Like many composers, I rely (rather heavily) on a computer notation program to do the heavy lifting required when revising, editing and polishing my music, and also to create individual parts from scores. The program I have used for the last decade, Sibelius, recently came out with a new version, the first since the company founded by the original designers of the software was bought out by a larger firm, Avid. A perhaps-ill-conceived post on facebook (I try not to be negative on facebook) has led me to an exchange of concerns about the upgrade with Jesse Ayers, a fellow composer on the faculty of Malone College in Canton, Ohio. Jesse and I had met previously at conferences but hadn’t really gotten to know each other, but somehow I found myself sending this rather personal email, and I’d like to make it an open letter: It started out being about Sibelius and ends up being about my art and my understanding of myself.
The linked divisi parts is a problem, and I have never liked the methods for inputing piano pedalling… I’ve suggested a solution for that, but it hasn’t been adopted yet. Of course, I’ve learned to deal with both, and countless other quirks (so much so that I’m always surprised how many things I don’t even think about when I have to help my composition and orchestration students make their scores look presentable). I dread the thought of changing to another program, but at some point, I’m sure that Sibelius will have run its course and we’ll all be switching over to the next thing.
I’m at a funny age–people a few years older than me have a devil of a time with anything to do with computers, but people a few years younger than me never knew anything different–my first year of college was the same year the World Wide Web debuted; I didn’t know what email was my first term, but by Christmas, I couldn’t live without it. In composition, it’s the same: Sibelius has become a second language to me, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to compose a major piece without it, but folks just a few years older than me completed their master’s theses in manuscript. My first experience with notation software was with Encore on Macintosh in the early 90s, and I took away the notion that it was more trouble than it was worth and spent several years learning to write manuscript, which I think, in the end, was good experience, but after I graduated from college and got my first computer, it wasn’t long before I wanted a notation program. I fiddled around with NoteWorthy composer for a while, and was able to make some readable but pretty cruddy-looking scores. In late 1998, though, Sibelius came out, and I was one of the first thousand people in the US to buy it. I read the manual cover-to-cover (a much more reasonable proposition then!) and dove in. I was teaching middle school band at the time, and having a terrible time of it… so bad that I was looking at law schools, but having an outlet in my arranging and composition probably saved me for music (for better or for worse!).
Sibelius is probably the reason that I’m a composer, although I’m loathe to admit that to anyone. Just as I wouldn’t have even attempted to write the book I just finished without a word processor, I couldn’t possibly have become serious about composing without help from the computer. I don’t think I lean on it too much–I do more sitting at the piano than I used to, especially for vocal music–but even if the first draft of a piece is manuscript, the second draft is in Sibelius. If it goes away or changes into some unrecognizable form, I’m at the point now where I will do what needs to be done, but I will miss it terribly. As psychopathic as it sounds, its interface has been the most constant thing in my life over the last ten years as I went through divorce, job changes, graduate school, a second marriage, too many out-of-town moves. I would miss it like I would a friend–more than some people I have called “friend,” even. Don’t think I’m strange about this–perhaps you understand what I’m saying–Shakespeare would miss The Globe, Bill Clinton misses the White House, a blinded astronomer misses her observatory. Sibelius is where I work, and where what I think of as my most meaningful work of the last decade was accomplished (I hope that my students find and found my teaching meaningful, but it isn’t meaningful to me in the same way that my art is meaningful). I was already worried by the buyout, and yesterday my worries proved correct: I’m accustomed to working with people who view Sibelius the same way I do–as a friend, as a key component of their work. I’m sure there is some of that at Avid, but Sibelius is not their creation, not in spirit. I worry that it will become like a superficial film adaptation of a great novel.
Sometimes I worry about stupid things, I guess. But this is the problem that we all face as artists in the 21st century: the means and methods by which we create our art are continually shifting around us. For all his “agony and ecstasy,” Michaelangelo knew that marble was marble and would respond to his chisel in reasonably predictable ways. Changing Sibelius too drastically would be like substituting a new, better, synthetic marble and still expecting David to appear. Perhaps this is what his “agony and ecstasy” were about–the Sistine Ceiling is a masterpiece, but the powers that be forced Michaelangelo to work in a way that was more or less foreign to him. The result was stunning, of course, but a wrenching experience for the artist.
You caught me after band rehearsal, so I apologize for waxing philosophical… someone gets this email just about every week lately! I’m going to head home to my wife now. I believe this is going to become a blog post.