Thoughts on Art Music Composition in the Digital Realm

by Daniel Blinkhorn.  Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

In his book Any Sound You Can Imagine, Making Music/Consuming Technology [i], author Paul Thèbergediscusses Andre Piatier’s concept of ‘transectorial innovation’, articulating it as:  

The phenomenon in which innovations developed to meet the needs of a specific industrial sector come to play an important role in the creation of new innovations and commodities in formerly unrelated industries.

Music composition is certainly one such medium to enthusiastically adopt the concept of transectorial innovation. Very early in the development of computers, a handful of composers quickly realised the creative potential of the new technology, and began experimenting within the medium, pioneering new concepts and approaches to their craft, ultimately augmenting the musical landscape in ways previously unimagined, let alone unheard.

For over half a century now computers and their progeny of countless digital designs are being used extensively for the creation of art music compositions, perennially continually defining and re-defining the way we produce, communicate and perceive the art form.

The virtues of the digital medium for composers are manifest in countless ways, and now impact on almost every facet of the way in which we work, from the ability to type-set, publish, publicise, distribute and archive scores and new musical works from a localised, as well as global perspective, to the creation of highly complex, technologically mediated ‘meta art’, such as that of American composer and technological virtuoso Tod Machover’s robotic opera Death and the Powers’. The ability to harness the highly expressive, creative potency brought about by the digital medium has resulted in innovation upon innovation within art music composition. Now more than ever it effortlessly straddles the previously incongruous sectors, where a burgeoning dialogue between art music composition and science is fueling manifold innovations well into the new millennium.

Given the magnitude of possibilities afforded to composers of art music within the digital realm, it’s an incredibly enriching, empowering and inspired time to be a creative artist. We can easily share music, collaborate on musical projects, discuss musical concepts, and generally diffuse our ideas, thoughts and intentions with anyone around the world, more incredibly still, virtually in real-time.

Interestingly however, along with the many advantages at our collective disposal, we’re certainly far from immune to a variety of transectorial challenges when embracing the medium. Rather than focus on the possible shortcomings of composing within the realm, I want to briefly articulate two such challenges I have observed when working across composition and digital innovation.

The first is in relation to the way in which the tools we use in digital media can inform the compositional process itself. In a letter to his composer friend Paul Gast, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote ‘Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts’. Whilst it is more than 130 years since Nietzsche penned this observation, the statement impressed me the moment I read it, resonating largely because I had been searching for some way of articulating a very similar view. Throughout my time teaching both composition and music technology, students would often lament that ‘I really wanted to create it a particular way, however the medium (i.e. software/ platform/ interface) wouldn’t allow it’. Whilst at times it was apparent that they may not have been aware of the many options at their disposal (and needed to more fully examine their class notes on the subject!), often they were indeed at the mercy of manufacturing design limitations that tempered, even altered their own creative visions in a way other that what they had intended.

Rather than being isolated to particular areas, I found the challenges to be quite far reaching, impacting on everything from scoring and notational concerns via desktop typesetting and publishing software (where the scores created became essentially a penumbra of the original conception by the composer), to more technologically complex issues encountered when working with generative, transformative and interactive digital content platforms for the creation of new compositions. Creatively, this can of course be an entirely desirable outcome when working within the medium and is often considered an essential part of the compositional aesthetic for a given work. However I’ve found it very useful when working with tools in the digital domain to be acutely aware that the medium itself can, and often does, inform and even dictate the compositional process - or as Nietzsche put it ‘…tools are also working on our thoughts’.

Further, and in the tradition of innovation, there are an increasing variety of ways in which composers can directly engage with, and therefore have far more control over the types of outcomes desired. This can be achieved through using both proprietary and open source software archetypes (visual and more traditional programming languages etc) and by modifying microprocessors/chips etc or building actual equipment that utilises digital technologies for use in composers’ works. (Indeed there is a burgeoning global culture dedicated to the advancement of the digital and technological medium in this regard.)

Conversely, a uniquely new issue arises directly around this newfound form of freedom. Specifically, many composers working within the digital realm desire mastery of such age-old challenges as creating their own personal and distinctive compositional language, whilst at the same time immersing themselves in the acquisition of all manner of specialised knowledge within fields somewhat (at least traditionally) peripheral to their own (i.e. computer science, programming/ software engineering, informatics, inter alia).

Whilst it’s undeniably gratifying and stimulating working across different sectors in the quest to put new works together, I am always mindful of the trite, new-age platitude: ‘Where you put your thought expands’. It would be somewhat naïve to think that when spending exhaustive amounts of time on one aspect of the creative process, time isn’t taken from exploring another, perhaps equally important aspect. To try and remedy this, I often urge students to negotiate a balance across the creative process whereby the actual compositional process itself (i.e. the act of composing) receives as much time, effort and care as any other aspect within the creative continuum.

(Interestingly, it’s been my observation that whilst a given audience/listener (i.e. non-musicians) may not be aware of the complexity and scope of the intentions of the composer, they are often more than capable of discerning disparities between under-developed compositional skills and technically innovative experimentation).

From my own experience as a composer, it’s increasingly important that, whilst working in a digitally mediated environment to compose many of my new works, I rarely want the listener to be manifestly aware of the technology behind the compositions. There are of course exceptions where I may choose to present new material in a highly technologically mediated way, where the listener is acutely aware of the digital architecture employed within the piece. However, in this type of instance I often choose to almost parody the use of the medium, and so it functions as an important foundational aesthetic for the work, rather than as a generative technological process in and of itself. To illustrate, I’ve included a YouTube link at the bottom of this article to an inter-media work that employs this very aesthetic. (The accompanying synopsis/ program note accompanying the video briefly discusses the works orientation).

As an addendum, working creatively at the nexus of digital media and composition has always held a deep fascination for me. The special nature of the medium, its expressive possibilities and multitudinous dimensions are something I find captivating, and highly engaging. As a composer who works with digital innovation, and an educator helping others to navigate this most exotic of sonic terrains, one of the most stimulating aspects of the digital realm for me is the chance for critical discourse with fellow practitioners on the entire spectrum of compositional possibilities, irrespective of where we see our music situated throughout the digital continuum.

Here is video of a Blinkhorn work. Daniel says: Select the HD 1080p under the ‘quality’ setting in YouTube -  it looks like a small sprocket or gear near the play button.

Daniel Blinkhorn is a composer and digital media artist. His works are increasingly performed/ screened and exhibited at international festivals, events and loci, and have received over 20 international citations. He has worked in a variety of creative, academic, research and teaching contexts and he holds a Doctor of Creative Arts.


[i] Wesleyan University Press, 2007