The Computerized Musician

By Kathy Yakal

COMPUTE!, January, 1986


Sophisticated synthesizers, sequencers, digital sound samplers, and other computerized instruments of the electronic age are becoming more widely adopted by professional musicians than ever before. Thanks to personal computers, many of these devices are coming within reach of amateurs as well. To learn more about how these developments are affecting today's music and musicians, COMPUTE! talked to two innovative composers/performers who have spent years exploring the potential of electronic instruments.

(... Interview with Wendy Carlos ...)

Though probably best known for his offbeat music in the 1960s and 1970s with the rock group The Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa has produced a body of work that includes 39 albums, more than 200 vocal songs, 91 instrumentals, 32 compositions for orchestras and choral groups, four ballets, two feature films, and two video specials. His most recent album, The Perfect Stranger, is a compilation of computer music and performances of his chamber works. Skeptical of traditional music education, Zappa learned his art by reading in public libraries, listening to records, and performing in different settings.

C!: You used to write music that was impossible for human musicians to play. Can those pieces be played now by electronic means?

ZAPPA: Absolutely.

C!: How do you use synthesizers in your work?

ZAPPA: I use synthesizers for three things: for generating sounds that never existed before, for performing music which human beings would have difficulty playing, and to get rid of some of the drudgery of composition. In composition, you can copy phrases, which to do manually is real drudgerous. When you're doing repeats and things, a lot of that stuff on a computer is just push-button, like using a word processor.

C!: What equipment do you use?

ZAPPA: I use a Synclavier polyphonic sampling system, which costs about a quarter of a million dollars. Other things I'd like to use but haven't been able to afford are the 4X, which was developed in France at Ircam, and the new Fairlight system. But what I'm waiting for is a MIDI interface that will allow the Synclavier to talk to several other sophisticated devices. Buying all these new devices individually would be like starting all over again, like learning a new language, unless there was a MIDI interface that was reliable in letting them talk to each other.

C!: Is there much distinction musically these days between instrument sounds and synthesizers?

ZAPPA: My Synclavier uses samplings, digital recordings of real sounds, and allows you to manipulate them, so there is no difference between the real instrument and the digital recording. As for how easily people can tell the difference, it depends on the composition. The stuff that I'm doing on an album that's not yet released, you wouldn't hear real instruments playing but would recognize the sounds of real instruments that humans would have real difficulty doing. Little things like really complex rhythmic patterns that are being played by whole ensembles of instruments in harmony.

C!: So how will this technology affect future training of musicians? Will it mean that less emphasis can be placed on theory?

ZAPPA: A lot of people have already skipped over music theory because all they're interested in doing is having a recording career, and all you need for a recording career is a good hairdo and some diagonal zippers. Music theory has nothing to do with that.

If you want to do real composition, my advice to anybody is to invent your own theory. Musical theory is an averaged-out series of regulations derived from common practices of an earlier era. When you get your theory books, they tell you "Don't do this" and "Don't do that" because in such and such a period they didn't do this and didn't do that, and that was the norm. You also have to remember that those norms were done to appease the tastes of the people who were paying the bill. That means the king, the church, or the dictator. There's no reason to assume that they had any better musical taste than you. So my advice is go out and make it up yourself, and don't worry about getting academically certified by an institution. No matter how pedigreed your technical approach to music, if you don't like the way it sounds and if somebody else doesn't like the way it sounds, then why did you bother to do it? You can be totally correct as per the book, but you could wind up writing really boring music.

C!: But hasn't a lot of that music been successful?

ZAPPA: There is a lot of really boring music that has been successful, but it wasn't generated by the means I just described. I can't think of anybody who did it all by the book and wound up either being a good composer or even a famous musician.

The other thing is that if a person wants to be a composer in America, I think he really ought to have his head examined before he goes into it, because nobody really wants to hear what you're writing. How many brand-new compositions have you ever heard? Compositions that were written in the last year or two, modern, up-to-date compositions by living composers, people who want to write music in America? There are people writing music, but it just doesn't get played.

The music business has nothing to do with being a composer. Composers are out of the music business. If you're talking about composition, it lives in academia and dies in academia. If you're talking about the music business, you're talking about the hair and the zippers.

C!: Then you think people in music schools are doing good composition work?

ZAPPA: I have no way of knowing who's doing good stuff because, like I said, it doesn't get played. Most of the people who are getting grants, I really don't enjoy. The reason they're getting grants is because they're fashionable. Grants attract grants. People kind of nominate each other and keep it in the family. The same people get the awards and the same kind of drivel comes out. Then when the drivel comes out, the faculty, the composers-in-residence at the college, say to themselves, "Well, look, this guy got a grant and he wrote drivel, so I must teach drivel, and maybe if I teach drivel, then I will get a grant, and of course my students need to learn drivel so they can get grants."

I've always had an argument with music schools, especially the ones which de-emphasize live performance. There are some conservatories which insist that the people who attend don't play gigs, which I think is foolish. It doesn't really train the musician or composer to make a living in the real world. They'd probably do better by these people to tell them to go out and get an Herbalife franchise or something like that.

C!: What about the argument that traditional musicians, people like conductors and instrumentalists and engineers, will become obsolete because of the new electronic technology?

ZAPPA: There's a lot to be said for doing away with some of those people anyway. First of all, I don't think recording engineers are ever going to be out of work. As far as conductors go, I don't have any genuine statistics on this, but I have the sense that most conductors, especially famous conductors, really aren't doing anybody any favors, because of the economics of the industry.

Let's look at the reality. When a person comes to a concert, he's coming to see a star conductor standing in front of an anonymous blob of musicians. What do those musicians play? Not any brand-new, interesting, exciting music. No. They can't. Because it costs too much money to rehearse a brand-new piece of music. They play everything they already know from when they went to conservatory. It's like a jukebox. A conductor basically has the function of a guy who waves his arms in front of a jukebox. Everybody in the orchestra already knows how to play Beethoven, and he knows how to conduct Beethoven. He walks in and does one rehearsal on the day he arrives. They know where it goes fast, where it goes slow, and it's a scam. The people who go to the concert are not there to hear music, they're there to see the guy waving his arms and swoon over it.

On the other hand, there are a handful of committed conductors who have an interest in bringing new music to life, but they're stymied by the fact that the costs of doing it are astronomical. That's one of the reasons why there is very little new orchestral music written – because you can't afford to rehearse it. Most composers working in an academic setting are working on small ensemble pieces of generally such an ugly nature that who can tell whether or not anyone played a wrong note? It's also easier to rehearse those pieces, and it costs less because there are fewer musicians.

The other factor is most of it doesn't get recorded anyway. The audience comes to a concert of new music. They get to hear the piece played one time, and if the performance is no good, they're not doing the composer any favors, either. The audience listens to it and has no idea what the composer wrote. They just get to hear the net result of all the choreography and politics that goes into those concerts.

So if the real concern is music being played accurately and being true to the composer's wishes, the computer is the thing that's going to allow that to happen. At that point, the composer gets to take the rap. If the computer plays with one hundred percent accuracy what he has in mind – and for certain types of music that is an absolute possibility – then the audience gets more for their money. They get to hear the thing the way the composer imagined it.

With certain other types of music that require a lot of styling and nuance, it is difficult to put the same kind of element into the digital storage of the composition. If there are a lot of rubatos in it or a lot of dynamics, some of the computer music systems don't handle that kind of information too well. But if you're just talking about getting rhythms played correctly or the right pitches always in tune, stuff like that, it can be done.

C!: So do you think we'll see less emphasis placed on the performer in the next few years, on the people with the zippers and the hair?

ZAPPA: I think that the people with the zippers and the hair will be supplanted by people with zippers going in another direction and a different hairdo. That's pretty much the name of the game. No major event in American music culture – I'm talking financially – has ever occurred without the cooperation and assistance of the clothing industry. They're married. Every major cycle in rock and roll has been accompanied by clothing styles. Every time someone sells a record, someone else is selling a t-shirt or a pair of pants. It makes the world go 'round.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net