Writings about Music

The Sounds of Music

Once in a while I come across the view that acoustic instrument timbres must be played by musicians performing those actual instruments, and that computer-electronic instruments must limit themselves to abstract electronic sounds divorced from the realm of acoustic instrument timbres, but it simply isn’t true that instruments played by musicians are automatically superior to the same or similar timbres originating from samples. What matters is both the musical context and intent of the composer, including form, expression, melody, rhythm, texture, articulation, dynamics, and, yes, sound quality too. 

Some composers prefer to use acoustic timbres without the limitations, associations, and characteristics of traditional performers, finding these insufficient for their aesthetic vision. When a composer uses samples of acoustic timbres while creating a performance played by a computer instrument, he or she becomes the performer and composer at once. Objecting to the concept of computer and electronic instruments using timbres derived from acoustic instruments is related to how long ago people objected to the first musical instruments as being inferior to the human voice. Even today, there are Indian musicians who deny the legitimacy of the santoor because of its technical and expressive characteristics, which they view as ruinous limitations, but the whole point of music is to take advantage of individual instrumental assets, which provides for musical diversity while simultaneously developing new techniques and modes of expression.

Some years ago, I was astonished while attending a chamber music concert featuring the first chair clarinetist of a major symphony orchestra because I had recently used a clarinet timbre in a composition titled Puriya Dhanashri, and found myself realizing that the manner in which this person played was unacceptable for my own music. There were issues of intonation and overall tension I found objectionable for the standard repertoire being played as well.

Sometimes we hear Indian classical musicians and jazz musicians with excellent instrumental sounds, but that is where interest ends, for they lack the ability to improvise in substantive fashion, endlessly repeating clichés in the manner of etudes practiced at home. In other words, sound itself is only a beginning, and part of a larger continuum. 

The same principle holds true for Western classical musicians who perform composed music without any real spontaneity. Conversely, it was thrilling to hear Israeli pianist, Inon Barnatan, perform a solo recital this past summer in Aspen. His rhythmic sense and expression, especially in the Fugue from the Barber Piano Sonata, and in the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, were searingly vivid and in the moment, clearly informed by an awareness of American jazz, and perhaps various forms of rock and pop too; a cumulative milieu allowing for fresh interpretations of past music promising meaningful transformations. At the same time, Inon’s pianistic sound and expression would not have worked in my most recent pieces featuring piano timbres, which essentially inhabit a different world of sound and expression - the sound and expression that worked so beautifully in the Barber and the Brahms would by overly rich and melodramatic for my purposes.

Its preferable to avoid nightmarishly reactionary rules and strictures about what timbres composers who use computer and electronic instruments must limit themselves to, keeping in mind the distinction between someone who is obviously attempting to imitate, for example, the playing of a traditional string quartet, which will likely be problematic, with someone who is using acoustic instrument timbres as a beginning point for new forms of composition and performance. 

Computer and electronic instruments will never replace the priceless profundities of traditional live musicians who will continue to inspire us in inimitable fashion till the end of time, but they do have the potential of creating new musical forms and expressions that enrich our musical lives with unique manifestations.

More of my thoughts related to this subject may be found here and here.

- Michael Robinson, October 2017, Los Angeles


© 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).