The Engineer Composer

Sent to the Wave List, January 30, 2005

There is much to be said for the engineer composer. There is something almost existential in the mathematical and musical nature of the world. I have an astronomer friend. Some of the cosmological problems he confronts seem almost more musical than scientific. When mathematics returns to music, it is almost as if it returns to its mother's arms.

But there is also something to be said for a sensible division of labor. For whatever reason, the Ircam model for collaboration between resident composers, engineers, and performers seems to have proven the most effective for producing a large body of high quality music. And as these relationships have evolved over time, the results seem to continue improving.

On the other hand, some institutions are less focused on bridging the gap between composer and engineer. They feel this might not always be necessary. Understandably, the institution's engineers create music themselves. The instruments they develop sometimes even become proprietary (at least for a time,) something like a trademark that makes their artistic statements unique. 

A special authenticity has been assigned to these engineer composers. They are often thought to be the deepest practitioners in the field, those who first reveal the special musical beauties of the mathematical world. They become the Brahman's of computer music. If composers want to be the most hip and cutting edge, they must become engineers, even if it means vastly reducing the time they can spend on actual music-making and the development of cultural sophistication. The inevitable result is that many composers become so caught up in technological issues that their musical lives become dissipated.

Naturally, questions arise around this concept of the engineer composer. Does a formal musical education make a difference? Do all those years studying music history, its literature and its theories increase one's aesthetic comprehension? Does it help to have studied how the human mind has organized abstract sound for the last four or five hundred years and how it has contributed deeply to the development of our human identity? Does rigorous performance training contribute to cognitive structures that are important, and perhaps even essential, to musical meaning? Can these things be learned over at the school of engineering?

Part of this problem centers around the way the computer is disembodying music. In his keynote address for the ICMC 2000 in Berlin, Joel Chadabe, said, "We want a holistic instrument that stresses the intellect and isn't dependant on the body. We can play the sounds of a cityscape. Why do you need a body for that?" Even though he is not against the body, he spoke of it as an unnecessary hindrance to music-making, a limitation to freedoms of the intellect. This philosophy is fairly central to the engineer composer, since their bodies often do not have much musical training anyway.

Some feel this approach might be based on false assumptions about what humans are. In the last two decades, cognitive psychologists such as George Lakoff have argued that there is no Cartesian dualistic person with a mind separate and independent of the body. Reason is not disembodied. Its very structure comes from the details of our embodiment. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty also view the body as inseparable from reason, the primal basis that shapes everything we can mean, think, know, and communicate. 

We may find that there is no quick path to putting the body in music, and that without the long, existential process of making an instrument and the body-mind one, we weaken cognitive structures that are essential to musical meaning. Technical and aesthetic strategies for solving this problem of disembodiment will likely formulate a large part of the future of computer music. 

The engineer composer's disembodiment of music is also a very gendered issue, since it has long been observed that women composers, and other types of women creators such a performance artists, are much more inclined to highlight their bodies on stage than men. In short, women seem to be more at home with the body as a performative medium. The reasons are probably cultural. The body and nature are coded as feminine, while the mind and technology are categorized as male. (I have some interesting references for this coding if anyone needs them.)

There are also practical questions raised by the elitist ethos of the engineer composer. When engineers create instruments for use only by themselves or their small group, they can become almost impossible for musicians to use. An ethos of geekish elitism can make the instruments unnecessarily opaque and poorly documented. Sometimes this obscurity *very consciously* reinforces an often male oriented, insider atmosphere. The elitism becomes an end in itself, a somewhat artificial construct for the creation and preservation of academic and artistic status. And as the President of Harvard inadvertently illustrated in his recent speech, women are subjected to this generalized ethos of masculinist scientific elistism from the day they are born.

This is why, in part, why Elizabeth was in turmoil over rejecting a technologically oriented job at UNT in favor of one with more pay and administrative power. We code the more technological position as masculine and somehow superior, which troubles Elizabeth, even though she knows being the technicians' boss is the higher paying job, and one where she will ultimately have more influence.

Artistic expression is almost always culturally isomorphic with the larger values of society. The exclusive ethos of some kinds of computer music (which is a continuation of the elitist technological orientation of serialism) might be inevitable, since elitism is an essential part of capitalism and its cultural expression. (And no, I am not a Marxist.) As is well-known, in the United States, the top one percent of the population holds more wealth than the lower 90 percent. The financial patrons of the arts are the very wealthy. It is essentially unavoidable that an elitist system of patronage will create a concept of art that reinforces, justifies, and rationalizes an ethos of elitism. 

This form of cultural plutocracy also deeply affects America's educational class system, and it is exactly in the elite universities where computer music is most strongly based. As the linguist Noam Chomsky has noted, one of the principal functions of elite universities is socialization in elitism itself. There is a conditioning that causes composers in a system of educational elitism to create an obscure and elitist music. These social factors seem to create an artificially large gap between high and low art that is culturally isomorphic with the extreme dichotomies in our society's distribution of wealth and power.

In some respects, this is nothing new. Knowledge has always been power. And knowledge kept exclusive through obscurantism preserves and demonstrates power. The Catholic Church provides a well-known illustration. For centuries, it was able to preserve control over people by using a dead language, Latin, that only an elite could read. The all-male theocracy alone spoke "God's" language and thus became "His" exclusive arbiters on earth. In their own way, engineer composers, as the high priests of music technology, follow a similar philosophy and social orientation toward an elite, academic language. And like the Church, the issue is also gendered, because elitist obscurantism and patriarchy almost always walk hand in hand.

Since the conferences and journals for elite computer music focus far more on the technological concerns of the "Brahmans," cultural issues such as the possible elitism of the engineer composer remain largely unexamined. The elitism is reinforced and perpetuated with an almost clueless naivete. 

The results of this elitism could ultimately be as negative for academic computer music as it was for the post-Webern serialists. Serialism dominated four generations of the US academic elite. (For example, consider this cycle of teachers and their students: Roger Sessions, Milton Babbit, Charles Wourinen, and finally Wourinen's students.) This aesthetic was so insiderish, so exclusively linked and controlled by an academic elite, that it finally died in the incestual hotbed of its own closed circuit applause. Very little of the music stood the test of time. Nevertheless, especially among the Northeastern establishment, it was virtually impossible to write in any other style and still be accepted. In many respects, the results were catastrophic for at least two generations of those composers and their musical legacy. In the end, even a Downtowner without a college education, like John Zorn, assumed their musical legacy more or less by default, largely because he reached beyond elitism to a larger public, a greater intellectual diversity, and wider aesthetic spectrum. 

So one wonders why groups such as the ICMA still stress being "cutting edge" without carefully examining what that might mean. Does the most cutting edge music necessarily use the most technologically advanced instruments? That might only be the narrowed perspective of the engineers who develop those instruments. It might also be aligned with capitalism's inherent need to constantly develop new technologies to fuel economic growth, particularly in commercial music. Unfortunately, economic and cultural interests are not always aligned. 

In any case, this focus on the latest technology creates music that becomes rather predictable due to its aesthetic and technical confines. A homogeneity evolves because so many people end up using relatively similar synthesis programs that are categorized as acceptable or "cutting edge," especially MAX and SuperCollider. These programs are very flexible, but composing with patches can create aesthetic and epistemological biases that incline music toward certain kinds of sounds and effects. Washes of sonic material made by stuttering loops of granulated sound shaped by glissing modulated timbre become somewhat ubiquitous. The concerts at conferences become like everyone running the same slalom with the same slightly lumbering motor boat. And now, visual elements are being added along the same lines, all vaguely reminiscent of the same 3D and video sythnesis programs. Just as with serialism, the aesthetic stomping grounds of orthodoxy become apparent.

As always, there might also be aspects of this elitism that are gendered. It has been suggested that men are... er ...quite often preoccupied with their equipment. The conferences become almost like a group of youngish men getting together to drag race their souped-up jalopies, all using more or less the same makes and models that have been declared the most hip and the "latest thing." Who can squeal their wheels the loudest, which produces the most deeply rumbling flatulent Harley sound, who can lay the best patch, and who has the most chrome? Pop that hood open, baby, and let's take a look inside!

Well, anyway, maybe you get the idea. Not that it will change anything. When it comes to men, a preoccupation with their "equipment" will probably always reign, even if women might have some -very- good ideas about what could be done with it. Or not done with it. 

Thoughts for nothing.

William Osborne 

P.S. If it doesn't already exist, it might be useful for someone to prepare research specifically studying women engineers who develop audio technology used for computer music. Who are they?