Digital disruption #5: Mastering music in the age of digitized perfect pitch and media convergence

Andrew Glendening, dean of the Univeristy of Redlands School of Music

“Technically perfect does not mean it is a perfect performance,” says Andrew Glendening, dean of the U of R School of Music. (Photo by William Vasta)


usical exploration that was once impossible, or more recently feasible only with expensive and hard-to-access equipment, is now standard practice in the field.

“Real-time digital sound analysis, writing music in a computer program—these now are ubiquitous,” says Andrew Glendening, dean of the U of R School of Music, whose background includes not only degrees in music, but also studies in physics. “What my smartphone can do is infinitely more powerful than the best computers we had when I was an undergraduate—and those were at NASA.”

With these technological advances, musicians are free to experiment and create, limited only by their own hard work, skill, and imagination. These expansive possibilities put more, not less, onus on musicians to think carefully about their creations and to have “artistic digital literacy,” according to Glendening—something he tries to cultivate in Redlands students.

“It is a two-edged sword,” he says. “If we are making electronic music, you can manipulate the sounds quickly and easily. One danger in the creative process is it makes it too easy to turn out not very interesting music. So we have to learn to edit. That means our educational process—interacting with musicians and composers and studying the repertoire—is far more important.”

Glendening sees one exciting upside of digitization as the convergence of the arts. U of R music students’ work increasingly reflects this trend. “It might be a movie soundtrack,” he says. “It might be a completely abstract art project. It might be multiple projectors.”

One multimedia project involved a collaboration between U of R music students and film majors at the San Francisco Art institute creating entries for Project Accessible Hollywood, a digital media festival launched by Hollywood filmmaker Christopher Coppola ’83. Future cross-disciplinary projects could include concert installations with multiple speakers to create spatially oriented sound environments, Glendening says.

The opportunities in the U of R music department are expected to increase next fall when a new faculty member, composer, and electronic guitar player Mark Dancigers, arrives. Dancigers says: “I envision a curriculum in [which students will]write computer programs that help them compose music, or craft sound processing that augments their instrument’s capability, or invent their own interfaces for working with digital sound—or, dream up any number of other projects only they can imagine!”

In addition to creating new opportunities in composition and performance, technology is changing how music students learn. Classrooms are equipped with the SmartMusic software, which electronically accompanies students as they practice. It can also track their performance, churning out a graded piece of music with X’s marking the spots where notes were missed.

Computer apps available on tablets and smartphones allow for more sophisticated scrutiny of a student’s performance. Recorded music is time stretched and analyzed for qualities such as pitch, phrasing, and emphasis.

“All of a sudden, when you slow it down, all of the errors are magnified so they’re much easier to hear. It’s a little disturbing to your ego,” Glendening says. “Music is not for the faint of heart.”

Such rigorous appraisal makes sense. But real-world music is not about the notes, but about the art. Glendening points out that musicians must be able to perform with artistry and excellence in a highly critical environment. That’s one thing technology has only made more acute, given the standard of “perfect”—although robotic—sounds in some pop music whose pitch has been corrected with programs such as Auto Tune.

“Technology has raised the bar, because now in a live performance we have to try to match what we do in the digital performance,” he says. “But a good performer is very, very accurate. The art is the critical thing. It’s like understanding fake news. Is it fake art? Is this a fake performance? Technically perfect does not mean it is a perfect performance. Precision isn’t really the goal. Artistry has to be the goal.”


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