The Splendid Splice – some thoughts about music in crisis

2020 is turning out to be the dawning of the Age of Isolation. Musicians who perform and teach are having a tough time. Music is traditionally a social activity, but the community of players, students and audiences has been shattered, maybe irreparably. Musicians have responded by exploring alternative ways to communicate with each other and to reach out using technology, particularly the internet.

Watching this movement develop has been of great personal interest. The reason is that, though I can’t possibly claim to have seen the pandemic coming, I seem to have been preparing over many years for a world in which making music can’t rely on groups, venues, gigs and audiences. Jazz is a niche interest at best. If you live in a city or region with a population of, say, a million, and if only 0.1% are interested in the music, well that’s a potential audience of 1000. On the other hand if, like me, you lived most of your life where people are numbered in a few thousand, that’s maybe 10 or 20 individuals who might want to hear what you play, and even fewer who are themselves musicians who might want to play with you.

I used computers in the day job, from the era of mainframes and Hollerith cards, through self-built microcomputers and machine language programming of floating-point arithmetic (nearly killed me) to the earliest consumer desktops. So when I got my first digital piano, I was keen to investigate the possibilities of getting it to talk to the computer, which meant then (and to a large extent still means) MIDI. I believe that, with the help of my digitally literate son Ben, I might have been quite an early adopter of sequencing, initially using Voyetra software (that dates this story), then switching to Cakewalk, which I’ve stuck with ever since through all its updates up to and including today’s Cakewalk Platinum. Pianos, computers, interfaces, sound modules and all manner of audio hardware and software items have come and gone since the early days and now I have a nice studio with most of the toys I need.

Almost from the start of my computer music adventures I was motivated to become as self-sufficient as possible. Not only were the opportunities to make music with and for others too meagre where I lived, I’ve always had very uneasy and sometimes catastrophic relations with band members. I expect this says a lot about my personality defects and also my eccentric musical tastes: I’m just not a People Person. Being able to make noises on my own without having to bother with the human interaction stuff suits me fine. I must admit, however, that some of my best and most rewarding experiences have been working one-to-one with singers (though even then there have been a few unhappy endings). All in all, I’m fortunate in having the temperament and the tools to manage the present period of corona quarantine comfortably enough.

There’s a bigger story here, though. The era of digital music has coincided with revolutionary changes in the way scientific research (day job) is conducted. The classic research cycle is observe>hypothesise>test>revise or reject. Most beautiful hypotheses are murdered by ugly facts. If you’re lucky, your hypothesis might survive long enough to become a theory. And the very few theories that stand the merciless test of time might even go on to become laws. But in the modern era of Big Data, hyperfast high-capacity computing and all-powerful algorithms, a new paradigm has emerged – science without hypotheses. Or perhaps, more accurately, science in which the essentially creative and imaginative human contribution of generating hypotheses has become an emergent property of information and data-processing complexity. Well, this isn’t the place to discuss this further, but such a trend has much to say about the gathering crisis affecting music creation in the digital era.

As time went by and I got deeper into computer music, it became increasingly apparent that what I was doing (and preferred to do) was fundamentally different from the traditional model of live performance with a band before an audience. It’s been several years since I was a regular member of a group of any sort, and I can hardly remember the last time I played at a gig. Since I came to live somewhere with a significant density of population I’ve made myself attend a few jam sessions (at least, I did before the Great Lockdown), though my heart isn’t in it. No, for me, music belongs in the controlled environment of the studio, away from the tyranny of performer, ensemble and audience convention and expectation. And although it’s deeply impertinent of me to even mention his name, I discovered that my thoughts were following some of the lines of travel articulated eloquently by Glenn Gould.

Gould announced in 1964 that he was retiring from public performance. He considered live concerts to have been eclipsed by audio recording, that traditional public concerts would no longer exist in a century, and that it was demeaning to expect a musician to create a perfect ideal version before an audience. He coined the term ‘The Splendid Splice’ (this pre-dated the digital age) to describe the entirely creative process of using the recording studio as an instrument in its own right to aid the musician in realising a personal conception of how the finished performance should sound. In a revealing passage he described his experience of recording the fugue in A minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier. He recorded eight takes, of which two were complete and almost satisfactory. Eventually, after weeks of critical listening, it was agreed with the producer to create a single take combining the desired parts of the two versions. Thus the artist’s intentions were achieved and we have a sublime performance of a sublime work.

And yet…purists object to the Splendid Splice. It offends aesthetic morality. It interferes with the mystic connection between performer and audience, and with the fleeting nature of ‘now’ as music is executed. It opens the door to debauchery by technology of the sacred rites of musical performance. In his article (The Prospects of Recording. In Cox C, Warner D. 2004. Audio Culture – Readings in Modern Music pp 115-126. Continuum) Gould confronts these arguments in a deep survey of the challenges to which music in the audio age must adapt if it is to survive. The piece is worth reading by any musician having to re-think what to do in and after the Age of Isolation. For me, it’s a kind of vindication of the course of my own humble musical life towards its present hermit-like self-reliance.

Around 1290 Pope Boniface VIII despatched a courtier to find the best painter in Italy. When he arrived at Giotto’s workshop, seeking an example of the artist’s oeuvre, Giotto simply drew a perfect circle freehand and got back to work. Today we might think it’s a curious skill to be able to do this – why not simply use Powerpoint? In the 21st century, what’s the virtue in regarding technology as at odds with the Purity Of Art? After all, a Boehm system flute is nothing if not a piece of sophisticated mechanical technology. Gould sees audio technology as releasing us from the captivity of history. The musician intercedes between the composer and the audience in a new participatory contract where technology plays a fully creative role.

How much more satisfying this relationship seems for the improvising musician, who is at once composer and performer. This kind of music becomes less of an exercise in arbitrariness and happy accident (not to mention soloist-as-god self-indulgence). It’s particularly helpful for someone like me, one of the lower life-forms of the musical world with no formal technical or theoretical training, and no access to other musicians with which to turn ideas into noises. It’s the musical equivalent of using Powerpoint to draw Giotto’s circle. That’s the democratising effect of technology. There is, of course, a kind of music that defines itself as in-the-moment spontaneity: free improvisation. It has much to commend it at a time when the traditional rules of music-making are being fundamentally rewritten. I have a little experience of it and can see how it leads in a fruitful direction. But that’s another story.

When it comes to the standard paradigm, however, I bow to the Splendid Splice.