The High-End Composer: Humanizing the Technology
Sasha Matson

As a composer of new contemporary classical music, I have been confronted with a variety of musical technologies for some time. However, my real education in the creative potential of a high-end approach to audio recording and reproduction only began a few years ago, when I was put in touch with Joe Harley at Audioquest. The rest is (a very small part of) audio history.

To those composers and musicians who view recordings with disdain or indifference I say: you haven’t lived! Rather than viewing the recording/reproduction process as a disposable ‘snapshot,’ I view it as an oil painting that much time, effort, and money have gone into — an attempt at capturing a bit of perfect time and emotion.

I have heard the music I composed as it was performed live to two-track analog stereo in the studio, I have heard it played back in the control room, I have seen that master tape cut with a razor, sat with Bernie Grundman in his mastering room, and I have played the end result in my living room. In other words I have been immersed in the entire record/reproduction chain — I am my own creator and consumer.

This puts me de-facto in a somewhat unique (albeit onanistic) situation. Most musically erudite listeners are not often in a position to make these kinds of direct A-B-C comparisons, though perhaps some readers have had similar experiences from attending a performance that was recorded — i.e. " I was there when Miles played that and it does/doesn’t sound like that on the album."

These matters relate to reference frames and the act of defining a standard of reality that can easily become elusive and obsessive. There is a desire to recapture the moment, to get back to a past reality that can become a form of nostalgia. Is it the sound of Sgt. Pepper that we remember, or how we felt when we first heard it when we were younger?! Many of the debates I have come to enjoy in audio journalism seem to focus on attempts to re-create an imagined past experience, but this is literally impossible. The recording/reproducer re-performs the past, but we are prisoners of the present — this dialectic seems to be almost painful for some audiophiles.

But what about the future? The act of attempting to create something new under the sun, a new performance or composition, creates a different aesthetic imperative. Intentions cannot be separated from results. If my musical purpose is to take a bad,( probably illegal ), sample of Miles Davis, and stick it on top of a big fat car-woofer thump — well that is my musical purpose. It was effectively achieved, I suppose, if those listeners develop lower intestinal disorders later in life from riding around in their woofed-out Hondas.

And this is where it gets personal, and in the view of some, elitist. My own personal compositional style is very dependent on the difficult performance of acoustic timbres. Let me be more specific: harmonically I favor ‘exposed’ fourths and fifths. These intervals sound very bad if the intonation in performance is not very fine — particularly in relation to other musical parts. This has everything to do with beat-patterns, resonance points, and subjectively beautiful timbral combinations. You catch my drift — because it is difficult in the doing, it is also difficult in the reproduction! The excitement of acoustic goals attained, leads to the emotion of the music — they are inextricably linked for me as a composer and listener. Therefore, unless the recording/reproduction vehicle is capable of re-creating these beautiful timbral combinations, I am coming up empty. I am certainly not alone in composing music that is highly timbre sensitive; these textures can at times seem "deceptively simple," to quote from a recent review of my work, and the sonics become every bit as important as any other musical aspect. In a very real sense, my music finds a home in the High-End.

These considerations are highly specific, related directly to personal musical/compositional preferences. However, lest the reader think I am some anti-electric music fanatic I would like to throw a wider net. To take one specific example — I like the recordings by "The Blue Nile." Totally unlike anything I do — but it is obvious that a similar aesthetic is at work in their case, and a concern with the aesthetic of the timbral end-result. Many of their electro-acoustic sounds are beautiful in their own right, they relate coherently to each other, and consequently reproduce well. This is an example of intention and awareness relating to the audio process at the creative inception, as opposed to attempting to reach some elusive goal of the ‘best’ recording of an orchestra or whatever.

For an idea like "High-End Composer" to mean anything, it must include the artistic aspirations of the entire range of musical activity, and the infinite possibilities of musical realization. Ugliness, (however you define it), is after all part of the eternal yin/yang continuum of human experience, and it can be an aspect of the aesthetic domain — Frank Zappa’s Freak Out recordings were never meant to sound "pretty" or full of "bloom," but anyone who knows Zappa’s music understands that the entire artistic Gestalt differs from, say, a recording of Mozart by the Guarneri Quartet.

Allow me to speculate on the constituent elements of the term High-End Composer. Most germane to this category would have to be an extension of the compositional process — moving outwards from pre-compositional thought and the ‘writing’ of the music, to include the entire subsequent chain: performance, recording, and re-creation. Nothing need be excluded; as Joe Harley and JVC have most tellingly demonstrated recently, enhanced artistic participation in the actual manufacturing process can play a productive role in the ultimate worth of the aesthetic end-result as well. This is, in effect, an organic approach — inclusive in nature, and contrary to the mind-set of specialization and compartmentalization. This is also a two-way street; producers and engineers must be willing to actively involve the composer in the total sonic creation. Ultimately the High-End community will benefit if the creators of music, (whether they are composers in the traditional sense or not), become promulgators and lobbyists on behalf of an audiophile aesthetic.

All artists, no matter how romantic and neurotic, have an ideal audience in mind. Composers want their musical children to get up and walk on their own — but we also don’t want them to get hit by a bus! The kind of committed musical activity I am describing demands much from the composer and everyone else involved, but the potential aesthetic payoff is fantastic! There simply is no going back to some half-baked sonically dead approach, once you have been to that mountain. The desire to have one’s music be worthy of the High-End, and to experience other music in this domain, becomes part of the compositional work itself. If I start a new composition today, I am aurally envisioning an audiophile caliber end-result. This emphasis becomes an integral part of the creative work, and I believe this to be positive. I know the desired realization may take time, and be difficult to achieve, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

However, what is appropriate to one musical situation may not be appropriate to all; ultimately the music itself will dictate the proper sonic approach to recording, rather than a preconceived notion of technique randomly applied. In addition, what may serve a particular artist’s purposes is subject to change over time. Take Bob Dylan for example — I recall reading an interview with him some years back in which he lamented being rushed in and out of the studio, and he vowed to spend more time there. Cut to his recent New York Times interview from which I quote: "I wanted something that goes through the technology and comes out the other end before the technology knows what it’s doing." If I have ever seen a latent audiophile in embryo, Dylan would have to be it. Send this guy some cable, Joe!

I fully acknowledge the obvious: we live in an electro-acoustic world. However, it is a sonically troubled one. I would suggest a minor revision in terms; perhaps we can refer instead to "acousto-electric" music? This change of emphasis more accurately reflects my own musical imperative — to not allow the tail to wag the dog indefinitely. To attempt, against insurmountable odds, to humanize the technology.

What am I talking about? Recently I have taught in a small college that offers a major in "Creative Music Technologies." The trouble is, these music technologies are not creative enough. Time after time I have seen students frustrated by their inability to get past the layers of technical isolation built into both the hard and the soft-wares: samples of bad sound sources frozen and impossible to modify; ugly little LED windows that cover up other windows of meaningless numbers that cannot be altered unless you are a computer engineer; midi-nightmares; etc., ad nauseum. What is causing this dis-connect between human musical desires and their realization in sound?

I find it very revealing that Robert Moog is currently only manufacturing Theremins. We have come full circle; performance on a Theremin, one of the earliest of electronic instruments, has proven to be more musically liberating than so much of what has come after. Why? Because of the tactile human qualities germane to the instrument — a liberation from artificially imposed technical obstacles to expression. Turning a rotary knob, or waving your hands around a Theremin, is inherently a more physical/performance related action than entering numbers from a key-pad. The inexactitude of such performance-based electronics is inherently more musical than the non-spontaneous exactitude enforced upon us by the digital age.1

If I were creating a new acousto-electronic studio in a school setting, from the ground up, I would evaluate the component elements in terms of their overall musical flexibility, acoustic sophistication, and potential for genuine unpredictable creative flow between the acoustic and electronic domains. An acoustic recording space is not expendable, as is often the case in the academic electronic studio. In addition I would insist on the inclusion of a dedicated listening room/space, in which audiophile quality gear, (not any more costly than another synthesizer module), would be available for students. Students need to learn how to listen, and the experience should be qualitatively better than a bad pair of headphones attached to a mediocre CD player in the library.

For too long the human element has been left on the back burner — as one fellow composer remarked to me recently: "Where are the new electronic music masterpieces?" The synergy between acoustic and electronic phenomena needs to be looked at anew in order to revitalize what is fast becoming an ossified and moribund tradition, when in terms of the history of musical art it has just cut its first baby teeth!

The connection between problematic aspects of current musical performance technology and the audio recording domain is direct and relevant. Everyone reading this article is intimately familiar with the digital/analog mantra; solid-state/tube debates are a kind of variation on that. And while we’re at it, I would like to get the guy who invented SMPTE alone in a small room for half an hour — if you have ever heard SMPTE time code come accidentally screaming out of studio monitors at full output you know what I am talking about!

Am I alone in the desire to retain a genuinely organic and human dimension to musical life? I think not. Another example: I have a songwriter friend, Marvin Etzioni, who goes so far as to force Bernie Grundman to cut a one-shot vinyl from the master tape, and play that into the D/A converters — you can hear the needle drop on the CD’s. Now that’s American ingenuity!

Is it necessary that a great blues musician know what a Neumann M-50 is? Of course not. However, if Joe Harley and Michael C. Ross are in the booth, and we are rolling direct to Scotch 996 tape on a fine old 1/2" Ampex reel to reel — then we are all there too, and that’s nice! Music comes to us through one of our senses. It is by definition sensual, even sexual — as all the senses participate in our sexuality. Great music, of any type, always has the ability to operate on multiple levels that traverse the distance from the intellect to the gut. Fine recording/reproduction media have the capability of conveying to our senses this range of experience, if they are made to serve organic human imperatives — if it is humanized technology.

Through musical performance, and through recordings of these performances, we are able to achieve at least the semblance of a brief triumph over linear time. This is the liberating potential of what the great philosopher Herbert Marcuse terms the "aesthetic dimension." At its highest this becomes a spiritual quest; to breathe life into the music of the past by its performance, documentation, and communication, and to project music forward in time — a modest form of immortality.