January 2000

a challenge from Michael Oliva

photo: Tas Kyprianou

“We have also Sound-Houses, where we practise and demonstrate all Sounds and their generation: We have Harmony which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers Instruments of Music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet...
...we have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey Sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”

This is part of Francis Bacon’s vision of a Utopian New Atlantis published in 1627, and three and a half centuries later, it’s all true. In fact you can do it (and much more besides) from the comfort of your own perfectly ordinary computer. Over the last twenty years or so, digital sound has come of age and (thanks to the demands of the commercial sector) become very affordable. In particular, samplers offer the composer an amazing sonic blank canvas (to quote Trevor Wishart in his excellent book Audible Design “Any sound whatsoever may be the starting material for a musical composition, and the ways in which this sound may be transformed are limited only by the imagination of the composer”), and are now cheap and easy to use - if you can word-process a letter, you’re more than qualified, and if you can’t, I promise that given a bit of persistence you’ll work out how to make some ‘dainty and sweet’ noises of your own within a week.

There’s no question that samplers have become hugely popular very quickly, and have rapidly spawned whole new genres of music, but I worry that at the moment these marvellous new instruments are mostly used in studios, in music primarily designed to exist as recordings, which may only later develop a live form. We should be integrating electronics into our music making (just as the wider world of percussion instruments was in the first half of this century) not letting it head off on its own tangent.

For me nothing beats the excitement and expressive potential of music in live performance and the vastly expanded sound palette offered by the new technology can, with a bit of planning, be an organic part of that, as works like Jonathan Harvey’s From Silence and Steve Reich’s City Life demonstrate. Yet given how many of them are out there, I’m not seeing samplers and computers on the concert stage anywhere near often enough, using keyboard (or other types of controller) players as part of an ensemble. So that’s the challenge - get writing. I won’t deny that setting it up is a bit more effort than taking a violin out of its case, but the possibilities...

Michael Oliva teaches composition with electronics at the Royal College of Music.

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Previous articles:

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
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April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!

December 1998
Forty years of madness?

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
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July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
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May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester