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Automating the Future?

James Jolly has always been fascinated by the marriage of music and tech. But, he argues, the past points to a future that is unlikely to be one composed by robots.


The year is 1815. You reach gingerly toward a piano and press middle C. The note rings out, filling the room before the sound decays and fades away. And that’s it. The year is 2015. You reach out toward the piano and press middle C. But already you are faced with a host of possibilities: Is the piano actually an acoustic instrument or a piece of electronic equipment that, if programmed, can sound like a piano? Do you want to record it? Do you want to broadcast it? Do you want to sample the sound? In short, the possibilities are endless. Avenues that even 40 years ago were closed to all but those with access to a serious electronics studio are now within anyone’s reach: All you need is a computer …

Technology has always played a major role in music, whether it’s the development of instruments with the introduction of new materials and techniques for construction or, later, the ability to simulate the sound of “real” instruments or the ability to create a whole new palette of “artificial” sounds. Even the very act of writing down the notes has moved on from the sheet of music paper to a program that does the job for you (and even creates the individual parts if your music is for a number of players).

Once upon a time, a composer would have to rely on the goodwill of friends to gain a reasonable idea of how the finished work might sound. With the arrival of MIDI technology in the early 1980s, the sound of many instruments playing together could be simply synthesized (albeit with a rather sterile result). Now, a composer can piece together an entire “symphonic” creation without the services of a single human player—and many composers have been creating extraordinary scores doing just that, or pretty close to it, for years (think Hans Zimmer and his movie scores from the turn of the millennium onward).

The irony, in the latter part of the 20th century, is that as the sheer expertise of players and the technical facility of musicians (like athletes) became ever more impressive, we stopped and looked backward. “How did the music sound when Bach or Mozart played it themselves?” was the question that energized a generation of interpreters from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt via Christopher Hogwood and Sir John Eliot Gardiner to today’s young “period-instrument” practitioners. Making the old new became the watchword and, today, infuses music-making even when that spirit of re-discovery is not to the fore.

Can we predict what the future has in store for composers? Probably not, but what we can be sure of is that the need to express energizes the creative spirit. With the burning need to convey that message, the medium is sure to develop. As humans, we have a remarkable hunger for the new, and music is one field of creativity, utterly abstract, where machines simply can’t replace us: The human heart will always beat.

This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available at carnegiehall.org/125th_Anniversary_Magazine.

Illustration by Daniel Mrgan