The Place of the Composer in the Music Community

Here is a personal perspective from 2003 about the shift in the relationship between composer and musician in the twentieth century. Commentary from correspondence is included in brackets [ ] and following below.

The Place of the Composer in the Music Community

A Perspective by Charles Gayle

[Composer notes: This first part is an excerpt of a discussion I am having with a few Music Faculty at the University of Richmond. They don't contest the truth of what I am saying, they apparently don't like that I am saying it. I am not quite sure why they would care what I think, anyway.]

There is a traditional connection, a valuable partnership, between composer and musician. At an early age, my training as a musician included performing new works. The composers could hear their pieces, find out what worked and what didn't, and the musicians would benefit from exposure to the music being written 'of today'. This part of musical training has all but disappeared.

The loss of this interaction between those who write the music and those that play it diminishes the dynamic that causes music to be relevant. Composers were pained by the inattention and lack of feedback that only increased over recent years. We were forced by a passive, unresponsive, entrenched musical community to find other avenues for presenting our work. Composers had no intention of being victims.

I remember sitting in the basement of the library at a university trying to learn to use a MAC Plus computer to print my piano music for publication. In 1988, in order to sell music in a retail venue, it had to be printed. Composers, like me, had to learn computer technology to distribute their music. Publishers were reluctant to publish music because musicians had zeroxed them out of business. Note, that very few compositions in the past 50 years received a 2nd printing. I stopped selling music in music stores because the pieces were copied, and financially, I barely broke even.

In the early 90's musicians required that music be printed before they would play it. No more manuscript. As a composer, I was then expected to create full scores and parts-dynamic markings, expression markings, cues, etc. Then, around 1995, musicians were asking for a recording of the piece (midi sequencer software had been combined with notation software and playback of scores became possible). These recordings were used to determine whether the composition was worth their time and effort.

During this time, commercial music, music for film and TV became predominately studio/computer based. In the trade magazines, film and TV composers (those 'in the business') would endorse certain notation and sequencer software that they had used to create this or that movie or TV theme. As I said before, as musicians became more demanding, composers were drawn more and more into the technology of music — the 'electronic musician' with 'computer workstations'. Musicians were openly regarded by the industry as expensive and difficult.

By the way, sheet music for popular music is now an afterthought. Complete scores simply do not exist for much of the music you hear.

The notation software I use provides me with 'convincing' sound font technology and unprecedented control over dynamics and expressions. These markings in the score are part of the 'playback'. When I create a sound file, I select 'save as special' and burn it onto a CD. There is a clear understanding that a composer no longer relies on musicians for a performance.

To recap. As a composer, I was 'required' to learn computer technology to accommodate the demands of musicians that were, incidentally less and less willing to give new works a chance. As the technology advanced, the performances given by musicians were viewed as risky, often considered a liability. With the knowledge and skills that composers had to master to be competitive, I can get a note-perfect, in-tune 16 bit CD quality recording and produce a CD for distribution. No musicians need apply.


The sad fact is that both musicians and composers are losers. And as I said, musicians are oblivious to this fact.

[Composer notes: My CD, Music from Roanoke, Virginia will go on sale tomorrow at Cantos Bookstore in downtown Roanoke. Credits on the CD read as follows: Music performed compliments of Computer Technology. Apparently there are some musicians that are offended by this. The credits stand.]

[Composer notes: This second part is a response to a person whose business is historical reenactments, the Director of Living History in Richmond.]

What is real, anyway? The issue that CD recordings of orchestras are real and that a computer realization of a composition is not real is a profound issue confronting the future of music production. This reminds me of a criticism directed at George Lucas, the film director. The lament was that parts of the movie, Star Wars were not ‘real’. Lucas was dumbfounded by the statement and asked at what point did movies become ‘real’.

I have worked on a team of technicians contracted to do a digital recording of an orchestra. The conductor had a headset and a monitor and was in constant touch with the recording crew, located in another part of the building. The producer, with a score, sat in the basement with the crew and, reading from the score, directed the conductor to repeat various ‘takes’. The orchestra recorded the music in increments, often as small as two measures at a time. The takes were logged and entered into a database. The ‘takes’, which were approved and selected later in something of a committee atmosphere, were then stitched together with the blueprint of the score in a studio. The equipment used had at least two digital recording devices, one being a direct-to-disk and the other a tape backup. There was also an analog recording made at the same time. (Analog with its warm sound is often blended in the final production with the crisp but sterile, digital recording.) Effects were added. The conductor was present at the final ‘mix’. This is your ‘real’ CD.

The reason a composer, like myself, can create a believable CD with a computer is because 1) sounds I use are ‘samples’ of live instruments (courtesy of musicians) and 2) the fact that CD’s in the stores are so processed that the general public does not know the difference.

The question is this: In what way is a CD of Mozart’s Symphony in g minor that you find in the CD bins in your local music store (recorded in the manner I described above) different than the realization of music created on a computer using samples of live instruments? Is the sound any less processed, any less computer/studio oriented?

As a recording technician at a large University, I recorded several ‘audition’ tapes for students. With direct-to-disk technology (analog to digital) and editing software, I could ‘fix’ notes that were out of tune, change dynamics and tempi, and even digitally correct wrong notes. Knowing this, Colleges and Universities, and potential employers, orchestras, etc. required me to sign a statement declaring that I had not altered the recording and ‘enabled’ the performance of the student to be misrepresented. Even at that, audition tapes today are virtually worthless. The recordings are not to be trusted. Musicians requested technology to alter inferior performance and the market met their demand.

How did all of this happen? Early in the 20th century, recording companies began recording performances of orchestras and various other groups. For a few extra dollars a month (royalties), a musician would agree to have a performance recorded. This proved extremely shortsighted. Effectively, a single recording reduced the attendance and subsequently the number of public performances. Over time, the public would gradually lose its association of music with live performance. Musicians had less work. Unless a musician had a job with a major orchestra, they were left to fend for themselves in a dwindling market. In this environment, musicians have become a very unhappy group of people and have developed elitist attitudes that have little correspondence with reality. Today, the recording industry rules. All else is idle conversation.

The same lack of judgment exists today. Professional musicians playing on the best instruments available allow technicians to record their sounds. Samples of live instruments are created and put into sound banks. For the composer, selecting an instrument is as simple as clicking on a ‘violin’ or a ‘tuba’. Again, for a few extra dollars a month, musicians not only gave away the need for live performance, but also relinquished the need for live musicians. The stupidity is astounding!

Having been a musician, then a production specialist and now a composer I can say this: Musicians have repeatedly sold out their art and their livelihood for a ‘few extra dollars a month’. For that, I have no sympathy. As far as my own composing with computer technology, I will say to the musicians: get your own house in order, you are not in a position to challenge what I do. Your complaints describe a battle you lost years ago. That you blame your current plight on composers and computer technology is pathetic. Composers have proven to be survivors. It is in your best interest to work with me and my colleagues. And, by the way, lose the attitude.

Charles Gayle

Roanoke, Virginia, November 2003

Excerpt from a letter to his brother Kurt, 01 November 2003

Thank you for your help. This will be the first time I have ever submitted anything to a newspaper.

I rarely write. When I do, it is usually a way to work through a conflict I have. When my friend died, writing was a way to discover how I felt.

The Place of the Composer in the Music Community reveals to me how I view my place and my value as a composer — what I had expected and what is the harsh reality.

I remember the stories about how Richard Strauss joked with this horn player friend about the difficulty of the horn call in Till Eulenspiegel. 'But I hear you play it every day when you warm up!'. How Mozart wrote the horn part in the 4 Horn Concertos in different color inks and made lewd remarks and jokes in the score. The furor over the premier of The Rite of Spring in Paris, 1914. A picture of Prokofiev sitting at an upright piano with Walt Disney as they discussed Fantasia. The deafening silence and fear of failure Berstein felt after the opening of West Side Story that lasted a full two minutes before the audience exploded in cheers and applause. I cherish these stories. I wanted so badly for one of them to be mine.

I realized in writing the article, that I feel cheated — and as you pointed out, angry. I also realized that it is time to say goodbye to musicians. It is time for me to turn my full attention to the real work of a composer/artist; through the language of music make uncompromising observations about the culture. This I will do with the current computer technology. I believe that I have a lot to say.

I am thankful that as a performer, I have had the privilege of knowing the thrill of playing Strauss' Don Juan, the reckless abandon of The Rite of Spring, the sheer power of Mahler, the nobility of Brahms, the passion of Tchaikovsky. The countless other composers who lived in times when musicians wondered what the composer would do next — and were often suprised and rarely disappointed.

I know that a composer writes the music, and the performer brings it to life. When Tom Jennings played my piano pieces, what he played was always so much more than what I had written. And what I had written was music he had never seen before. When a composer and performer work together, the result dwarfs what each alone could have imagined. I mourn this loss.

I have rewritten the last paragraph of the article. I called for a reconciliation, an examination of current training curriculum for young musicians and the possibility of reestablishing the traditional partnership between composer and musician. But this is all words. Publicly I know that I need to say these things. Privately, I know that the stalemate that has dragged on for years now is over. Checkmate. The emperor has no clothes. The educational institutions, the music industry, all the way to the board of directors of our symphony orchestras are too heavily invested in maintaining things as they are. The occasions for live musicians more and more resemble historical reenactments. I think I already knew this.

The process of writing the article is a step closer to making peace with my place in the music community. I am a composer in the year 2003. And now, after this painful catharsis, I think I have a better understanding of what that means.

Excerpt from a letter to his son Benjamin, 14 November 2003

I went to an auction last weekend, I was curious about the rhythm, the cadence of the auctioneer. Anyway, they were selling off old furniture. The pieces were hand crafted solid wood; mahogany, cherry. The furniture looked and felt so different from factory furniture. A child with her father said, 'But daddy, it's just a table'.

Sometimes, I stop by the bookstore. Virginia Postrel has written a book, The Substance of Style. She talks about aesthetics:

Several years ago there was a PBS show, The American Dream Machine with a guy named Marshal Efron. During one show, he baked a lemon meringue pie. But he used all artificial ingredients. After taking the pie out of the oven, he said, 'No milk, no sugar, no eggs, no lemon — just pie'.

I wonder if some day we will say 'No musicians, no composers, no instruments, no scores — just music'. After all, 'it's just a table'.