Joel Gressel, computer, piano
One often reads about the dichotomy between composing at the piano and composing in one’s head. In the latter case, the composer is assumed to be able to hear the melodic interactions between various musical lines, the harmonies between them, the special timbres of the instruments, and the long-term connections between prominent pitches, all in his mind. In the former case the composer, to the extent he can perform everything that is going on in a passage, hears an actual rendition of the music, but may still misjudge the effect of timbre and be reluctant to venture much beyond what he is technically able to play. For me, the computer functions as a radical extension of composing at the piano. It is like having all the players who are to perform a piece constantly on hand to rehearse, with infinite patience, every musical idea from inception, through revisions, to final form. Making a piece of music becomes similar to an artist’s painting a large canvas—working and reworking material that is palpably present. I have been drawn towards what seems to me to be idiomatic to the computer—a rhythmic language which only the computer can perform, and structured sounds that I have never imagined before.
My working procedure is as follows: A customized computer orchestra consisting of various “instruments” that produce particular ranges of timbres is assembled for each piece. A separate score entry program compiles lists of instructions for these instruments. The orchestra program reads this score and typically spends 30 minutes to an hour creating a sound file one to two minutes in duration. The resulting file corresponds to a compositional sketch, a performance rehearsal, or a portion of the final version of the piece.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the computation of digital sound by computer algorithms was an advanced mode of making music. In recent years, however, with the advent of computer-controlled synthesizers, vast libraries of pre-recorded sounds to sample, and real-time systems that can be used in live performance, this type of synthesis has become rather old-fashioned. I continue to pursue the old way (albeit on a succession of faster and faster personal computers), because I remain fascinated by the task of creating music from scratch. It is the same sort of quasi-religious stance as my continuing to adhere to a rigorous, if heretical, twelve-tone pitch system and to the geometric rhythmic language first explored as my Ph.D. thesis. Since the computer’s sounds are never as “good” as those made by real instruments, there is an ongoing challenge to do better, if only to provide alternatives to the ubiquitous electronic sounds heard daily in commercial music. As computers get more and more powerful, it is possible to make progress in this area, but a paradox remains—that the technology is simultaneously new and antiquated, as if I were working on a futuristic line of sackbuts and viols. -Joel Gressel
This title, originally issued on the CRI label, is now available as a burn-on-demand CD (CD-R) or download in MP3/320, FLAC or WAV formats. CD-Rs come in a protective sleeve; no print booklet or jewel case included. Liner notes are accessible via the link above.