10 November 2011

Music Machines

Far be it from me, a performer on the most impersonal of musical instruments, to criticise music-making machines.  Virtually all musical instruments – with the obvious exception of the human voice – are, to a certain extent, machines, and the greater their state of evolution, the more distanced the performer has come from the sound created.  Even the harp, an instrument in which the player would seem to be intimately involved in the sound creation, relies on a complex system of pedals, levers and pulleys to provide the full range of chromatic notes.  When I went with a bunch of students from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory to attend a rehearsal by the outstanding Belgian period instrument ensemble, Il Gardellino, the students were astonished by the direct connection the players had with the sound their instruments were making.  And when the members of Il Gardellino so generously allowed some of the woodwind players among the students actually to play their instruments, the students were bowled over – to the extent that a couple of them immediately ordered new instruments from one of the players (who makes them).  The feedback I received more often than any other from the students was how “in touch” one felt when playing these “primitive” instruments.

Unlike these early flutes and oboes, my instrument, the organ, was never designed even intended to be a musical instrument.  It was designed as a clever sound-effects machine, and played that role right up until the time someone decided to harness its effects into musical sounds.  An animated debate during the 1960s and 70s when organists felt that tracker action got them more closely involved with the sound the instrument created than the more complex pneumatic or electric action was valid, but rather missed the point; tracker or electric, the player was still at the mercy of a great range of mechanised procedures to transfer the touch of the fingers into musical sounds.  As I tell all my organ students, only a supreme musician can really make music on an organ; and since so few achieve it, there has grown up an understandable antipathy between organists and executants on other, less mechanised, musical instruments.
Keyboard instruments in particular are machines which can only produce musical sounds when a musician plays them.  A cat walking up a piano makes a noise, but hardly a musical one despite the legend of Scarlatti’s cat suggesting a fugue subject by its antics on a keyboard.  Like so many stories about Domenico Scarlatti that is totally false.  (Why is it that poor old Scarlatti has been so misrepresented in musical history?  I was appalled when a respected musical education organisation recently published a comment that he had never written any operas – he wrote well over a dozen – and by the refusal of modern text books to acknowledge that he wrote a darn sight more music than his 555 keyboard Sonatas.  And, there again, why does everyone still insist on proclaiming that he wrote these for the harpsichord when the fact that Maria Barbara, his Iberian patroness, possessed an early piano is so well documented?  It’s difficult to maintain that these are harpsichord Sonatas when the evidence of pianistic and, in several cases, organistic – there were organs a-plenty in the Spanish and Portuguese courts – idioms are so blatant in the writing?)

When I transferred my examining allegiance from ABRSM to Trinity in 2000, the most difficult change I experienced was the presence in the latter’s syllabus of exams for Electronic Keyboard.  The ABRSM steadfastly refuses to accept the musical validity of this instrument and, bringing my ABRSM prejudices with me when I moved to Trinity, I was aghast when, on my first tour to India, I was confronted with several hundred of these.  (India, it has to be said, is the Land of the Electronic Keyboard, so far as music examinations go.) A dozen or so into the first day and I was sold.  What these students were doing was giving genuine musical performances using the instrument to express their variable but unquestionably valid technical and musical skills.
I have had some worries about performances where the players seem to rely too heavily on the automated effects of the Electronic Keyboard (or EK as we Trinity examiners so affectionately know it).  Adjudicating at a music festival in the English midlands some years ago I was confronted by the unwholesome spectacle of a dozen teenage boys dressed in alarmingly tight-fitting white tail suits with matching top hats standing behind as many EKs.  In perfect synchronisation they all raised their index fingers in a gesture which, in those days, was not considered as offensive as it is now, before bringing them down in perfect ensemble to a button on their instruments.  Glorious and foot-tapping music burst forth, and as it did the boys shimmied luxuriantly to their left until such time as they reached the next EK along the line, whereupon the finger raised and, in perfect synchronicity, descended on another button, setting in motion another layer of glorious music and a further shimmy to the left.  And so it continued round all 12 instruments.  What the dénouement was I cannot say; by that stage, doing my adjudicating duty, my head was down and I was busy writing.  From the adoring screeches of the teenage girls in the audience I wondered whether they might not have ripped off the tails to expose gold lamé underwear (or less – it seemed to have been heading that way), but that was not my concern.  When, at the end of the competition, I awarded first prize to a bevy of indifferent violinists for whom intonation was an unknown concept, the audience was aghast.  Surely when the Boys in White had created such sumptuous sounds while the Vile Violinists had scratched their way through a dreadful version of Clair de Lune I needed my head examined?  My reasoning was that while the Boys in White might have done their thing with good music in the background, they did not create that good music.  The Vile Violinists might have made a din which would have been music to the ears of Scarlatti’s cat, but at least they were doing it themselves.

I had a similar problem in the examination room the other day when a series of EK candidates at an extremely early grade came in and played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Usually a harmless ditty in which a finger on the right hand picks out the notes to a simple pattern of pre-set chords directed by the left, on this occasion the teacher had got them to spice it up by setting the auto-play in motion.  I was treated to a lavish and hugely entertaining wash of jazzy sounds which was only marred by the unrhythmic picking out of seemingly random notes which represented the Twinkle, Twinkle theme.  I can’t help thinking how roundly the music examination system will be castigated by adoring grannies and mammies when the results come through.  “How”, the angry matrons will ask each other, “can the examiner be so deaf?  It sounds really lovely to us”.  It sounded really lovely to me, too, but it’s the machine that’s making the lovely sound, not the person.  And while it may be that months of careful programming by the students went into the setting up of the auto-play intro, with three of them all using exactly the same thing, I suspect it was already in the machines when they bought them.
Ironically, it was during one of these EK examinations that I had to stop the proceedings because of extraneous noise.  Not an examiner who demands total silence from outside the exam room – I feel that candidates only get more nervous when they feel that the outside world has come to a temporary halt and is holding its collective breath while straining its ears to hear what’s going on inside the exam room – on this occasion a delivery truck had pulled up in the yard directly outside the exam room window and the driver had left the radio blaring.  Asking my steward to go out and ask them to turn it down, she reported back that while they had happily obliged, they were puzzled.  They had not the foggiest idea what a music exam was, nor why anyone would want to do one.  With music so easily accessible at the flick of a switch, what possible skills were involved which would warrant an examiner assessing them?

Such is the fate of musical talent if we let the machines take over.

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