to accept the social 
ramifications of the various technologies as "constants" in the 
environment, but they're just as open to fluctuation as the societies 
that generated them. All of which points to the fact that it's not so 
much new ways of hearing that are needed, but new perceptions of what 
we can hear.

Moran: In as far as digital sampling goes, one can find musical 
expression in anything. Of course, some people are going to say "that 
sounds like noise," but people have always said that about new music. 
I think that in general, people are becoming pretty open to what new 
music can be - until they want to make money, or course.

Subotnick: Many of us in the world are still listening to older 
music. Because of the technology of recordings, the past has 
permanently blended with the present. I don't think there will be as 
big a change in concert hall music but rather in music that exists 
only in the loudspeakers and on the computers.

In this area, digital technology has become totally democratized 
because of how cheap it is now. Compared to buying a piano and taking 
years of piano lessons, you can buy an incredibly good computer at 
Radio Shack for $500 and be equipped to create music. This in itself 
is a huge change. Making a complex statement musically has never been 
more possible or accessible. On the other hand, until recently, 
anyone writing with instruments has had a similar musical background 
and training. Now, you can do all of this without a musical 
background and so the kind of music that's being made is going to be 

The people making the music are coming not out of Beethoven and 
Brahms, but out of pop music. Their bias to history is completely 
different. We tend to think that avant-garde music always grows out 
of fine art music. The irony is that today, at the electronica 
festivals, they are producing soundscapes and noise, the kind of raw 
stuff that you would associate with the Futurists from the beginning 
of the last century. But they've come out of the pop music and techno 
world. The worlds are separating now because of these different 
contexts of music making.

Glass: Admittedly, new developments in digital technology have been 
largely positive for the composition and recording of new music. What 
impact can and will this have on how composers and performers make a 

Subotnick: I don't see a big problem. The big opera companies and 
orchestras are not going to disappear from the concert world, and the 
potential to make a living isn't going to diminish much. There is 
going to be a lot more opportunity from the composer's standpoint as 
they move into technology. I've had people study with me who ended up 
making music for cartoons for Nickelodeon. They've gotten big jobs to 
make a living, and they're still making their music. That's new to 
us. Philip had to drive a taxi cab. Now there are a lot of 
opportunities for the composers who have adequate technological 
chops. The instrumental composers are always going to be in the same 
boat. My advice to young composers is to stay connected to 
technology. Not necessarily for their own music, but for the chance 
of broadening the possibility of making a living, and therefore being 
able to stay in the music world. Without knowing the technology 
that's going to be hard to do.

Moran: When I was a very young man, I was writing works for both 
synthetic instruments, and also orchestra. After investigating the 
costs and logistics of even getting an orchestra to rehearse a piece, 
I quickly turned to the idea of creating the orchestra passages with 
digital samplers - it was the only thing I could afford. I think if I 
hadn't gone that route, I would still be struggling to even hear 
those first pieces.

Miller: I see a lot of talented people waiting to get noticed, and I 
see a lot of talented people putting their material on the web for 
free. Both categories of people aren't making that much money. They 
do it for the love of the music. I like that position, but I hate 
being broke... I think that there will be a lot more opportunity to 
work in an environment where basically everything you do is like 
shareware. That's already happening, but if you're on the cusp of 
this, it can be difficult to make a living doing it. At the end of 
the day, people have to be creative about how they look for gigs that 
pay: composing music for cell phone ring tones, for movie 
soundtracks, for TV commercials, to Web site jingles... you name it. 
The world definitely needs a lot more new music. People just have to 
figure out how to make it all work for them in a way that lets them 
make money. That's where I think new composers need to explore - 
especially to make money from music that might not be commercial in 
the "normal" sense. A lot of times I go on line and I see that my 
music is available everywhere as MP3 files and I'm not making any 
money off of that. As soon as you put music out there, someone can 
copy it and it's gone, so the main thing is to figure out 
alternatives. I try to diffuse what I do into a lot of different 
contexts and platforms. That makes for a lot of multi-tasking, but it 
certainly beats being broke.

If you would like to respond to this roundtable, please write to

 andante Corp. June 2002. All rights reserved.

Related Articles:
A Composer's Century
Inaugural Carte Blanche editor Philip Glass introduces the music of 
his time, and the writing he has commissioned to bring it into focus.
Forging the New: A Century of Performance Art
In the 1960s and '70s, Philip Glass was part of a community of 
artists who challenged conventional ideas of genre and form. RoseLee 
Goldberg looks back on Glass' early world, and on the history of 
experimentalism to which these artists were heir.
Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past?
Too many new operas today simply rehash the genre's former glories. 
Greg Sandow argues for a different idea of opera - one that favors 
the vibrant, the unpredictable and the truly modern.
On Sewing Machines and Self-Expression:
Mapping the Future in Sound
The founder of New York's MATA festival charts the staggering 
diversity of new music being written by the next generation of 
contemporary composers.
Related Pieces:
Philip Glass: A lecture by Philip Glass

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe 
they are free...."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid

Office Mailing Address:

Subliminal Kid Inc.
101 W. 23rd St. #2463
New York, NY 10011

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