Sunday, June 16, 2013

Trusting Computers with Our Music

David Wolfson's thoughtful post about posterity and Kyle Gann's post about the fickle nature of computer operating systems both gave me a jolt today. I rely exclusively on the computer as a tool for notating and distributing the music I write.

Perhaps I have come to trust that a PDF file is pretty much the same as a hard copy because Finale's command to print gives me the option to "print" something as a PDF. Since I back up my PDF files on a cloud, somewhere, I haven't felt the need to print up paper copies of music for years, but someday PDF files might be obsolete. Who can honestly say that the format will be around forever? Who can honestly say it will be around in 30 years? 20 years? 10 years?

Who can say that a superior format won't emerge, and the "gatekeepers" will set up shop and translate PDF files into the new format for a price?

Every digital format has changed since the beginning of computing. How many computers today can read IBM cards? Displaywriter documents? Floppy discs? Zip discs?

[My old floppy discs and Zip discs sit in a drawer with old pairs of glasses.]

I wonder how many reams of paper and how much time and toner it would take to print physical copies of the music I have written over the last 15 years. I wonder how much physical space it would take up. I wonder if I should plan to start soon.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Don't know if you caught this article and the comments years ago in NMB, but it does bear on this question:

I was too coy about Google's computing capacity, which is extremely large.

Anonymous said...

Having read the post and comment by Hirsch as well as following the links and its subsequent links, I offer a perhaps contrarian view. Let us begin with an observation of human nature. Every artist thinks their work is golden and worth not only preservation but also repeat performances, usually sponsored by that mythical "someone else." Is all art of all kinds equally worthy and worth preserving? Given simple notions of logistics and lessons of history, we know even works of Bach were relegated to the dust bin. So the existential angst of the modern artist swimming in a world chock full of modern artists is rather normal, and such questions as above percolate. Ives self-published, and I have one of his original printing as a dear and somewhat frayed book, now available in PDF around the web. But most of the world does not know or listen to Ives' opera Omnia. Nor to Bach's, truth be told. Most of the world is made up of other cultures which take little interest in classical music of then or now. The existential question of "my" music seems ultimately a question of "me." How important? How memorable? As the Hammerstein lyric from Pipe Dream reminds, we are all interesting to ourselves. In a previous blog, Ms. Fine referenced a quasi-feminist concern about women composers competing for attention in a contemporary world of the likes of Glass and Adams and Harbison, et cetera. But the crux of the matter remains not gender or group, but "me," as this article points out. I think this less a question of operating systems and file formats than of each of our individual outputs. The question remains as ever was: who will remember me? If we consider any age in the classical opus there are far more composers than those we in our curricula teach as memorable. Far more. Ditto for music of women of color or dead white males. So it seems that this topic is more a matter of "who will remember me," than of file formats. After all, how many today notate using Burgundian notation? Or four line staves? Or the twelve line staff? Or use Harry Partch's tonal systems? Or play with a Jankó keyboard? All in all, the worry comes down to "me" and not file formats. Everything does change, so the question lingers. What will survive? And why should it? The answer for each of us in individual. I wouldn't worry about PDF formats, because there will be translators aplenty from the clever folk we shall never know or perhaps live long enough to learn of the next contributions to technology. The real and abiding question is what have we written which will abide, not in what format it might. And old commentator on cultural things I heard in my youth simply counseled, "persevere." I think it more true now, than ever. Compose. Create. What will come, will come. So it seems, when the worry subsides.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment, Anonymous, and thank you for the link to the NMB article with all the interesting comments, Lisa.

My concern about formats has more to do with simply being able to access the music I have written myself--while I am alive, while I can play it, or while I can send it to other people who want to play it. Unlike David and Kyle, I'm not particularly concerned about posterity.

Thank you, Anon, for the reassurance that the PDF format will probably be in the hands of good translators not yet born.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Fine, were it not for PDF formats, yours and all the marvelous scores available at IMSLP Petrucci would not be available to us all with such ease. Hurray for the format, therefore. And as to the opera which lasts twenty-four hours, that's like flying from Canada to Chile and more. A lot of sitting in a cramped place. Maybe first class sleeper loungers in theaters would help? What's certain it that printed scores and parts are necessary to performances, so paper and ink will needed for a while, huh? Imagine a church choir with the musical equivalent of Kindles and Nooks? Oy. How festive would that be?

Allen Garvin said...

PDF isn't inherently proprietary (though, I guess, there are features in the newer versions that are only implemented within Adobe's version). Adobe publishes their standards, independent software developers, including open source ones, can get the standards and implement compatible programs. There a number of open source displayers. And, most PDFs can be converted into postscript, which is extremely portable.

I'd worry more about the far-more proprietary Finale source files than PDF.

I do all my music transcriptions in the open-source Lilypond. The source files are plain ascii, well-defined in completely open ways.