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Acoustic Purists Are Still at War with Electronic Music

Opera with samples, so what?
Image: screengrab of Logic Pro

I play the violin. It's really fucking hard and if I'm even in a less-than-optimal mood, the thing just knows, releasing sounds as if it's being smeared strings-first against a brick wall. So, I get it. I get how programming MIDI instruments to replicate an orchestra might seem like an affront to people that spend their entire waking lives perfecting a physical and psychological relationship to a hollow piece of wood or curve of brass.

But it's never been that easy, of course. Electronics have represented from the very beginning a new mode of expression, not to replace something in music, but to expand music itself. In the very next window from this post, for example, I'm programming a holy digital mess in Max/MSP that's going to make my violin sound like it's being burped back from the very guts of machine-hell.

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A war of sorts is currently underway, between acoustic purists and a musician in Connecticut, Charles M. Goldstein. Goldstein is planning a preformance of Wagner's "Ring" cycle using all digital instrumentation, and he's doing it in such a way that reposes the electronic music question: what if the goal is expressly not to expand music, but to recreate actual musicians/instruments as closely as possible, to the point of positioning speakers in an orchestra pit as if they were human players? It's the purist's nightmare, the sum of all fears, but Goldstein argues that it's the only way he can do the cycle given his budgetary constraints.

“Small companies just can’t really afford to hire 80, 90, 100 musicians in order to put on their productions, which is why so many small companies either use a piano, or a couple of pianos,” Goldstein told The New York Times. “I had the idea that small local companies, instead of using two pianos, could use some sort of digital sound to put on small productions.” The peformance would still feature human vocalists, naturally, but would-be talent has been subject to threats and accusations of "traitor" from professional musicians across the country.

It all seems rather harsh given the alternative isn't hiring a hundred musicians for the performance, but rather no performance at all. One missive, according to the Times, read, “participation with this monstrous concept of a digital orchestra is being communicated to every major opera orchestra musician in this country.” Farewell, sympathy.

The interesting question is a bit deeper still. It's about that piano, the pre-digital substitute for bargain operas. Doesn't that represent a kind of technological replacement? It was barely a century ago that the piano was the stand-in for recorded music. A fan didn't go buy a record of a composition being played, they bought a sheet of music and played it themselves (or went to listen to someone else play it). The sheet music of Tin Pan Alley was the .mp3 of the very early 20th century, so what's the actual difference?

It's really the root of the whole electronic music non-question: the fundamental distinction is invalid. My violin at some point in history was a techno-marvel. Now it's archaic. So it goes in technology, everywhere.