Monday, March 29, 2010

How Sibelius has changed my composing life

Opening Sibelius music notation software has become like sitting down with the closest and most intimate of friends. I take real joy simply in the time spent together as well as what the relationship generously offers and produces.

As a young adolescent, Sibelius - this time I mean the monumental Finnish composer - also felt like a deep and close confidant as I immersed myself in my recordings of his symphonies. Part of the pleasure in merely opening this splendid software is hearing a short excerpt from one of those symphonies beautifully rendered as it starts itself up (let's face it, software sounds are more normally of the boink, klonk, zing variety!).

I was bitten with the bug to write music in early 1971 at the age of 12. I would spend many of my school holidays writing down my compositions - for orchestra, chamber music and piano music. In those days I used black ink. There was no corrector fluid available and so to make a correction you'd paste a cutout piece of manuscript over the changed bar or scrape the offending notes away with one of Dad's razor blades and then deal with the irritation of newly-applied ink that feathered out chaotically on the lacerated microsurface of the paper.

One day in early 1975 at the age of 16 having put in weeks of solid work writing down an extended and quite intricate work for flute and piano, I went out with my parents and brother and left the score on my desk which lived under a window which was unfortunately on this occasion left open. While we were gone it rained heavily; the wind blew hard and the water fell from the heavens in a diagonal trajectory. Upon my return I went to my desk and found my score in a puddle and my careful notation blotted into what looked like the results of a Rorschach test. Certainly the psychological impact of this inky mess needed to be speedily evaluated. Like the score, I too was a mess and as much as I was impelled by a unshakeable desire to preserve my musical thoughts for posterity I also could not imagine doing all that work again. Thanks to the sympathetic but tough love of my mother - who said either do what is necessary no matter how hard or otherwise live with a stillborn piece - I knuckled down and did indeed do it all again. I'm sure that is why I now have multiple and automated backup routines, with my work living on two hard drives in my house and simultaneously on two separate servers in a "cloud" from which rain no longer spitefully falls.

In my twenties as well as continuing to write my concert pieces I began to churn out music for film and television, initially doing orchestrations for film composer Simon Walker who was something of a child prodigy in that particular field. He is a few years younger than me and when I orchestrated his music for a major miniseries screened nationally on Australian TV and he stood up in front of an orchestra of seasoned professionals in the recording studio to conduct it, he was only 18. Later I went on to write my own scores for film and TV.

At this point I was producing reams of finished manuscript a month and taking a lead from Simon's example I adopted some upgraded notational tools. In the first place his design of a sketch pad to have on the piano stand while composing I use to this day (I still do my initial creative work at the piano). Each page has 3 systems of 4 staves, each divided into four bars of generous width allowing you to sketch out reasonably complex music in what is called short score (for example, in orchestral music the string parts may be summarised on the bottom two staves with the wind and brass parts in composite on the top two).

Simon also convinced me to give up using ink and write my scores in pencil so that they could be corrected with an eraser. He shared the benefit of his research and told me that a B pencil was the best choice: dark enough for prominent readability and good strong photocopies yet light enough to be rubbed out with fairly clean results. To this day as well as his sketch pad format I always have a big box of B pencils for sketching. Plus a large eraser as well as a narrow extendable one for targeting only the required notes for excision.

When it came to writing the actual finished scores on big sheets in pencil, I hated ruling up all the very many long barlines (with breaks for each subgroup of instruments) and occasionally managed to find ways to farm this job out to a sympathetic young girl who would later marry me. I began to purchase pre-ruled and labelled manuscript papers that could be bought in various instrumental groupings from Barlow Music in the Sydney suburb of Concord.

The final accoutrement I adopted from Simon was a large architects' drafting stand that stood on my desk and sloped 45 degrees so that I wouldn't have to crouch down over a flat surface to write and thus suffer neck and shoulder pain from the 16-hour days I would often do.

Armed with all these tools and templates I pumped out score after score for the screen and concert hall. I became more and more speedy and industrious and was proud of the large callus that developed on my right hand second finger from the rubbing of my B pencil. It seemed like a battle wound.

These working methods served me until quite recently. While I loved my computers it just didn't seem right to involve these machines in producing my scores. I clung to my rituals: they seemed honourable and organic. I did have the luxury of copyists producing the instrumental parts from the score. Initially they worked by hand and later with music notation software. When they started using the software it seemed like their tool, not mine. It made sense for copyists to use the programs, but for me to work with my traditional tools. Or that's what I thought then.

Now my life has changed: I am a dedicated and passionate user of Sibelius. Like many people, I'd never bought any high end serious software before. Maybe a few shareware utilities and a basic accounting program. Some desktop publishing gear. So as well as the sheer power of the program I was not prepared for the level of nurturing support that followed my purchase of Sibelius 5.

Sibelius telephone technical support was a joy after the scantily-informed IT call centre support I'd experienced to date. Here were people who knew the program intimately and also deeply understood what I was trying to achieve. I was nearly beside myself in my early novice days when technical support offered to "show" me what they meant. Next thing I was clicking on a window that popped open on my screen and my computer was taken over by the consultant as my mouse pointer ran around the screen and did things at his bidding while the friendly voice on the telephone explained them.

I have become a regular user of the online Sibelius technical forum where power users will patiently answer any question - often within minutes of posting - and the redoubtable UK-based senior product manager and Sibelius guru Daniel Spreadbury offers his wisdom on almost every thread as well as replying personal emails promptly and in detail. It really is a fantastic community - indeed something of a family - and I feel like I am in safe and nurturing hands in such a way that I have never experienced with any other commercial operation and its fellow customers. I now am sometimes myself helping other users on the forum as I was (and am) helped.

So how has Sibelius changed my composing life and what do I love about it? Let me count just some of the ways:

1. My scores can be constantly revised, a process which I avoided previously because of its sheer impracticality.
2. The program works with me to automatically produce beautiful scores that look engraved. This is approaching the sublime now with the implementation of Magnetic Layout whereby objects automatically move around to place themselves optimally and avoid collisions. It's a miracle to witness. Almost all the time the program does what I want automatically as I feed it the notes, rhythms, articulations, dynamics and other information that make up a score. Very occasionally I show it what I want the result to be through simple and intuitive commands.
3. The instrumental parts are embedded in the score and update as the score updates or is revised, but can have their specific layout tweaked without affecting the score.
4. Sibelius playback is now of sufficient quality to render very acceptable synthetic demos of my pieces that I can send to players and colleagues in advance of the actual performance. These "demos" also give me an enhanced sense of satisfaction and achievement in my work upon its completion and while I wait for the real thing. The sounds that come with Sibelius are already excellent but there is a whole world of "virtual instruments" out there should one wish to go further. Playback has begun to assist my writing process: I used to play my pieces through at the piano to judge their overall shape and how they flowed, but with difficult music not written for the piano the playing itself was challenging and thus commandeered part of the mind toward the actual rendition rather than it being wholly free for critical judgement. Now I can hit Play and step back like an artist viewing a large work on a wall to see what it might need.
5. Though I've only done it once so far, I know that on occasion when I am sketching at the piano I can leave a particular strand of my music till later and compose it directly into the computer if I wish. Even phrase by phrase with instant playback all the while.
6. As well as the demos I can quickly produce PDFs of my scores to share. Musicians can print out their parts at home.
7. Sibelius has inspired me to buy a 27" monitor to have serious screen acreage for my scores. Now I want a 30" screen that swivels from landscape to portrait for orchestral scores that need to be much longer than they are wide.
8. I don't need copyists routinely any more. Some of them did great work - and some of them were careless and didn't do fine proofing. Now I am responsible for what the musicians see.

Sibelius listens to suggestions from users and the program is constantly in development such that I cannot wait to see what version 7 will be like. Just moving from version 6.0 to 6.1 offered enhancements that were jaw-dropping in a free point upgrade.

Speaking of suggestions I actually have a dream for the future that commonly available technology will need just a little more time to catch up to. It is prompted by the fact that the callus on my finger is subsiding and the only evidence of my former artisanship are the piles of handwritten scores in the cupboard. I feel sad that I am gradually forgetting the skill I once had in rendering music by hand. Input into Sibelius is easy and there are a number of methods to do so. But handwriting would be the ideal way for me and many others, and would be super fast.

About the only piece of technology that I get passionate about apart from Sibelius is my iPhone. It is just so intuitive to eschew pointing devices, buttons and other ways of communicating with an operating system and simply use contact with the screen itself as we saw foreshadowed some years ago in the movie "Minority Report". The touch screen iPad is about to be launched and Dell has a small touch screen desktop on the market. You can in fact buy a touch screen overlay for any size screen though they are rare and prohibitively expensive for larger size screens.

I am hoping that 5 years from now there will be 30" touch screens for the desktop commonly available that can sit at a 45 degree angle like my old architects' stand. And that with stylus in hand I will write my music once again but directly into Sibelius which will have adopted this as another possible input method and will quantise my music handwriting into the program's own beautiful engraving.

That would be a kind of full circle on a 40-year journey from my rained-on score at my parents' house (I'll still be backing up my scores like crazy regardless of the weather!). More of a helix than a circle really as it would be another dimension entirely of music "handwriting", indeed it would be a kind of direct electronic engraving.

I'm hoping Daniel Spreadbury might be thinking along these lines too.

String sextet, other compostitions and solo jazz program

My Sextet for strings which was composed under the terms of the Albert H. Maggs Composition Award from the University of Melbourne was premiered by the Australia Ensemble in their first subscription concert for 2010 last Saturday night. The team consisted of some of the finest string players in Australia including members of the Goldner String Quartet and principals from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: violins - Dene Olding and Dimity Hall, violas - Irina Morozova and Yvette Goodchild, cellos - Catherine Hewgill and Nathan Waks. The piece was warmly received by the audience. The concert will be broadcast nationally in Australia at 8pm this Wednesday March 31 on ABC Classic FM. It can be heard live on the Internet here (convert that previous date and time from Australia Eastern Summer Time to your time zone)

On Friday April 9 at 9pm on ABC Radio National my composition Chinkon for bass koto will be broadcast in a program called Rhythm Divine featuring Australian virtuoso koto player Satsuki Odamura. Hear it on the Web here at that time AEST.

Finally on the premiere front, my guitar quartet Autumnal Dances will be premiered at Llewellyn Hall, Canberra on Sunday April 11 in a concert beginning at 3pm that will also be broadcast live on ABC Classic FM and streamed on the Web here.

In other composition news my Sonatine for flute and piano was recorded for broadcast for ABC Classic FM by flautist Melissa Doecke and myself along with the Dutilleux Sonatine, Poulenc Sonata, some duo improvisations and a Brett Dean solo piece Demons. Will post an update when the program is broadcast.

Not neglecting jazz, a program of jazz solo piano I recorded for digital radio station and Web platform ABC Jazz was recently broadcast and can be streamed here.