My Credo

By Peter Drescher
June 19, 2010 | Comments: 7

"I Promise Never To Program A Computer To Play Something I Can't"

I like saying this line, in part because it never fails to get a reaction from my audio brethren ... sometimes agreeable, sometimes uncomprehending, but more often than not, vehemently argumentative! Nevertheless, the Credo is my way of reconciling my music performance background with my computer-generated interactive audio career ...

Exposition

I started out as a piano player, for the same reason most guys become musicians ... I discovered that playing an instrument could get you laid! I went to Berklee College of Music in the 70's (with fellow interactive audio veteran Larry The O), fully intending to be the Next Big Thing in jazz improvisation, then moved to California to find fame and fortune.

For awhile, I played Top 40 medleys in hotel lounge bands that rivaled Murph and the Magic Tones for cheesiness (I even had a big fuzzy Peavey amp for my Fender Rhodes). But those kind of gigs let me to practice afternoons, while studying theory and composition with William Allaudin Mathieu. He was an intriguing character, with an interesting musical background (original pianist for Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, former arranger for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, etc), and a charismatic teacher. Study topics ranged from classical performance to jazz improvisation to original composition to figured bass to his own brand of music theory based on just intonation systems.

During one lesson, he gave me a composition assignment: "write a piano piece where the left hand is as melodic as the right". I went home and worked on the tune, scribbling and erasing and scribbling some more in my staff paper notebook. Next lesson, I sat down to play it for him, and stumbled through, making mistakes, backing up, trying again, finally mumbling sheepishly, "well, I didn't have a chance to practice it" ...

And he tore me a new asshole for that!

"What are you talking about!? You don't practice what you write, you write what you play! First you play it, then you write it down, get it?! How else do you know if you wanted this note or that one, or this rhythm or something else, if you didn't play it first!? Do you think BEETHOVEN wrote things he couldn't play!?!? You didn't compose that piece, you just made dots and lines in your notebook ... if you didn't play it, you didn't write it!!!"

And you know what? He was right ...

Development

In the 80's, I grew weary of being poor all the time, so I took some classes in computer programming, and found work writing business applications in COBOL on IBM mainframe and Wang minicomputers. This became my "day job", while I played with jazz, rock, and salsa bands at night. Ironically (or maybe not), once I stopped relying on music to pay the rent, and only played what I wanted to ... I became a much better player! But when the Wang market dried up (supplanted by "personal computers", in particular, a cool new one called "Macintosh"), instead of programming the new machines ... I ran away and joined the circus.

People frequently laugh when I say that, thinking I'm making a joke, but no! I consider the season I spent living out of my truck with my dog, traveling with the Pickle Family Circus, playing with and writing for the jazz band, to be some of the happiest days of my life. After that, I got a gig touring the States and Europe with bluesman Joe Louis Walker and the Bosstalkers, playing little clubs and big festivals, and opening for Huey Lewis and the News on the "Hard At Play" tour. But life as a road dog musician is tough, so I managed to jumpstart a new career as content provider for a software synthesizer, later known as the Beatnik Audio Engine.

For the next 15 years, I wrote music for games, After Dark screen savers, CD-ROM kiosks, multimedia development software, Web-based entertainment, telecommunication products, magazine articles, video presentations, cinematics, and mobile devices. Using my ProTools project studio Twittering Machine, sequencing software, Neumann microphones, and an array of musical instruments, both analog and digital, I composed orchestral, jazz, latin, blues, rock, arabic, indian, electronica ... basically, any style of music I could convince anybody to pay me to write.

But I had a dilemma: If I can use synthesizers and samples and fancy recording equipment to produce virtually any sound possible ... then how do I know which sounds are the "right" ones? How do I produce "real" music that isn't just scribbling in a digital notebook (aka "typing it in")? And the answer was obvious: I played the parts first.

My other dilemma was this: How do I know if what I'm writing is any good? Before my days as a digital composer, I'd always gotten excellent, immediate, and completely honest, feedback on my performance ... it was called "applause". When I'd play an original song, or take a solo (start slowly, build excitement, Big Finish!), if the crowd went wild, I knew I'd done good. If they just sat there, I knew that one needed work.

But when putting together a game soundtrack or ringtone, it's just me and the machines, guessing, hoping, praying the client likes it (not to mention the customers!) ... I get no reaction from other musicians, and no audience response whatsoever. I just send the music to the client, or post it on the website, or ship it with a phone, and I have NO idea how people react to it when they hear it for the first time (or second time, or hundredth). Even emailed praise or criticism from users cannot be considered accurate feedback, particularly given the number of lunatics out there with Internet connections!

So here's what I do: I try to remember what worked on stage, and why, and do that. I'd like to think that all those years dragging gear outa bars at 2:30 in the morning after playing all night was worth more than the fifty bucks cash burning a hole in my pocket. I'd like to think the experience of playing for audiences, and feeding off their energy, and channeling it into the performance, gives me some sort of insight into what people respond to, and how to shape a piece of music to get the desired reaction, and when to use clichés (and more importantly, when not to!)

At least, I'd like to think so, because this is the approach I take for most composition assignments, as a way of resolving the dichotomy between my performance background and my digital music career. I play the piece first, then begin recording, because otherwise I feel like I'm simply programming a machine to make noise. I'd like to think this method helps me produce music that can approach the emotional power of a live performance.

Recapitulation

SO when I say "I Promise Never To Program A Computer To Play Something I Can't", it rarely fails to provoke some sort of reaction, usually falling into one of the following categories:

  • "Huh?" -- Granted, it is something of an esoteric concept, particularly for non-musicians ...

  • "What about quantization!?" -- When producing music, I use all of the tools in my audio arsenal to create the sound I want, and quantization is quite useful. In particular, I'll apply it judiciously to percussion parts, to ensure that the beat is consistent ... but I usually create the original MIDI percussion tracks by banging on my HandSonic.

    However, I'm neither a purist nor infallible, and I'll record parts at half-tempo, edit mistakes, type in flourishes, add variations, cut and paste, use effects, mix in samples, whatever it takes to get the feel right. But as the intent is (usually) to synthesize a recording that sounds like somebody playing, I use that "quantize" button with care, depending on the genre. Hammond B3 blues riffs are supposed to sound kinda sloppy, so I'll leave them as performed, warts and all; whereas heavy Techno beats seem designed to sound as if no human ever played them, and so quantizing the hell outa them produces the desired machine-generated groove.

  • "Well, I write stuff I can't play all the time!" -- To paraphrase the late, great, Hunter S. Thompson, "I wouldn't want to recommend hard drugs, alcohol, or insanity, to anyone ... but it works for me!" I'm not saying you should work any differently than you do now, just that my Credo is how I deal with digital music production ...

    But sometimes I get this response from (well respected, highly paid and quite successful) digital composers, who are skilled at sequencing / sampling, assembling massive interactive scores, and giving the producer what he wants ... but who've never made a living playing on stage. The response tends to be delivered either sheepishly (as if they wished they could play their own compositions), or defiantly (making me think "uh, sorry, did I hit a nerve?")

  • "When you write for orchestra, you don't play every instrument!" -- True, but you better know what every instrument can play; otherwise, your synthesized version will sound artificial (unless, of course, that's what you're going for). One of my favorite Duke Ellington quotes is "You've got to write for your players", and that's true whether you're composing for Johnny Hodges or the Vienna Symphonic Library.

    Besides, writing for symphonic ensemble is more about orchestration, i.e. how the sounds produced by the various instruments blend or clash or support the harmony, than it is about performance. Can I play every part of a 100-piece orchestra simultaneously? Of course not. Can I play a piano reduction of the score? Obviously, since that's how I wrote the thing in the first place. Can I play any individual instrument's part in the score? Duh, that's how I recorded them! (obvious caveat: riffs that are not suited to keyboard input, like trombone glissandos or timpani rolls, take some finessing with the data and the samples afterwards).

  • "I play guitar" -- and I'm glad you do, because I don't, and when I need some guitar (which, like sax and violin, is notoriously difficult to synthesize using a keyboard), I'll give you a call, so I can record you. Of course, these days, sample libraries and ProTools plug-ins make creating excellent sounding guitar parts much easier to piece together or record from scratch. Millions of rock guitarists prove the utility of six strings as a songwriting tool every day. There are even some pretty good guitar-to-MIDI converters available, though I suspect most guitar players doing game scores or video tracks tend to type in the MIDI, or assemble parts from samples and drum loops. Like I said before, whatever works for you is the way to go ...

  • "Yes! Right! Good on you, mate!" -- Granted, this response is the exception, rather than the rule, and almost exclusively comes from former road dog musicians ...
Coda

One time, many years ago, I was tasked with putting together a MIDI rendition of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 -- Pronto! Quick! We need it yesterday! Well, that's a rather difficult piece of pianistic legerdemain, and while I would have liked to have taken the time to learn it, and record a performance, I just got the score and typed in it. I remember feeling guilty at the time, like I was breaking my own rule, until I realized that, hey! I wasn't writing the piece, and I'm pretty sure Liszt played it before he wrote it down!

So in the end, like Bill Murray confronted with a possessed Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, my Credo is maybe "more of a guideline than a rule" :)

   - pdx


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7 Comments

Peter, Peter...
I've had the good fortune and pleasure to know you and your talent and insight for years. [every reader should know how Peter can sit in front of 88 black and whites and make them sing!] So it always stuns me when you say something so stupendously out to lunch such as the above :). I believe the reactions you get on it have something to do with the implication (practically stated directly) by your former teacher that if you can't play you're not *really* a composer. Nice Try. Thank you for trying. Let me know when you become a *real* one.

Rather than launch a point by point rebuttal, I'll merely try to answer, quite simply, the question posed by your teacher (which I presume from context, was supposed to be rhetorical).

Q: (stated above, by your teacher)
"How else do you know if you wanted this note or that one, or this rhythm or something else, if you didn't play it first!?"
A:
Because I'm a musician, and can hear in my head precisely what it will sound like without having to make my fingers move first.

As a fellow "played live plenty on the road" musician who can't play keys worth a damn, I certainly feel as if I've composed music I haven't ever played myself, and still once in a while get emails from someone who's done their own take on some random game song I wrote 15 years ago. Feedback's not quite as quick as audience applause, but still nice nonetheless..

Perhaps I should've emphasized Allaudin's question as "how do *YOU* know …", meaning me, at the time, a 22 year old punk, full of piss and vinegar, understanding far less about musical composition that I thought I did. Plus the assignment was to write a piano piece for a piano lesson -- being unable to play it kinda missed the point of the exercise.

Nonetheless, I took that lesson to heart, and remember it clearly 30 years later, because it underscored the fact that ALL of my composer heros (Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, etc) were, without exception, stupendously great performers. Guys like Chopin and Liszt were the rockstars of their day, performing piano pieces of transcendental difficulty nightly … and the idea that they put ink to paper first, then practiced what they wrote, is absurd. In fact, before Edison, the difference between keyboard performance and composition was much less distinct, since the only way to hear any piano piece was for someone to play it (usually the composer), live and in person.

Personally, it wasn't until years later, when I went to the University of Chicago to study with my teacher's teacher Easely Blackwood, that I even began to differentiate between "composing at the keyboard" and "composing at a desk". As a piano player, I still prefer the former (though remind me to tell you my "brush with greatness" story about the time Gracie Slick came across me scribbling in my music notebook at a bookstore in Sausalito).

Also note: this blog is about my personal approach to programming computers to play music, not a treatise on "how to be a 'real' composer". Ironically, I know you understand what I'm talking about, because we've had this conversation before -- as a bass player, your synthesized bass lines will probably sound more authentic than mine, since yours will be informed by years of performance experience (whereas mine are more likely to sound like what they are: left handed piano riffs).

Of course, expressing my Credo can also be an enjoyable word game over lunch, to see what kind of reaction it provokes … thanks for playing ;-)

This reminds me of a favorite comment I read on the Analog Industries blog: "I'd like to propose a player's equivalent of the Nyquist Theorem: You may play only half as fast as you think you're capable of playing."

On the other hand, some of the most powerful art comes from trying too hard and failing. There's even a whole genre of music derived from forcing machines to play beyond their capabilities. Failure and surprise are interesting.

In the end, a simpler credo would be Make Every Note Count. As a listener, I don't care so much how you got there, just that it sounds pleasing. And that's where the human composer/curator fits in.

I might rephrase that players-Nyquist as "You should never program a computer to play more than twice as fast as you can" ...

When I was at Berklee, I remember thinking that jazz was all about playing lots of notes as fast as possible, after discovering Charlie Parker ... until I listened to Miles Davis, who could play the coolest solo ever, using only 6 notes -- but they were the right 6 notes!

Peter, dear friend, I read your credo as a report on your journey to find your true voice as a composer. It's a scary journey fraught with uncertainty and doubt and false gods and sidetracks and it's not for the feint of heart. Arriving in the end at a voice that's based in physical instruments is a strong and valid destination, and that's the path you've chosen, and that's grand, and just I love your music and your playing.

But every composer is condemned in this life to go through their own journey -- sometimes more than once in a lifetime, if you can imagine such a fate -- and some may find their true voices in different places than you did, perhaps very different places, yet still create great stuff.

The world of music and taste and creation is very very broad indeed. There is (to cop a phrase) more than one way to do it...

Poetically said! And of course, what you say is true ... note that I am NOT advocating that "YOU should never program a computer to play something you can't", only that my Credo is how *I* approach the problem of the infinite possibilities presented by machine-generated sound ...

author's addendum:

I was writing some music for an interactive audio project recently, and realized that I forgot to mention an important aspect of "writing what you play" -- serendipity! Usually, when composing at the piano, I'll play a passage of the work-in-progress over and over, until I'm sure I know how it goes, then practice it again and again, until I can play it perfectly three times in a row, no mistakes ... that's when I'll declare it ready to be written down (or recorded).

During that repetitive process, I'll frequently try variations, different voicings, dischordant harmonies, arbitrary melodies, searching for the "right" notes ... but mostly, I'll just hit "wrong" notes, and go back to what I was working on. This helps to confirm that, yes, these are the tones I'm looking for -- but sometimes the wrong notes will sound better than the right ones! This can add spice to what might otherwise have been the same old cliche, and will sometimes take the piece in a entirely new direction.

That kind of happy accident cannot be planned for, but it's also not the kind of thing you'd hear in your head, if you were writing at a desk (or programming a computer, although I suppose you could mess up your MIDI input in a similarly serendipitous manner). And that's one of the reasons I always play what I write, because sometimes I'll inadvertently play something that sounds better than what I was writing ...

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