Notation Software Continued

I thought my blog entry on notation software might raise some passionate response – the relationship between a composer and his/her notation software is an intimate one, alternately exhilarating and maddening. Canadian composer Matthew Whittall wrote from Finland to recommend a new program, “apparently the most flexible thing out there,” called Igor available at www.noteheads.com. (At least they didn’t name it “Stravinsky.”) Being away from home and my ethernet connection, I can’t check it out at the moment, but will try to soon. Whittall continues,

I share your loathing of some of the restrictions the programmers place on composers. In the end, all notation packages end up being glorified pop chart notators that think in bars rather than in time…. I personally started using Finale not too long after it came out, and have pretty much grown up with it, and now know all the tricks for getting it to do things it shouldn’t be able to. However, my music is fairly mainstream and doesn’t generally require much far-out notation, but this may be what you’d need for the Cowell-based piece you mentioned, as it was designed with classical music (or post-classical, as it were) in mind. It’s pretty cheap too, as well as downloadable, and you can try out the full program for a while before buying.

Los Angeles composer Art Jarvinen, whom I often end up mentioning here, went to more passionate lengths, chanting the praises of a graphics program called Score, whose only drawbacks are that it 1) was made only for IBM-compatibles, and 2) is no longer upgraded:

The fundamental problem with Sibelius, and probably Finale as well (I have never used that program), is the paradigm on which it is based. Its creators simply seem to have never imagined a world in which you would not need – or at least want – your computer to play back your music for you. Therefore, they built their so-called “music engraving” software on top of a sequencer, which can never – ever – be disconnected from the graphic layer. That’s why it’s almost impossible to notate the kinds of things you and I routinely do as composers, using those programs. If Sibelius doesn’t understand how to play it (bar lines seem to confuse the hell out of it), it won’t let you write it, except with the world’s most aggravating and ultimately dissatisfying work-arounds.

Therein lies the radiant beauty and ultimate power of Score; it doesn’t have to play anything back, so it doesn’t care what you write. I have yet to encounter a single notation that I could not implement in Score either 1) very easily, or 2) relatively easily. A real-world example is an interesting tuplet, three over 4 and two-thirds – a big triplet that starts on the last beat of a quarter note triplet in the bar before (my music has often required such rhythmic “pivots” or sudden mid-measure changes of perceived downbeat). And if you think that’s just academic bullshit, I can play you recordings of my rock band playing it. It’s perfectly logical, not really very difficult to do, and feels a certain way that should be notated properly because that’s exactly what it is.

The first time I attempted to use Sibelius for a professional copying job (part of how I have always earned my living), the first measure posed a problem that proved to be insurmountable and I booted up Score. The “problem” immediately vanished.

That’s why I have a Pentium II running nothing but DOS and Score; I need real engraving software, not just a sequencer in drag. Unfortunately, Mac heads will never know the pleasures of using Score, as it only works on a PC.

Unfortunately for us PC users, Score’s parents have never bothered to bring it along into the modern era, hence my dedicated Score shrine-computer (the last update they offered was lute tablature – pretty exciting in itself I’m sure, if you’re a lutenist writing your own charts on a computer – but I would have preferred that they made it more compatible with newer versions of Windows (I also have a 386s with Windows 3.1 as emergency back-up).

In a spirit of fairness I do have to say I compose almost exclusively in Sibelius now, but I think I can only do that satisfactorily because of half a lifetime of experience working the old fashioned way – and because I write mostly surf tunes these days. I do not use Sibelius as an educational tool, nor would I recommend it to students.

In my own spirit of fairness, I had mentioned Sibelius’s limitations, but I didn’t mention the ways in which it has freed me up compositionally. For one thing, its meter numerators may be limited to powers of 2, but its denominators go up to 99. I don’t promise I’ll never use 133/32 meter, but in my Desert Sonata I have a long passage in 41/16 meter, and I sure wish I had had Sibelius when I wrote the piece. Also, a great complexity of tuplets is easy to use in Sibelius, and even tuplets within tuplets, so that I’ve been freed up to write electronic and Disklavier music with all kinds of virtual tempo simultaneities, like 13-against-29, 17-against-20-against-31, and so on. If you have a 17-bar over 17 16th-notes, say, you just click on it and hit “R” for repeat, and you have another one in the next measure. So while there are rhythmic things I’ve quit doing lately because Sibelius doesn’t support them, there are other wild rhythmic avenues I’ve gone into instead because Sibelius makes them very convenient.

In other words, I’m using Sibelius exactly the opposite of the way Jarvinen is: as a virtual sequencer with a million short cuts. After I finish a score in Sibelius I convert it into Digital Performer and finish polishing up the piece there – and it’s a hell of a lot easier than composing the piece in the sequencing program.

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