Electronic Snobbery, Its Causes and Cures

My umptillion-pitches-to-the-octave microtonalist cohort Brian McLaren sends me a link to a wonderful article on the deficiencies of “Computer Music” by composer Bob Ostertag. Ostertag does a concise job of explaining the snobbishness of those who divide off the “real” electronic composers from the composers “who merely use electronics”:

…it is a phenomenon seen time and time again in academia: the more an area of knowledge becomes diffused in the public, the louder become the claims of those within the tower to exclusive expertise in the field, and the narrower become the criteria become for determining who the “experts” actually are….

The cul-de-sac these trends have led “Computer Music” into is a considerably less enjoyable place to tarry due to a technological barrier that is becoming increasingly obvious: despite the vastly increased power of the technology involved, the timbral sophistication of the most cutting edge technology is not significantly greater that of the most mundane and commonplace systems. In fact, after listening to the 287 pieces submitted to Ars Electronica, I would venture to say that the pieces created with today’s cutting edge technology (spectral resynthesis, sophisticated phase vocoding schemes, and so on) have an even greater uniformity of sound among them than the pieces done on MIDI modules available in any music store serving the popular music market.

Ostertag, who burst onto the scene with All the Rage – a Kronos Quartet piece integrating recordings of a 1991 gay riot in San Francisco – is a good enough composer to trust on such opinions.

Also, based on comments I’m compiling a list of schools whose electronic music programs (or at least certain faculty) make no elitist distinction between scratch-built and commercial software, and that will allow and teach the latter. So far, apparently, they are

Mills College (I shoulda known)


University of Massachusetts Amherst

University of Missouri Kansas City

University of Cincinnati

University of San Diego (not to be confused with the University of California at San Diego)

University of Wollongong (Warren Burt chimes in)

Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane

I’m adding to the list as I get further recommendations (see comments – apparently the Australians are a little more open-minded than academic Americans), which will be helpful for all the requests I get about grad schools, and even undergrad schools. Mills College is where we’ve always had the most success sending our freedom-loving Bard students, and I always hear great things about the faculty there, who have a long tradition of musical liberalism.


  1. says

    i attended umass amherst in the early 90’s fro my undergrad in music education (overlapping a little which the commentator from the other post). because the electronic music folks were a) entirely masters or doctoral students, and b) hidden away in a poorly marked hallway used by everyone else simply to get from one rehearsal room to the other, the electronic music gang was pretty much cut off from the rest of the musical life in the department (which was about sit-down band vs. marching band, and jazz). so, while i learned a lot about jazz, early music, band repertoire, and the standard classical fare, i learned nothing about computer/electronic music until i got to CUNY. charles bestor was this mysterious legend at umass – highly regarded, but rarely seen or heard from. i’m glad to hear that within the electronic music sphere at umass, things were lovely, but boy, they didn’t seem to get out much. i hope it’s changed a little.

  2. Jen Wang says

    I’d like to throw in a good word for the University of Cincinnati’s computer music center, headed by Mara Helmuth. The studio teaches GarageBand and Logic alongside CMIX and Max/MSP, and Mara’s primary concern as a teacher has always been helping composers create better music, providing them with whatever tools–traditionally academic or not–will help them best along the way.

  3. says

    I can’t say from firsthand experience, but judging from the music I’ve heard coming out of there, Juilliard has an open mind about electronic software.
    KG replies: I suppose you’re thinking about Mason Bates? I think while at Juilliard he took advantage of the fact that the studio was usually empty to try out whatever he wanted. I don’t think he became a DJ because Juilliard offered a DJ-ing course. But Milica Paranosic of D’Divaz teaches there, and she’s a pretty free-wheeling, performance-art-type cat, so it’s entirely possible. I’d be curious about what kinds of courses she’s allowed to offer.

  4. says

    In response to andrea’s comments above: I don’t know about (a)–I don’t even remember meeting any grad students–but (b) was definitely true. Most of the electronic music students (including me) weren’t even music majors, and there was very little interaction with the rest of the department. I have no idea if that’s still the case.

  5. Julio d'Escrivan says

    Hi everyone, I’m not sure if you are interested in the British experience at all but I have quite enjoyed the posts in this blog on this subject… in any case, I am a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge(UK) and we teach Supercollider3 (if you thought Max was hard think again) alongside Logic Audio. This is because we need to marry the basic music-tech need for being able to run commercial software (that has many things in common with other commercial software) with empowering our students to make basic ‘foundational’ sounds without an imposed Graphic user Interface from a commercial music program. In fact, the latter allows them to understand the former better and in any case, later on, the electronic-luthiers become separate from the electronic-performers… We also teach MaxMSP. This whole thing fosters the spirit of enquiry and questioning that we value in academia, at its best. Also my students are far more tech savy than I (45y.o.) was at their tender age, making it easier for them to learn stuff that looks forbidding for people from another generation. As regards style, we actually have a subject called ‘electronica’ alongside another called ‘acousmatic music’… breadth is what it’s all about. There, one instance for you of the UK undergrad music scene…

  6. James says

    I’d like to put in a good word for Peabody Conservatory. When I was a freshman composition student there was a pretty clear distinction between the ‘computer music people’ and the composers, which I didn’t much like. But that began to change quickly, both in terms of departmental structure and attitude, such that–four years later–everyone was much more closely integrated and there seemed to be a lot of cross-pollination going on. I took an intro to computer music program which I really enjoyed. It got me working with Max/MSP and also tought basic studio recording techniques *every* composer ought to know. From what I remember, though, Max/MSP was only one facet of what people were doing. At any rate, I found I often liked the computer music majors better than composers. They seemed much less stuffy and the music they were writing more up my alley. Looks like there’s still some pretty interesting things going on there: check out the projects list at http://pcm.peabody.jhu.edu/

  7. says

    Wesleyan students use whatever software they want and are graded on the sonic output.
    Although, using Perl in a Supercollider class might earn you the teacher’s ire.

  8. Richie says

    I’m an undergrad at UCSD, which the author specifically excluded from the list. He may have a small reason to do so, because the designer of Max is a professor here, but I think that is unfair. Students can use whatever they want and I have seen more than a few Ableton Live masters. However, it is a research university (like most), and it is very difficult to do any computer music research in Ableton Live. Enviroments like Max and Pd are used by most because they allow one to explore undeveloped elements of interactive music, as well as new graphic scoring structures, and YES the frequency domain. But there is no one forcing anyone to use them…
    The reason why commercial software is used less in an institution like UCSD is that all the research went in to building it, while the user doesn’t have the slightest idea of what is happening, as long as the user interface is nice. Of course programs like that can make good music, but its usefullness in a university is much lower. A conservatory may be different, I don’t know.

  9. shudder says

    at Brown, I took courses that used pro tools, and others that used Max, altho the department is pretty Max-focussed. I think the prevailing attitude is toward hand-made things, BUT I don’t think there’s really a snobbery about such things there.

  10. says

    When I was a Master’s student at Yale, I actually taught the undergrad music technology lecture class – and my experience before then had almost solely been in “lowbrow” electronic music production (synths, drum machines, sequencers, all in the service of beat-driven hip hop and dance music). We taught Reason and Cubase, among other things (Metasynth, anyone?), and there was no programming to be found anywhere. The driving force behind the class was creativity, not technological savvy – certainly, the students were supposed to learn how to use the software, but they were evaluated on their creative use of it, in the end. I guess that’s what you get in a department with open-minded, cool music profs, like Matthew Suttor, Kathryn Alexander, and John Halle. Some of the students I had in that class came up with absolutely brilliant work; in a more confined atmosphere, they never would have done so, and I can’t imagine most of them staying in a tech-head class, in the first place. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them now go on to explore more sophisticated music programs and approaches.
    So please consider adding Yale to that list. The grad program is similarly open-minded, as Jack Vees is holding down the electronic program in his unique and very cool fashion. And I will once again praise Princeton (the PhD program), where anything goes, as long as it’s interesting. There’s all kinds of low- and high-tech electronic music going on, with very low lows and very high highs.