Technology II: Digital sound

Despite the negative ruminations of the previous article, there are certainly many positive developments opening new options for us. The ability to encode sound into digital information has meant that more people can make more recordings, with a fraction of the capital & expertise necessary in the past. Digital sound can be stored and transported more easily, and of course the latter will be epochal with the arrival of the Internet. Before returning to that topic, it is important to discuss the changes digital sound has wrought with respect to both the "sound" of music and the nature of music. The latter topic, in particular, is of crucial significance but too seldom discussed. It brings me back squarely to the first article here, a somewhat enigmatic manifesto, delivered rapid fire, and couched in a terrible pun. With three years of context, the three major topics of that manifesto and the way in which the digital revolution will affect them, can be discussed in a less sphinxlike fashion. In particular, the focus in my writing has been on preserving the human factor in music and on making space for its interpretation, while musing on the consequences surrounding the "authenticity" idea, both as arising from interpretive space and as impinging on it.

For most people today, and perhaps ironically, especially among classical music enthusiasts, music is nearly synonymous with recordings. If we adopt the democratic paradigm, then classical music is nearly synonymous with recordings. This fact is linked directly to the huge variety of sub-traditions active today, as recordings allow their audiences to be more dispersed. I hesitate to suggest any causality either way, since if anything both developments are outgrowths of the increased pace of change in all areas as well as of the resulting demand for novelty. The existence of music as a static document creates the idea of a definitive performance, something which would have been mostly ephemeral in the past. It is a popular cliché among collectors and one I consider dangerous. Given the control freak tendencies of many composers, and the reciprocal demand from their audiences to have one easy choice for everything, why should composers continue to write a score for interpretation rather than simply creating the piece directly into sound? In terms of the nature of music as an art, this is the biggest question of our day, one which could entirely eliminate music's distinction as a continually recreated art (in the manifesto, "the written score implies its own continuous extension"). Although the written score is a static document, it is not an end in itself without a performance. If the CD is the score, what then does it imply?

More to the point, why worry at all? For me, music-making is a human activity, and it is human interaction & human sounds which make music transcendent. Having a "definitive" document-in-sound straight from the composer seems only to work against widespread amateur music-making, but even more to the point, it may work against using human performers at all. Human performers must learn a piece, and the simple fact is that upon first recording, they may not have learned it very well. If that becomes the document which defines the piece, we obviously have a problem. In fact, the problem is very real in medieval music interpretation, as first attempts to perform really can define a piece for listeners (including those modestly endowed critics eager to write a review), and such attempts do not even have the composers' official seal. When it comes to notating a piece for computer performance, we already have a standard of sorts in MIDI. To someone content with bar line notation (and other features), it defines music nicely, details of timbre aside. However, it is not designed to handle earlier notation or various postmodern ideas or aspects of other world traditions. When it comes to notation, as mentioned frequently, there is always a danger of thinking that the notation is equivalent to the musical conception or indeed of such indoctrination that one's musical conception can never stray outside of one's received notation. The juxtaposition of so many kinds of notation today does not argue only against MIDI or its ilk as a single computer notation standard, but against straightforward written communication between composer & performer. There is a fundamental simplicity to communicating in sound, and with full digital sound, one does not need the concision (or constraint) of MIDI at all. In another generation, anything written may seem obfuscated.

Leaving aside the composer-as-performer, and maybe even without doing so, the fundamental issue behind the idea of "sonic score" is: To what level of detail is a composition actually specified, and what is merely an artifact of our new digital notation? Clearly an ability to say that every possible audible detail is a part of the score is something of a departure for classical music. One can attempt arguments such as, "If Beethoven had the ability to specify every detail, he would have done so," as one likes, but getting the "if" right is no easy thing. How many Beethoven performances do we have today where everything is exactly right, every sophisticated nuance, every timbre, every emotional twitch? Is a composer to make due with less than that and call it a definitive rendition, i.e. a sonic score? One thing has been true: One of the main markers of great music has been its ability to sustain a variety of interpretations. The HIP trends already signify something of an end to this idea, at least for the zealot, but the hegemony of sonic scores might well make it impossible from the very moment of publication. Especially given the nearly inevitable dilemma of choosing between inhuman or improvable results, the possibilities are troubling. We are certain to have composers who present their work thusly, however, but we are also certain to have composers who state that not every sonic detail in such a document is integral to their conception. In short, the composer-published performance can be for illustration purposes only, and some of them must be if performers are to retain any creative role in contemporary music. Art music has already incorporated improvisation, in apparent anticipation of this over-specification specter. The classical public seems very sold on the idea of one true interpretation right now, but even popular music has its "covers," and it is certainly feasible to be hearing one interpretation while thinking of many other possibilities. Given our age, I have become more accustomed to this than I am to imagining straight from the score. So it is a question of attitude.

Now what of the actual sound produced by a CD? Despite much hype, when they appeared, CDs sounded worse than LPs. The engineers had less experience producing masters for them, and the consumer equipment to play them was relatively low-grade. Today, although many people seem content with what we call "digital artifacts," it is possible to use digital equipment which sounds as good as the best LP setup to anyone but the hardened LPer. One might even suggest that the CD hype of superior sound is becoming true. Still, a CD does not have sound as good as actually being there. The most important reason is that the ear can accommodate a greater dynamic range. Unfortunately, recent studies suggest that as many as half of Americans suffer significant hearing damage, and the world only gets louder. So there may be no real demand for quality better than the CD, and in fact there may not be much demand for quality as good as the CD. The forms of digital compression coming into vogue on the Internet involve loss of information, yet are hailed by the mainstream as indistinguishable from CDs. I do not consider this a good sign for the future of sonic nuance. What we have now is basically "radio" over the Internet, sometimes with quality even marginal by that reference. It is, however, possible to compress digital data with no loss of information, so there is some hope. Regardless, the depth of digital information actually preserved (and perhaps details of an analog conversion algorithm) is a negotiable parameter for sonic scores.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb