Documenting Musical Works That Incorporate Electronic Technology

in Blog

6 December 2006

Some thoughts about how and why to document the technological aspect of musical works.

What is documentation?

Documentation is the collection of materials which together inform musicians and technologies how a work should be performed authentically. (This is problematic because audience and performer attitudes to a particular work always vary with time according to numerous stimuli including cultural events.)

Traditional musical notation was used as a means of communicating a sequence of instructions to be interpreted by the then contemporary performers through the customs of the historical period and geographical location. It provides only one part of the documentation, the other part being a text document, aural report or some other kind of description of the performance practice of the day. Today recordings provide a faithful reproduction of contemporary performance practice. For musical instrument notation, therefore, we have a fairly watertight system of documentation.

An ever-lasting documentation for a piece of music which uses what has come to be called ‘live electronics’ is difficult for two reasons:

  1. We do not have a standardised system of notation for electronic music; and
  2. The sound characteristics of the underlying technologies will always be noticeable.

Since technology is currently in a state of rapid evolution, it is difficult to define what electronic music actually is at any one time and designing a standard form of notation is therefore almost impossible since the requirements for the system will dramatically change from one work to the next.

In addition, composers often come to accept the drawbacks of a piece of software or hardware, which so often come to define the sound characteristics of a particular tool. These characteristics will obviously change as the work is ported to other platforms. The practice of authentic reproduction of music technology systems therefore becomes an exercise in emulating the inconsistencies of another piece of technology.

We need to ask whether authenticity is the aurally faithful reproduction of a sound, or the accurate reproduction of an interactive system. After all, music is a performing art and no two performances can be the same anyhow.

Why is documentation necessary?

Technology which enables the first performance of a work becomes obsolete very soon after when another technology replaces it. Documentation is a requirement because it provides a platform-independent means of notating a work.

Once musicians agree about what an authentic performance is, documentation will provide the textual descriptions, audio/video recordings, digital signal processing flow charts and whatever else may be of assistance to the future performers and technicians. Let us imagine a scenario where an ever-lasting documentation may not be necessary.

The most popular works and those of merit will receive regular performances. The electronics (assuming that they are documented for the current platform) will be updated for each performance as technological platforms evolve. An everlasting documentation would in this case not be necessary since the electronics for these pieces will evolve with the underlying technology.

Having to consciously document a composition is a relatively new concept which mirrors the evolution of composition in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Composers no longer accepted the instruments that were available to them. The Avante-Guarde sought new ways of expanding their compositional vocabulary. Technology provided a vehicle for new concepts that could not previously be realised. (At several times it may be argued that composition became the vehicle which drove forward technological development in acoustics and audio synthesis.) Never before had composers made their own bespoke instruments. Documentation then is integral to reproducing a work since it tells us how to reconstruct these instruments with current technologies.

Concluding thoughts

How a piece will be documented will be determined by the nature of the work in question. As in traditional notation, we still need the descriptive sequence of instructions (whether for the keyboardist to trigger samples, or the software to carry out an event), and an indication of how those instructions should be carried out.

So two layers of documentation are necessary if a work is to be re-produceable on any future system. Since a standardised form of notation is unlikely to be developed in the foreseeable future, the composer should at least document the notation. In other words, it is necessary to document the documentation.

The anomalies of the original technological platform (such as latency, slightly inaccurate pitch detection etc) should also be documented in as many ways as possible if the work is to be reproduced faithfully by a newer technology in the future.

The development of music technology as used in live performance may be contrasted to the development of the modern piano. At each stage of the forte-piano’s development, composers and performers often criticised its weaknesses and never considered documenting its flaws to enable an authentic reproduction in the future. Composers did not look so far ahead (this is of course due to many reasons including the role of the composer in society). Conversely in the development of music technology today, many musicians seem to put a lot of time and effort into documenting every detail, desirable or not, effectively placing the work into a deep freeze.

To avoid taking this point further and discussing the function of a contemporary musical work, one suggestion will conclude this short stream of thoughts: Perhaps we should be less worried about the future. We can always write new pieces when older ones become unperformable.

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