Digitalia and classical composition

Transformative, reductionist, inspiring or demeaning

THE WORD ‘CONSERVATIVE’ is frequently applied to classical music because the artistic gatekeepers of radio, television and the concert hall predominantly emphasise orchestral blockbusters and chamber gems by compositional giants from the past: so-called ‘museum music’ by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, for example. Ironically, classical composers have embraced today’s digital technologies – the most significant innovation in creating new music since the mid-twentieth century – with considerable gusto. Both music notation software and the internet have had an immense impact, and those inspired by ‘digitalia’ have demonstrated a proliferation of highly inventive ways it can be harnessed for creative purpose. If composers have forever been sound-chasers determinedly seeking fresh instrumental and vocal colour, those shaping electronic compositions today are trialling new sounds, and finding new ways to compose, present and perform their music. Some composers favour adventurous places, and in doing so have altered the dynamic between performer and audience.

For the premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet in 1995, the sky was literally the limit. The work ingeniously combined a string quartet and four helicopters in flight, each helicopter ferrying one of the quartet’s players. A hefty support team of pilots, a raft of sound engineers and aeronautical technicians, plus a battery of complex audio and video equipment were involved. The blue-skied performance was a stunning spectacle and logistical triumph. Critics were divided on its artistic credence but nevertheless astonished by the performance’s bold reach and ingenious use of technologies.

Twenty-four years later, a profusion of increasingly easy-to-use software enables composers and non-musical specialists to explore similarly uncharted sonic horizons.


THE SOUNDWORLD OF Matthew Hindson, chair of Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Composition Unit and award-winning composer, is immediate, invigorating and draws on eclectic influences. The result is a heady mix with bursts of blazing, hyper-energised rhythm intersected with subtle, pensive episodes.

Titles indicate Hindson’s sonic focus. When we spoke about Speed (1996), Hindson said:

This was the first piece in which I made specific reference to techno music in an orchestral context. I used a sequencer, Cubase, to write that work, and then translated it across to score format. As such, I wouldn’t have written that piece like that had I not had access to the technology.

Since DeathStench (1995), I’ve written directly into the computer in most cases. Initially, this was using a sequencer, much in the way that an electronic dance musician might, though I used features such as the piano roll to create interesting pitch and rhythmic figures.

Of the Sibelius music notation program, said Hindson, in addition to creating, editing and printing scores, it ‘can play music back to the composer’, giving them ‘a sense of things like structure and pacing [that] is really terrific. Sibelius has proven to be a godsend. The use of the “r” key (repeat), and the up and down arrows to instantly diatonically transpose means that developing musical material has never been easier or quicker.’ Similar software includes MuseScore, Maestro and Finale.

Apart from the benefits of accessing limitless soundscapes and diverse musical genres, idea sharing and the cross pollination of sonic language, the internet does not discriminate: significant numbers of women are forging acclaimed electronically infused works. There’s a legacy of role models for women in the field, including Pauline Oliveros. An American composer and central figure in the development of postwar electronic music, Oliveros was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s.

Laurie Anderson, another exponent of electronic music, also designed sound makers. In 1977, she crafted a violin bow that replaced horse hair with magnetic tape. In the late 1990s, she fabricated a sound stick, a 1.8-metre baton-like MIDI controller that accesses and replicates sounds. Anderson was a performance artist, not a pop singer, yet her enigmatic ‘O Superman’ reached number two on the UK Singles Chart.

Influencers in the twenty-first century include Maria Horn, Tomoko Sauvage, Ellen Phan, Frances White, Olga Neuwirth and Du Yun, who works with prerecorded sounds and interactive electronics. Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone won her the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2017.

Cat Hope, professor of music at Monash University, is a composer and dedicated sound artist fascinated by low-frequency sound, drone, noise and improvisation. As the artistic director of Decibel, a contemporary research-oriented ensemble, she explores the interface and differences between electronically fuelled and acoustically fashioned music making. In some ways, her interest is a distant echo of Pierre Boulez’s Répons (1981) for chamber orchestra and six solo percussionists – the first significant work to use live electronics on stage. A machine trialled by Boulez listened to and captured the acoustic soloists’ strains during performance and then synthesised audible responses to them. The outcome was a bold interrogation between acoustic ‘calls’ and electronically fired ‘responses’.

Much of Decibel’s staple repertoire – including Miss Fortune X (2012) for two strings, AM radio, percussion and piano – are pieces by Hope. In this work, she examines the use of an EBow with an acoustic piano, effectively transforming the instrument into a sine tone generator, an electronic tool able to create different sound frequencies. Great White (2016) references ‘the great white dead men of music history and women’s struggle to find a place in that history’. Cruel and Usual (2012) is about the punitive use of extended solitary confinement in the US. The piece presents a string quartet on stage. Behind it, a computer operator samples and distorts the strings’ glissandi through four bass amps into a bass drone. The sustained drone represents the desperation of incarcerated prisoners and the cruelty of living in suspended time. As the glissandi deepen in pitch, the stage lighting dims. The result is harrowing theatre.

As Hope explained to me late last year, the advantages of digitalia are the ‘infinite range of sounds available and how digital technology can transform an instrument’s soundprint’.

Australian composer and flautist Douglas Knehans agrees, explaining via email that ‘a synthetic representation of a flute has a vast range whereas a traditional C flute has a low B and that’s it. Technology enables a hugely changeable volume, attack, sustain and release properties not to mention easily manipulated timbral dimensions such as the ability to morph into a totally different instrumental or noise-based sound. Since electronic sounds are not limited by a person’s breath capacity or bow length, tempo and duration takes on a different dimension.’


THE CLASSICAL CANON has trundled along, through the Renaissance, baroque, romantic, impressionistic and postmodern epochs – each with their own idiosyncratic syntax. Change was slow in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the promotion of new works relied on music directors seeding new repertoire in royal courts or churches and, later, on roving virtuosos such as Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, who premiered works on concert stages across Europe. Dissemination of innovative ideas grew easier as technologies such as the radio arrived. Today, digitisation has made creative works accessible to anyone who can use the internet. There is no impediment to sharing or hearing new music because it lives on a digital platform – a forum liberated from the social conventions, rituals and hefty prices associated with classical concerts.

The advent of tape recording in the early 1950s also gave rise to musique concrète, a style of electronic composition developed by Pierre Schaeffer that manipulates recorded sounds as raw material. Others associated with this movement were John Cage and Luciano Berio. Although unacknowledged by the UK music establishment for fifty years, Daphne Oram was an avid trailblazer in this area. She fashioned music through the manipulation of noises from everyday life – traffic, bird cries, the whirr of machinery. Capturing these on tape, she cut them, looped them and spliced lengths of tape end to end so that sound could be played indefinitely. She slowed them down, sped them up, played them backwards. Unable to secure funding, she established her own laboratory and, for more complex and ground-breaking sonic experimentation, invented the Oramics machine.

The synthesiser comprises an electronic keyboard that can mimic virtually any kind of sound, making it able to project the voice of an oboe or a viola. It can also create imagined sounds: the wings of a bird in flight, the footfall of a spider. Though first used in classical compositions, the synthesiser became ubiquitous in the 1960s, due to the Beatles – influenced by Stockhausen – and Frank Zappa, among others, who pioneered the inclusion of synthesisers in their music. Now, synthesisers are integral to hip-hop, metal, rock, trance and dance genres. Varieties within the classification of electronic music are remarkably diverse and include breakbeat, electronicore, hardstyle, noise, turntablism, plunderphonics, ambient and video game music.

Earlier composers, even those whose music is frequently enjoyed by audiences today, were often regarded as innovative pioneers during their lifetime. They challenged the capacities of different instruments and brokered new ways they could be played. In writing Six Suites for Solo Cello, JS Bach demonstrated the instrument’s expressive power as a solo instrument rather than an accompanying instrument. Beethoven introduced piccolo, contrabassoon, trombones and un-tuned percussion in his symphonies. In the nineteenth century, Wagner introduced saxophones, cornets and Wagner tubas to expand the orchestral palette. A hybrid, the Wagner tuba is half French horn, half tuba, and is featured in Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle.

Old constructs such as the concerto, in which a soloist and an orchestra compete, shine, combine or tussle for supremacy, have had a makeover in the twenty-first century. Our ears are accustomed to soloists drawn from a line-up of acoustic violinists, pianists, cellists and classical guitarists – even a smattering of instrumental rarities now and then. Aram Khachaturian planted the unexpected voice of a musical saw in the second movement of his Piano Concerto. Kalevi Aho’s Eight Seasons is a concerto for theremin and orchestra.

In the twenty-first century, composers have revitalised the concerto form by writing for unlikely virtuosi, including tape recorders, laptops and radios. In 2016, Neil Leonard’s Concert for 100 Mobile Devices, presented by the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, dialogue occurred between an ensemble of acoustic instruments on stage and the audience utilising the a.bel app on their iPhones and iPads.

Thum Prints is a ground-breaking eleven-movement piece composed by Gordon Hamilton and the extraordinary beatbox legend Tom Thum. An exciting amalgam of hip-hop, jazz and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring embroidered with haunting strains of Fauré, the episodes are linked with funny quips and refashioned glimpses of symphonic evergreens. Live footage of the performance of ‘Ratchet Face’, part of Thum Prints, with classical, trap, loops, rap and operatic vocals was the standout in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s successful 2015 concert. Tom Thum was the beatboxer soloist. The live performance has attracted millions of views on YouTube and the work has been performed multiple times overseas.

Robert Davidson, composer and senior lecturer at The University of Queensland, finds music in speech. He electronically deconstructs speech patterns to discover embedded rhythm and tone. At the Brisbane Festival in 2017 he presented The Singing Politician, a musical meditation on how prominent politicians speak. Davidson likes to get behind the words to find a subject’s feelings and personality. The work includes Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, Gough Whitlam’s waltzing ‘Well May We Say’ and Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Whitlam.


IF SOME AUDIENCES have savoured mixed discipline events such as opera, ballet and theatre for centuries, digital devices have enabled composers, choreographers, dancers and actors to deliver a new spin on multimedia events. Debate has long raged about how possible it is for art forms in mixed-discipline happenings to be given authentic representation. There’s the question of hierarchy: when does music become subservient to dance, for instance, and vice versa? Douglas Knehans has produced a considerable range of mixed-media works. Discussing his opera Backwards from Winter, which premiered in Carnegie Hall at New York Opera Fest in 2018, he told me, ‘My recent monodrama uses technology exclusively to provide the music and video for the work. First, the electronic music is conceived for 5.1 surround sound, and then added to this is live electric cello with digital effects. Even the soprano voice is amplified and sometimes filtered.’ The work has been applauded because of its coherence, theatricality and, crucially, how it exudes luxurious and seamless equality between artistic elements.

Today, installations in which sound design intersects with architecture, landscape, art and space have become favoured by public places, including art galleries, parks and festivals, to foster a spirit of place. Ros Bandt, an important and influential Australian sound artist, has fabricated many interactive sound installations, sound sculptures and sound playgrounds in Australia and overseas since 1977.

Presented at the Queensland Music Festival in 2017, Leah Barclay’s AURALITY is an augmented-reality project involving an everyday setting, manipulating computer-generated sound to enhance a person’s perception of real-world experience. AURALITY explores a hundred soundscapes in Queensland’s rainforests, beaches and reefs through music, sound and acoustic ecology. The installation is available on a free mobile app, which uses GPS to launch each sonic narrative.

In the same year, Perth Festival programmed Siren Song, an installation by sound artist Byron J Scullin and produced by Supple Fox. Speakers were attached to seven skyscrapers along Perth’s St Georges Terrace. Each building had its own channel and set of speakers, and each ‘prepared’ building sang a different pitch. In a nod to Stockhausen, an airborne helicopter, also equipped with speakers, had its own unique voice. Scullin explained via Facebook Messenger:

Siren Song can be thought of in traditional terms as a vocal octet because the chopper and building sites are all considered and function just as they would in an eight-voiced vocal ensemble. The pedestrians have little discernible effect on the sound of the work, due to the scale and complexity of the physics involved, however the location of an individual listener within the area where the piece occurs greatly effects the experience. A listener in one location will have a very different experience of the same moment in the work to another located hundreds of metres from the first.

Apparently, those wandering past the buildings are said to have experienced a compelling dialectic between the concrete setting and ethereal soundscape.

Yamaha recently broke new ground in merging artificial intelligence with the arts, specifically in the dance world, when Kaiji Moriyama mapped out a range of movements that simultaneously reflected various pianistic figurations as he danced.

Composers have used formulae to create music for centuries: Purcell’s use of ground bass and Schoenberg’s tone rows are but two examples. Since the rise of the computer, algorithmic composition has allowed composers to experiment with a variety of techniques, and to respond and shape the outcomes rapidly. Compositional algorithms are classified by the programming technique deployed. Broadly, this process can fashion music designed by a computer or it can produce music composed with a controlled input from a computer. Leading exponents in the field include Gérard Assayag (France), Tim Blackwell (UK), Joel Ryan (Netherlands), Pietro Grossi (Italy), Christopher Tonkin (Western Australia), and Andrew Brown and Toby Gifford in Brisbane.


SOME FIFTY YEARS ago, music educators started a concerted drive to promote what was then seen as postmodern, cutting-edge music and connect students to music in their era. Classroom music was unpopular with students, and educators sought to change this by empowering them to compose in mid-twentieth-century styles. John Paynter’s seminal Sound and Silence (Cambridge University Press, 1970) advocated creative classroom music making to enable students to explore music, not merely as passive listeners but as composers engaged with interpretative decision-making. The approach was broadly successful – except the sonic resources were generally limited to extra musical sources: desks, chairs, plastic tubs, uncool ‘schooly’ xylophones, hand drums, maracas and exhausted acoustic pianos. In classrooms of the twenty-first century, computer software programs have more rewardingly and significantly enrolled students as composers. Their expressive efforts sound authentic. Real.

Knehans regards technology as ‘a vast robotic extension to human performance. Sound can be filtered through technology or transformed by it and pushed in terms of speed and agility beyond what is humanly possible. Technology functions as a superhero: technology being the Superman to the performer’s Clark Kent.’

On the downside, it takes only one aspect of complex set-ups to malfunction for a piece to be significantly compromised. Longer and more detailed technical rehearsals are needed to set and troubleshoot electronic and technological components to ensure a reliable environment for the performer and satisfying listening. Hope explained that ‘getting a piece played again after the premiere is difficult if the technology set up is complicated’. Stockhausen’s helicopter quartet has only been performed twice.

Despite these factors, the disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages. Because of the escalation and proliferation of digitalia, the music of our time is magnificently fractured, gloriously splintered, cross pollinated, infinitesimally varied and reinvigorated – an open climate of ‘anything goes’. As Hindson puts it, ‘Creativity can be unlocked in a fantastical way and doesn’t need to get acoustic to be creative.’ Inspiration comes from unlimited sonic stimuli via technologies, the legacy of acoustic classical treasures, hundreds of populist genres and music of multicultural origins.

New technologies are complementing and enhancing rather than replacing acoustic traditions, enabling composers to express exciting soundworlds that resonate with today.



Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review