random trip report
David P. Anderson
Software synthesizers like Pianoteq produce reasonably good piano sounds (or you can get a MIDI grand). Computers can play notes with precise timing and dynamics. So one can imagine performing a piano piece using a computer.
How would this work? You (the "performer") would start with a digital score for the piece - perhaps a MusicXML file. Then you'd use software to add nuance: changes to the dynamics, timing, and articulation. You'd spend time - perhaps weeks or months - making it sound exactly how you want. You could then play it for a live audience, or put it on the Web. I call this a "prepared performance" (in contrast with a performance where you physically play an instrument).
When I describe the idea of prepared performance to my pianist friends, their initial reaction is usually dismissive. This is understandable: the act of physically playing a piece - especially for a live audience - can be magical: it combines emotion, physicality, listening, and spontaneity. It's hard to imagine that anything done sitting at a computer could produce a result as beautiful or meaningful as a live performance.
But I have a different viewpoint. When I work on a piece, it starts as a mental process. I hear the piece, perhaps from a recording or by reading through the score. It sits in my mind, gestating. I imagine different ways it might sound, and different moods or feelings it might evoke. This translates into choices in tempo, dynamics, articulation etc. - i.e., nuance. This exploration might take place at the keyboard or away from it.
Eventually I have a mental model of how I want the piece to sound. Then there's the (usually arduous) task of getting my fingers to play in a way that approximates the mental model. But:
These problems don't exist with prepared performance. If the software tools are good, you can realize your mental model precisely. And if you want to revisit the piece years later, you can tinker with it immediately, no practice needed.
And I reject the notion that live performance is the sole domain of musical magic. For me, most of the magic happens as the mental model is forming, long before the performance.
By analogy: a painter forms a mental model of an image and spends weeks or months realizing it in their studio. The result can be beautiful and can express emotion. We don't demand that the painter create the painting in real time, in front of the viewer. Why should we make this demand of musicians?
In fact - on my soapbox now - it seems to me that today's live-performance aesthetic is a bit pompous and self-aggrandizing. The performer takes the composer's genius and presents it to the audience as if it were their own, and expects to be lavished with applause afterward.