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Computer Technology and Musical Expression


Understanding how something works is an understanding of how a typical, but unreal instance of how that thing works. It does not allow a detailed understanding of the precise details of a real example of the thing itself, including in this its physical aspects, including its location.


Computer technology has permeated all forms of music: from commerce, education and reproduction to synthesis, electroacoustics, algorithmic composition and beyond. Recently considerable advances have been made in many aspects of audio manipulation, but amongst all the ferment, has 'art music' fully come to terms with the true qualities and limitations of music technology?

In popular musics and the mass media, technology is considered an acceptably expressive tool: single line synthesiser melodies, film and television scores implemented on synthesised instruments. 'Art music's' electroacoustic rendering requires many months of fastidious construction of custom compositions and processes that are highly expressive, but perhaps at the price of a certain spontaneity, a delight in momentary expression, an impulsive divergence from strict obedience to the byte. Algorithms, whether manipulating timbre or pitch have attempted to alleviate this, but is any technology able to take the place of, or even truly emulate the fundamental and physical relationship between human being and analogue, mechanical musical instrument?

This paper lays the foundations of a comprehensive critique of the current position of technology in the musical expression of 'art music', and suggests that even after a hundred years of development we have yet to understand the true nature of music technology.

Richard Hoadley

Paradise Street Electroacoustic Music Studios, APU, Cambridge
3rd October 2000