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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

The exclamation is Lansky's, in recognition of the “great and revolutionary accomplishment” that, as we have seen, some writers have greeted as the dawn of a new musical era. Like the earlier elite phase of computer music, but this time by design rather than fortuitously, the new musical era was the by-product of industrial innovation in pursuit of profits. It was literally—and directly—created by capitalism, and can stand therefore as a musical monument to the global triumph of the free market and the worldwide conversion to an “information-based” economy. Since the latter is the standard economists’ criterion of postmodernity, the “MIDI revolution” is perhaps the most intrinsically entitled of all late twentieth-century musical developments to the status of “postmodernist” standard-bearer.

The word MIDI is an acronym for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface.” It was a protocol—a set of specifications—agreed upon by representatives of computer and synthesizer manufacturers between 1981 and 1983 to standardize their products so that they could all interact (and so that everybody's sales might stimulate everybody else's). This development took place virtually simultaneously with the beginning of mass-produced and affordable minicomputers of the kind that have since become ubiquitous household items.

All of a sudden, this nexus vastly miniaturized and domesticated the hardware required for computer synthesis of music. “I don't think anyone can really appreciate the meaning of this unless they have spent six months getting a [mainframe computer] to go ‘beep,’” Lansky wrote. His description of the change, written in 1989 when it was still a recent thing, is the most vivid testimony on record:

This really created a democratization of computer music in which it was no longer solely the domain of wealthy institutions and professors who could devote years to mastering its intricacies…. Those of us who had sweated with software realized quite quickly that to get ninety-six oscillators singing in real time at a 50-kiloHertz sampling rate, and for less than two thousand dollars, was no trivial accomplishment. And the Macintosh [the personal computer manufactured by Apple] really blew us away. One could only admire this cute little machine that you could lift with one hand and take with you anywhere, that could give you intimate control over those ninety-six oscillators…. I still marvel when I am able to open a factory-sealed box and get sound out within twenty minutes.62

The new accessibility and ease of sound synthesis using home computers connected via MIDI to synthesizers was accompanied by the development and marketing of a pair of inventions that similarly revolutionized the process of patterning and manipulating sound materials—that is, composition itself. One was the sampler, a device that stores and instantly retrieves recorded sounds of any kind; can subject them to instantaneous (“real-time”) modifications like transposition, compression, elongation, “looping,” or reversal; and can even engineer the gradual transformation of any recorded sound into any other by a process similar to video “morphing.” The other was the sequencer, a device that puts digitally stored sounds into a programmed order that can encompass thousands of individual units.

Samplers work on the same principle as digital recording itself. Whereas earlier forms of recording (now called “analog”) actually simulated continuous sound waves in the form of grooves in shellac or plastic disks (phonograph records) or by magnetizing iron filings (tape), digital recording samples waveforms in tiny slices (up to 50,000 per second) and stores the slices as numerical information that when reconverted and played back gives the illusion of continuous sound as a moving picture produces the illusion of continuous motion out of a rapid sequence of still photographs. A sampler does not just store microscopic bits like these but can accommodate and transform recorded units of up to three minutes’ duration. As Gann writes, a composer using a sampler equipped with a keyboard “can record a cicada, a train whistle, a car crash, and play cicada melodies, train whistle melodies, car crash melodies.” The “old promise of electronic music—that any noise could become available for musical use”63 —became a practical reality in a way that the pioneering composers of musique concrète could never have imagined.

Between 1980 and 1984, the price of a sampler capable of all the operations just described fell from about $25,000 to about $1,300, putting it within range of mass marketability. At the same time, the operations performed by a sequencer were made available in the form of software programs that could be installed in personal computers. As a result, by the mid-1980s (to quote Gann once again), “it was possible for middle-class teenagers to have, in their bedrooms, music-producing equipment that put to shame the great electronic studios of a mere 10 years before.”64 The “classics” of electronic music have aged—become quaint—in away that no other music of its time has done, since even if music does not “progress,” technology certainly does. Speaking from two generations of classroom experience on both sides of the lectern, Gann writes that Varèse's Poème électronique (see chapter 63) “sounded like music from Mars when I first heard the old Columbia recording in 1972, but students today giggle when they hear it. Its spooky ‘ooooo gaaah’ voice samples seem camp in comparison with the sampling experiments of any ambitious high school computer jockey.”65


(61) Ibid., p. 272.

(62) Ibid., pp. 272–73.

(63) Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, p. 270.

(64) Gann, “Electronic Music, Always Current,” p. 24.

(65) Ibid., p. 21.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010012.xml