The Operating System


For this special feature in our ongoing Field Notes series (where creators from all disciplines shine light behind the curtain at their daily practice — revealing the often messy, sometimes frustrating, surprisingly beautiful life along the way) the OS is excited to have composers Todd Lerew, Kristina Warren and Michael Laurello, finalists in the 2014 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest. Lerew, Warren, and Laurello will each share their process notes with us as they develop new work from now through July, when the pieces will premiere at the Sō Percussion Summer Institute at Princeton University. Get better introduced – and listen to samples from these innovative new composers — at our series introduction, HERE. Todd Lerew opened the series with his Field Notes: Thoughts on Musical Failure, then Kristina Warren blew our minds with her composition process drawing from Korean P’ansori, Colormapping, and more, and we complete the trio’s first round with Michael Laurello on Aura, Authenticity and Practicality in instrumentation choice. GET INSPIRED. Take notes! but Remain Composed.

Over the past few months, I’ve been sketching ideas for a new percussion quartet for the ensemble Sō Percussion. After discarding idea after idea, I’ve finally come up with a fragment of music that I’d like to develop further, mostly out of curiosity, to see where it goes. To develop the overall sound concept for this musical snippet, I started by experimenting with a few ‘80s pop-inspired sounds using a Roland Juno 60—a vintage analog synthesizer. When using sounds from this instrument, however, I find myself confronted with a philosophical question regarding vintage synthesizers and live performance:

to what extent can an audience be affected—overtly or subtly—by the presence or absence of the actual vintage synthesizer on stage? In other words, does it matter if a performer is using the real thing instead of a software reproduction of the instrument, considering that a software instrument may be more practical for the ensemble?

I recognize this is a big question that encompasses a few different, but related, issues. One such issue is the legitimacy and relevance of historically informed performance in music; another is how musicians are attempting to overcome the barrier between performer and audience when music is performed live using electronics—when there may be little connection between a performer’s physical motions and the resulting sound (when a musician is performing on a laptop, for instance). These are rich areas of discussion that will no doubt continue to be explored extensively, but for this post I’m not going to try to unpack them and tie everything together. For now, I’d just like to share some thoughts I’ve been having at this stage in my compositional process.

A little background may be appropriate here. The Juno 60 is a polyphonic analog synth that was manufactured by the Roland Corporation from 1982 to 1984. It has enjoyed consistent use since the ‘80s, mostly in popular music, and remains one of the most recognizable synths out there.  This is not a synth that is usually revered for its ability to accurately mimic acoustic instruments, but rather for the particularly synth-y sounds it’s capable of making—sounds that can be at the same time fresh and wonderfully dated. Consider this representative example of Juno-use (note the chord vamp in the verses):

I’m always a little hesitant to include a synthesizer like the Juno in a new piece, especially when I have hopes that the piece will be performed again after the premiere. The Juno is not so rare that it would be impossible for an ensemble to get ahold of one; it’s just kind of a pain, especially if it’s being used just for my piece. A clear compromise is for me to program a software version of the Juno by sampling the exact sounds I want. This would make performance possible with a laptop and a MIDI controller; having the actual synth would not be required to perform the piece. Another similar option is to ask the performers to download one of the commercial Juno soft-synths on the market. In both cases, however, we’re still dealing with merely digital representations of the instrument—virtual instruments only. There will not be an authentic Juno on stage in all of its ‘80s analog glory; instead, there will be a non-descript MIDI controller and a laptop, producing sounds whose origins are unclear.

My concern with using a software version of the Juno isn’t about audio quality—considering the robustness of software samplers, the difference in fidelity compared to the actual instrument would be negligible. The greater problem, at least for me, is this: could an audience be more convinced of a performance if there is an actual vintage synthesizer up there on stage? Could seeing the real thing, with all of its historical baggage, help to create a more meaningful dramatic experience? Could the physical presence of an instrument like the Juno actually affect the way that we hear a piece? Could the same exact synth patch be perceived as “retro” when played on the authentic instrument, but “cheesy” when played on a MIDI controller?

In 1936, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about how reproductive technologies—such as lithography, photography, and film—shape aesthetic experience. He discussed how, even though a reproduction of an artwork may be virtually identical to the original, the original holds an aura that cannot be transferred. He writes, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” He goes on to say, “…the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” I think there is a clear analogy here with the Juno. But can the Juno, as a piece of manufactured electronic hardware, still have an aura?

I think it can. In fact, I think it absolutely does. And I do think something is lost when it is physically absent from a performance. But I’m less sure this loss necessarily diminishes the quality of the composition overall. The issue of whether or not to insist on authenticity in musical performance should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, not dogmatically. In this case, for me, the sonic result is paramount. The method of sound production from the standpoint of authenticity, while important, will be treated as secondary. With this new piece of mine, it is crucial that it be logistically straightforward, relatively portable, and easy to set up. And hopefully it sounds great, too. I’m willing to accept a loss of authenticity—a loss of aura—in favor of practicality.

It’s a shame, though, that no one will get to see those rad wood-veneered side panels on stage.

Pic 2 v2 JPEG - Wood Veneer

MICHAEL LAURELLO (b. 1981) is an American composer and pianist. He has written for ensembles and soloists such as the Yale Baroque Ensemble, Sound Icon, the 15.19 Ensemble, NotaRiotous (the Boston Microtonal Society), guitarist Flavio Virzì, soprano Sarah Pelletier, pianist/composer John McDonald, and clarinetist and linguist/music theorist Ray Jackendoff. Laurello is an Artist Diploma candidate in Composition at the Yale School of Music, studying with David Lang and Christopher Theofanidis. He earned an M.A. in Composition from Tufts University under John McDonald, and a B.M. in Music Synthesis (Electronic Production and Design) from Berklee College of Music where he studied jazz piano performance with Laszlo Gardony and Steve Hunt. He has attended composition festivals at highSCORE (Pavia, Italy) and Etchings (Auvillar, France), and was recently recognized with an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation (Boston, MA). In addition to his work as a composer and performer, Laurello is a recording and mixing engineer.

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