Author: Daniel Siepmann

Who is Creative Placemaking? New Music, Integrity, and Community

Who Is Creative Placemaking?

Billboard graffiti spotted on North Avenue in Station North, Baltimore. Photo by Molly Sheridan

The living, breathing practice of new music brings together many diverse and symbiotic stakeholders. They range from performing artists to composers, from presenting organizations to scholars, and from technical crews to administrators, all striving to create contemporary aural art that challenges, enlivens, and illuminates our human experience. Yet at the end of each day, there is a dirty little secret that each career shares. No matter the specialty, all participants aspire to eat, pay their bills, and enjoy some security and comfort from the labor of bringing new music into our world. This, of course, requires cold hard cash and conversations about funding are rarely pleasant ones. Money from advocacy organizations is in short supply and involves immense competition nationwide. When I see the phrase “many fine projects go unfunded” in grant guidelines, it takes on the ring of gallows humor.

In the past four years, however, a new cash spigot has been cranked open for contemporary arts funding across the nation. Titled “creative placemaking,” this approach purports to culturally and economically reinvigorate American “places” of all stripes, rescuing them from their derelict status through the arts. If current arts policy trends continue, then new music’s institutional vibrancy might depend on how it fits into this rubric, interfacing with communities on levels rarely considered in the past such as neighborhood pride, commercial impact, and livability. But new music should be wary of the covenant that creative placemaking offers, both to artists and audiences, while not losing sight of how the music of our time truly does change our thinking about places and the people in them.

The Dynamics of Place and New Music

The groundwork for thinking about place enjoys a breadth and depth from disciplines as diverse as ecology, geography, history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and philosophy. There are now musical perspectives being added to the fray, ranging from musicologists such as Holly Watkins to composers like Chris Kallmyer writing for NewMusicBox.[1] I tend to think of places as locations—with boundaries that range from fuzzy to rigid, and from vast to confined—imbued with cultural and social energy, both locked up in our memories and being constantly reimagined. But as American philosopher Ed Casey argues, places are things that individuals and collectives are able to experience in real time.[2] Only through the experimentation wrapped up in our daily tests and trials are places altered in substantial ways.[3] By this measure, few human activities empower us to experiment in and with places more than the arts, and in particular, newly wrought pieces and works. Newness is confrontational, newness is the unexpected variable, newness celebrates dynamic, living places: we stumble across new art, often unexpectedly, and discover parts of ourselves yet unknown. Not many would find this idea contentious, but here is the rub: how each contemporary art sub-discipline recasts place(s) in our imagination is another matter entirely.

Paintings, sculptures, photographs, buildings, urban grids, and maps—the list goes on—each organize our world in a way that focuses, endures, and reinterprets. People congregate around buildings, they linger in the aura of sculptures, they frame photos for their intimate living spaces. But what about a new piece of music? How does the music of our time—so fleeting, so temporal, yet so drastic—initiate a change in one’s sense of place, especially through a commission and/or a world premiere? I think new music has a place problem for a number of reasons, stemming in large part from its transitory nature.
First, new music idioms often exemplify styles, technical grammars, or an individual composer’s ethos far more than they center our thinking on a particular city, street corner, building, or even a site in nature. For instance, consider: if a newly composed piece by a native of Provo, Utah, is crafted to memorialize everything she adores about her beloved hometown, how might a listener draw a distinction between it and the aural profile of any other mid-sized American city (even with program notes in tow)? How is Provo-ness truly “made” in a notated or aural setting, as opposed to or separate from Sioux Falls, South Dakota-ness? This is no mockery of Provo’s desirability, but rather a claim that new music artifice and architecture fogs the engrossing idiosyncrasies of particular places, rendering them untranslatable in a listener’s engagement. Similarly, let us ponder the example of a new work for percussion ensemble earning wide acclaim: Augusta Read Thomas’s quartet Resounding Earth for pan-Asian bells and other metal resonators. While the work was conceived and largely composed in Chicago, I think concertgoers are much more likely to experience this piece as a diverse way to play with the possibilities of percussion arrays, rather than, say, connect it as a postmodern commentary between the Windy City and Bangkok, Thailand. New music is deeply cosmopolitan, a jumble of cross-conversations in different shapes, sizes, and sound worlds all fixated on how to add clever new tools to the composition workbench. The where, the place, is simply ancillary.

Second, as delighted as many new music specialists are to discredit or dethrone the Western canon of the past 300 years, perhaps a baby has been thrown out with the bathwater: the canon’s affection for place in the historical imagination. Even the most progressive among us still speak about the Western canon in a way that relies on places and their positions in time, frozen if only for a moment: the two Viennese schools with their transformed complexions; Ives’s idyllic Connecticut; Monteverdi in Venice; and so on. New music simply does not encapsulate places and their epochs as intimately as its earlier, canon-bound brethren. Listening to a piece of electronic music from the mid-1980s by Xenakis, my heart does not wander to IRCAM. When I sit in the audience for a graduate student composition concert, my ears do not perk up because, despite the disparate geographic origins of the composers, all of these works were newly written in Cincinnati and I can hear that plainly. Even watching a production of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin, I am not transported to romanticized scenes of medieval France or other exotic locales conjured by the troubadour poetry that Saariaho and her librettist drew from.

Third, we must consider how the lifeblood of new music—world premieres, sometimes commissioned, sometimes not—alter the dynamics of place. World premieres have had the power to color or disrupt our sense of place, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in the Vienna of 1824, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the Paris of 1913, Barber’s Adagio for Strings over NBC radio in 1938, or even John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls in the New York City of 2002. Yet such monumental unveilings are few and far between. The majority of pieces that receive a world premiere, often regardless of a composer’s fame and a commission, are never performed again. When we think of a new music world premiere changing a place, we must acknowledge that it likely only has one chance to do so, like a blaze that burns quick and bright before exhausting its fuel. Another hypothetical: does a work written in a log cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have much to say about the distinctive qualities outside the hall of its birth in, say, Gainesville, Florida? Such pieces are vagrants, effortlessly being uprooted and transplanted from their birth locales into countless other neighborhood spaces hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Indeed, if nothing is lost from a work’s effectiveness when it is inserted into the context of a radically new place, one begins to wonder whether there was anything grounding the piece at its point of origin. This is unlike contemporary trends in other mediums that lean towards the hyper-local. For instance, a mural on a highway overpass, or on the side of a derelict factory, gives voice to the hopes, aspirations, or tough luck of that place, in that moment of the place’s memorialization.
However, I think the music of our time has two yet unmentioned assets that stir us to ponder places. First, new music never sits still, new music is nimble. A great many contemporary art mediums and their works that celebrate place(s) are purposefully designed to be walked past, congregated around, or remain passively integrated with our daily routine, from building facades to oblique outdoor sculptures. But I think, to their detriment, they often acquire a leering sort of quality—like gargoyles on the side of a cathedral, inert, mute, and unmovable—as people, ideas, trends, and indeed, the places themselves, dynamically shift around them. One phrase of Ed Casey’s that particularly struck me is that “places not only are, they happen.”[4] New music, at its core, sidesteps and subverts grand displays and unchanging monuments. New music happens. This idea is akin to earlier exhortations about how people fundamentally experiment with or “try out” places. Musical premieres in particular are experimental events with dangerous flirtations: they are born, flicker briefly and provocatively, and then extinguish themselves, with a reckless disregard for your desire that they might linger longer (or in some unlucky cases, end sooner). Creators, performers, and listeners are beckoned like moths to that flame of a musical premiere in a way which asks us to try out the world, to try out places old and new when time is of the essence.

Second, new music happens and changes place(s) through the collaborative breadth and depth of the individuals and groups that come together to realize it. This is a glorification of process, not product. New music highlights the fact that places are more than just brick and mortar, and indeed, the people who invest themselves in the curation of beautiful, frightening, and provocative things alter a place’s complexion far more than items plastered or girded onto our landscape. For instance, almost every world premiere requires demanding conversations involving compromise, sacrifice, and contested artistic integrity, with bargains struck amongst the creator(s), interpreter(s), and the technical conditions of the performance setting. This is the reciprocal cultivation of artists-in-communities, as well as artist communities themselves. One result of these immersive, sometimes exhaustive collaborative endeavors is that talents are honed which can then be re-inserted into countless other places that crave new and adventurous arts.

A great example of this is Omaha Under the Radar, a contemporary arts festival co-founded by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett that launched for the first time from July 10-13, 2014. After making the rounds of the Chicago and New York new music circles, DeBoer Bartlett transitioned back to the region of her birth and brought her artistic and organizational acumen in tow. Omaha Under the Radar performances will take place in venues as varied as bohemian bars, art galleries, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and a rock club, with an emphasis on Omaha interpreters performing the works of Omaha creators. In conversation, DeBoer Bartlett made clear that artistic homogeneity is a nigh impossible feat in Omaha: the scene is simply too small to remain cloistered within new music, as happened when she gigged in Chicago and New York. Rather than performing to the same 40 new music specialists (“big music scenes are just small towns”), she now challenges stagnant presumptions hand-in-hand with theater, dance, jazz, and visual artists. But, she insisted, her artistic poise in Omaha is largely thanks to her earlier pilgrimages to the larger new music meccas. If the vagrancy of new music works prove detrimental to their impact on places, then the opposite holds true for composers and performers: it is precisely their nomad status that gives rise to places as conglomerates of adroit people, rather than as graveyards for piles of material objects.

Under the Radar Omaha

Omaha Under the Radar
Photo by Karjaka Studios

With a deeper understanding of new music’s diverse dynamic involving place, it is now time to pull apart how these ideas relate to or diverge from creative placemaking as an arts strategy, a regime with the potential to either transform or starve the long-standing institutions of new music.

Creative Placemaking as Musical Policy and Practice

“Creative placemaking” was originally coined in a white paper for The Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a leadership forum jointly brought about by the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Architectural Foundation in 2010. Authored by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, creative placemaking’s intellectual inspiration is the New Urbanism that professes to prioritize mixed-income, pedestrian-focused city experiences with diverse economic, social, and political interactions brought about by close human proximity. Creative placemaking’s adaptation of New Urbanist principles in the white paper harnesses a glossy vocabulary for characterizing the importance of the arts:

“[T]hese…locales [chosen as incubators for creative placemaking] foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and income, spin off new products and services, and attract and retain unrelated businesses and skilled workers…. Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles…. arts and culture exist cheek-by-jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used….”

Although “placemaking” itself is hardly novel, the prescriptions present in Markusen and Nicodemus’s white paper initiated a re-alignment of the funding landscape for the arts across America. The NEA began an entirely new grantmaking program titled “Our Town,” centered on the creative placemaking enterprise with awards ranging from $25,000 to $200,000. Most significantly, a new collaborative umbrella organization christened “ArtPlace America” emerged in 2011. ArtPlace America pools the resources and capacities from a “who’s who” of six banks, eight federal agencies, and 14 of the great American mega-foundations. With the most recent awards ranging from $33,000 to $750,000, and a ballpark median of $280,000, ArtPlace America commands the attention (and salivation) of culture institutions across the nation. In my resident state of Connecticut, the Connecticut Office of the Arts adopted creative placemaking wholesale in their competitive grantmaking. This is the first state in America to undergo such an arts funding gestalt shift towards creative placemaking, and will likely not be the last.
ArtPlace America
On the national level, in a noisy and competitive marketplace of disciplines, institutions, and projects, this situation is hardly rosy for new music. As part of ArtPlace America’s most recent grant awards for 2013-2014, no organizations or projects with formal commitments to new classical, jazz, or experimental music, American or otherwise, were selected. This is not to say that creative placemaking organizations like ArtPlace America snub new music in its entirety, but of the 134 grants made so far in ArtPlace America’s first three years, I only identify three that grapple with any music in a tangible way: Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, to draw resources to the impoverished West End; the Memphis Music Magnet to revitalize the Soulsville, USA neighborhood of Memphis; and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Center to encourage economic growth in the Tremé neighborhood.

As the arts funding puzzle shifts dramatically under the rubric of creative placemaking—from symphony orchestras to dance companies, and from museums to arts councils—the programs, services, and fundamental kind of art being made will necessarily change to enhance an organization’s competitiveness. This is not a situation that new music stakeholders should take lightly. While there is much to conceptually celebrate in the mixed-use landscape trumpeted by creative placemaking, we must interrogate the desired outcomes of this initiative. Creative placemaking’s ideal ends are not experimentalism, artistic integrity, arts education, I think, or even arts accessibility. The advancement of arts concerns (the arts qua arts) are mere means at various segments in the creative placemaking food chain: the ultimate aim of this policy project is robust economic growth. The language trumpeted by ArtPlace America, in particular, heralds an uneasy sheen of neoliberal corporatism and, in places previously abandoned by economic opportunity, the threat of creeping gentrification. Creative placemaking’s loudest selling points in the literature include “increased economic performance,” “captur[ing] new revenue,” and “creat[ing] a place where business wants to be,” a nomenclature that yokes artistic activity as a mechanism for the growth of capital. Notice, the three previous music examples within ArtPlace America’s grant portfolio all function as magnets for industry and investment, rather than herald any intrinsic meaningfulness for artistry.

My reservations about creative placemaking are hardly isolated. Ian Moss and Roberto Bedoya independently describe how creative placemaking projects, even in light of their slippery relationship with measurable outcomes, deserve the scrutiny of other neighborhood uplift crusades: do they initiate displacement as the community becomes “more desirable,” property values increase, and long-time residents—the very people whose cultural backgrounds creative placemaking purports to celebrate—depart or are marginalized en masse? Moss loosely characterizes this phenomenon as the “Arts Colonization Process” wherein the artists flock, a hip reputation follows, and there goes the neighborhood. Megan Wilson’s superb recent analysis of ArtPlace America’s 5M Project gone awry in the SoMA neighborhood of San Francisco reinforces and fleshes out many apprehensions, particularly regarding how the perennial funding desperation faced by city agencies and community arts organizations pushes them towards Faustian bargains they might not otherwise entertain.

This trial for the artistic purposefulness of new music, compelling institutions and creators to bend their objectives and voices to suit the narrow financial framework of those with creative placemaking purse-strings, is born out through two specific examples. The first is an artist collective specializing in composer and performer role-switching workshops, located in an up-and-coming American city and anonymous here for their protection. Through a local family foundation focused on creative placemaking strategies, they receive funding and access to a rehearsal and performance space on one floor of a formerly deserted downtown office building. But the stipulations of the grant bind and inhibit far more than they inspire, or, in the words of the collective’s artistic director, “lots of grants [in this city] are for work being done in unconventional spaces, but they’re unconventional because they suck.” The director bemoaned the lack of a suitable theater or hall for concerts, where good recordings can be obtained and artistic and production facilities are in place. In this instance, a new music organization that was lucky enough to capture creative placemaking largess had to substantially adjust its core capacities and institutional image to meet the dictates of its benefactor.
The second example comes from new music group Clocks in Motion, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Clocks in Motion is comprised of current and former students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Music, cobbling together financial resources from a wide variety of piecemeal sources. The ensemble conducts aggressive outreach work, such as performing accessible and engaging new music for the “at risk” children of the after-school Allied Neighborhood Center and instructing young students in composition, culminating in the ensemble’s premiere of their works. But will the outreach, accessibility, and learning project of ensembles like Clocks in Motion be stymied as resources are shunted away from such endeavors, towards those that lay the foundation for commerce as conceived by creative placemaking? Despite the inventive nature of their engagement activities, Clocks in Motion simply does not fit the parameters prescribed as “proper” creative placemaking: they do not generate desire for new investments of capital, they do not foster pedestrian activity or the spontaneous gathering of people, and they do not perform or rehearse in some token light-industrial site. But how can you tell them they do not change the place they call home?

Clocks in Motion's education work

Clocks in Motion’s education work


What are we left with? First, while this article is not a call to arms, I think we as new music acolytes must make the case, both publicly and privately, that the music of our time can and does color the complexion of places, both for ourselves and for citizens from all walks of life. The mechanisms for change may involve the seductiveness of world premieres, the collaborative skill-building that grows reciprocal artist communities, or countless other avenues I did not enumerate. But just because our art is not planted on soil, bolted to concrete, slathered on a surface, or able to collect dust and grime, that does not mean it lacks the power to shape memories and imaginations about the locations close to our hearts.

Second, creative placemaking in its current outlook is unimpressed by new music’s efficacy as a mercantile powerhouse and, as a result, devalues its presence in the palette of contemporary arts practices presently available. Whether these decisions are deliberate individual acts by well-meaning grant panelists with a checklist in front of them, or the result of some collective unconscious, I would rather not speculate. But in practice, creative placemaking sets up a sieve that new music tends to slide right through, owing largely to new music’s fixation on technique, its disconnect from a historical imagination or canon, and the ephemeral nature of world premieres.

Third, I am not advocating for a wholesale rejection of the creative placemaking project, but rather, a cautious negotiation of how, when, and where new music creators, performers, and institutions sign on the dotted line for funding and logistical support. There is a very tangible risk (one faced by all non-profits and artists, to some degree) that new music will bend to the wind and adjust its creative potential to suit where the money happens to be flowing. Program choices, the sizes and types of ensembles being formed, the complexion of music being composed, the locales in which works are performed, education design, the conversations through which we engage our communities: these all stand to be yoked to creative placemaking if resource desperation takes hold.

Finally, the demonstrated risk of gentrification through creative placemaking, and this initiative’s overt wealth-accumulation project—with vague or nonexistent guidelines on how to grow such wealth in an equitable manner—means that there must be a social justice component to how new music interfaces with creative placemaking. This is surely the case in the locations where creative placemaking is deliberately having a disproportionate impact, such as up-and-coming cities seeking to raise their national profiles (Omaha, Madison, Kansas City, etc.) or ones that are on the mend from deindustrialization (Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.). From Omaha Under the Radar and Clocks in Motion, to the anonymous artist collective and countless others, new music will have an integral role to play in the recovery and celebration of these communities if we continue to shout, loudly and bravely, about how this art we have dedicated our lives to engages with both the least and most comfortable among us, and gives new voice to the vitality of the places we invest in and call home.


1. Holly Watkins, “Musical Ecologies of Place and Placelessness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, 2 (2011): 404-408 and Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill, “Introduction: Music, Space, and the Production of Place,” in The Place of Music, edited by Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill (Oxford: The Guilford Press, 1998).

2. Edward Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) p. 24.

3. Ibid, pp. 30-31

4. Edward Casey, “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena” in Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1997) p. 27.
Additional Works Cited
Leyshon, Andrew, David Matless, and George Revill. “Introduction: Music, Space, and the Production of Place.” In The Place of Music, edited by Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill, 1-30. Oxford: The Guilford Press, 1998.

Digital Audio Workstations: Notation and Engagement Reconsidered

DAW screen cap
First, a benign observation: the overwhelming majority of the music currently emanating from living room speakers, or being heard from passing car stereos, first passed through digital audio workstation (DAW) software of some shape and style. DAWs like Pro Tools, Audacity, Ableton, and GarageBand are generally defined by their use of sequenced tracks containing either sonic waveforms or MIDI code. Yet they are largely invisible to most musicians and listeners, unless one reflects on how digital audio is created and mediated on a day-to-day basis. When we think of a new work’s creation, we imagine a score being poured over by a meticulous hand, eventually realized with lyricism and aplomb by performer(s) of equivalent musical intuition and skill. We pay fleeting attention, if any, to the subsequent inscription and manipulation that occurs in the studio after both the composer and performer have gone out for drinks at the end of the recording session. Indeed, despite an engineer or producer’s best attempts, a new work cannot pass transparently through a DAW; there are always stopgaps, enhancements, deletions, and tweaks being exerted that, I think, fundamentally color the recorded piece as separate from the composer’s instruction and the performer’s execution. This begs the question of how best to characterize the DAW’s everyday impact on our musical world.

Whether a musical work began its life within a DAW (as is the case with computer or electroacoustic music), or only passed through one with minor alteration prior to public distribution, these software tools touch nearly every auditory creation with aspirations beyond a sidewalk corner, bedroom studio, or recital hall. But I would like to take their influence one step further. Not only do DAW software products mediate recorded sound, but these very same tools can be thought of as a form of digital music notation. I broadly define digital notation as any computer-generated system that inscribes information capable of being rendered musical, including but not limited to software that employs some version of conventional staff notation. In the same way we give latitude to the printed graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew, Iannis Xenakis, or Brian Eno as legitimate notation, the DAW’s world of sequenced tracks and waveforms deserves a similarly appreciative study. The fact that DAW software has utility as a performance or recording tool should not prejudice us against its additional notational qualities. Neither should the fact that DAWs are frequently used in tandem with other notational styles when realizing a work.
Xenakis Score
Two real-world situations hopefully add weight to our re-thinking of DAW software as notation. First, when a composer like Matthew Burtner creates a piece of computer or electroacoustic music through a DAW interface, with no originating staff score, should we simply say that Burtner’s piece lacks notation? Or that this music falls outside the boundaries of what notation can accomplish? Second, consider an error-prone session with a chamber group trying to record a new work by a composer like Brian Ferneyhough. By the end of the day, almost never does the recording engineer have a single unblemished take from the work’s beginning to end. More often than not, a hodgepodge of clips cutting across movements or rehearsal letters will need to be sewn back together in the DAW and made to sound convincing, both to Ferneyhough and the eventual listener. Separate versions of the work now exist: the original manuscript showing the composer’s lofty aspirations versus the listener’s reality, a sonic Frankenstein arranged within a DAW that compiles the engineer’s best approximation. Which format has a more legitimate claim as the work’s true inscription? Instead of throwing up our hands in despair at either situation, let’s expand our thinking and our musical toolbox by including DAW software, warts and all, as a digital notation.

A final clarification: the term “digital notation” is frequently thought of as encompassing only those tools of the 21st-century instrumental composer, Finale and Sibelius. Yet Finale and Sibelius are far more akin to conventional DAW software than they are to ink and manuscript notation. In fact, they represent just one fork in the road of the DAW’s development, employing the same sequenced tracks and playback capabilities as progenitor software products while sacrificing waveform sounds in favor of MIDI and virtual instruments. Since the first DAW’s unveiling in 1978, we see the incorporation of similar structural principles into later digital notation products such as Finale, initially released in 1988. Indeed, contemporary DAW software like Logic Pro, seamlessly blending tracks with either MIDI staff notation or waveforms in the same composition, show the re-convergence of these two design paths. Perhaps joining “staff” software like Finale and “non-staff” software like Audacity together under the same notational umbrella seems unintuitive or even bizarre. But I counter that our understanding and classification of digital music notation should rely on how we engage with the medium rather than on the look of the “score” rendered through pixels. In what ways do we take for granted, on an experiential basis, how composers sculpt and explore the sound materials within DAW notation? By briefly exploring three core structural features of most DAWs–waveforms, sequenced tracks, and rapid playback–I want to make the case that this style of digital notation (Finale et al. included) enables a remarkable creative work process for a composer that deserves greater consideration.

Logic Pro screen cap

Logic Pro screen capture

Starting with Max Mathews’s first 1957 forays into the MUSIC-N programming language, the 1960s and ’70s found those individuals experimenting with computer-generated sound being able to specify individual aural events with a revelatory level of ultra-fine resolution. One could now stipulate with great precision the digital synthesis of musical parameters such as pitch, duration, envelope, and harmonic content. Csound, shown here, is a contemporary incarnation of these composition principals. A looming challenge soon arose for the early developers of digital music notation: how, in spite of this high-resolution processing, could a larger series of musical ideas be represented with clarity in the context of an entire composition? Italian electronic music composer Giancarlo Sica summarized a hopeful new method: “…a musical performer must be able to control all aspects [of a digital notation] at the same time. This degree of control, while also preserving expressivity to the fullest extent, allows continuous mutations in the interpretation of a score.” Waveforms, track sequencing, and rapid playback are precisely the DAW’s answer to this outline for increased digital notation flexibility.

CSound screen capture

CSound screen capture

The waveform is the first feature of DAW notation that I believe is taken for granted: how exactly does a composer engage with waveforms as opposed to our standard symbolism of staves, bars, notes, and accents? Waveforms serve as representations of sonic loudness over time with either craggy (quick attacks and decays, with short sustains) or smooth (slow attacks and decays, with long sustains) linear shapes. They flaunt the edges, curves, and dips of a performer’s dynamic treatment of audible content. Furthermore, they fulfill Sica’s earlier blueprint by being able to stretch apart and compact on a whim, displaying a microsecond of curvature or minutes of slow growth in rapid succession. Yet while waveforms provide exactness in the realms of amplitude and duration through visual peaks and valleys, the vital categories of pitch and harmonic content become inaccessible. Waveforms in DAW notation dramatically re-prioritize the musical dimensions to which composers have been traditionally most attentive, trading pointillistic melodic lines and chordal clusters for the attack, sustain, and decay of long, homogenized statements. They blend together formerly discrete notes as they resonate into and out of one another, with punctuation determined largely by phrase and cadence. In essence, our original melodic line becomes a single gestural sweep. Composers must then express themselves in this medium by sculpting a waveform’s dynamic development via fades and contour trims. Through tweaking sonic envelopes like these, waveforms in a DAW notation environment lead composers to think of musical movement in spatial or even topographical terms, rather than through traditional contrapuntal or harmonic mindsets. When a composer manipulates a waveform as the building block of a DAW’s musical dialect, I would describe it as far more akin to working pottery on a lathe or carving a block of ice than a typical composition metaphor such as painting with brushstrokes on a canvas. The same cannot be said for Finale’s species of MIDI-intense DAW notation, as a composer can’t zoom deeper into a quarter-note and discover more musical information to massage. Ultimately, this is a core distinction between a composer’s engagement with waveforms versus staff notation: waveforms enable a practically limitless editing capacity within each topographical gesture, whereas staff symbols are bound by both their discreteness from one another as well as their individual immutability. Again, one simply cannot chop away at the interiors of a quarter-note to render a different sort of sound.
Waveforms, in turn, strongly inform the next feature of DAW notation taken for granted: track sequencing. Track sequencing was developed in order to solve the especially thorny problem of showing relative musical time in digital notation, especially when there are a large number of sound events packed into a relatively short segment. A thickly composed section of a musical work may be pulled apart and laid out on a plane of such tracks that are then stacked on top of one another, or sequenced, to show simultaneity and density of texture. One might understand track sequencing as analogous to the look and feel of a printed orchestral score in conventional staff notation. Yet within such a score, one ratio of detail is maintained throughout the entire work. A conductor is unable to “zoom” in and out to examine micro-fine aspects of a particular instrumental voice, while also limiting the cues and visual influence of the other instruments that bleed into view. In contrast, DAW notation accomplishes precisely this feat while grappling with global and local representations of time across often immense distances. Time-flexible track sequencing, in tandem with our topographical waveforms, enable the composer to almost effortlessly rove and leap between far-flung sections, both making pin-prick edits and rendering gaping holes in the curves of the sounds. The ease of this direct work with the sequenced materiality of the waveform prompts critic and composer Douglas Kahn to opine that, beyond merely writing with sound, users of DAW notation initiate a “word processing” of sound. He describes how “workstations can cut and paste at sub-perceptual durations… they can pivot, branch out, detour, and flesh out… there is no restriction to duration… no necessary adherence to any form of [musical] interval. [DAWs] are very conducive to admixture, stretch, continua, and transformation.” I would like to run with Kahn’s word processing metaphor and apply it specifically to how we overlook the way composers currently manipulate music through the track sequencing of DAW notation. The fluidity and depth with which we sculpt digital music acquires a kind of invisibility, just like word processing, once we become comfortable in the DAW ecosystem. It is as if the composer were tangibly poking and prodding the waveform’s topography without numerous layers of idiosyncratic and technological mediation.

The final feature of DAW notation largely taken for granted involves its rapid playback capacities. A familiar console of controls–fast forward, play, stop, pause, and rewind–exists as a universal feature on DAW products and facilitates constant repeatability with even greater flexibility than a cassette player or a VCR. Once the composer zeroes in on a given segment of interest, the playback of the composition can be locked between these segment’s boundaries. An audible portion can then be looped and a brief, five-second moment may be repeated and tweaked ad infinitum. With this playback tool working in tandem alongside visual variables such as track sequencing and waveform editing, the act of listening itself becomes an inseparably notational component of software like Audacity and even Finale. To clarify: printed notation was formerly necessary as a means to preserve and later create organized sound. Now, listening is on equal footing with sight in our experience of digital notation, generating a sort of feedback loop whereby audible sound is able to dictate its own trajectory in a much more embedded way than a composer might accomplish by sitting with a sketch at the piano. This of course suggests a different sort of notation entirely: one that is multi-sensory at its very core. A single waveform gesture in DAW notation provokes dual stimuli as its visual content translates almost seamlessly into an aural dimension and vice-versa. Through the dogged playback and repetition of a particular musical segment, there is an uncanny synesthesia between sight and sound. Such episodes must certainly cause difficulty: how do I tell where one sense ends and the other begins in a musical experience mediated by DAW notation? This is the third and most pressing aspect, I think, of our creative process largely taken for granted.

I hesitate to point to explicit stylistic changes that result from a composer’s use of DAW notation in lieu of ink and manuscript paper. This trepidation stems not only from the wild diversity of musical genres that employ DAW notation, but also the varying creative stages in which this software is utilized as well as the countless product permutations that mix and match the variables I just described. Rather, my point is that crucial aspects of this ubiquitous music notation technology escape our attention unless we look at them through the lens of compositional engagement. First, waveforms encourage a breadth and depth of musical control, in a topographical style, not available to discrete note values whether they be printed on a page or displayed as a MIDI veneer. Second, track sequencing permits shifting focal points of reference that in turn enable a hyperactive editing style akin to word processing. This is a situation that non-DAW notation precludes through limited visual flexibility. Third, the DAW’s rapid playback controls allow listening to mingle with and meld into the visual parameters of digital notation, as if waveforms were now tangible gestures with a physicality we can toy with beyond the pixels of the computer screen. This is, of course, to say nothing of the tactile interaction that composers experience when they employ a mouse and keyboard while listening to and sculpting the building blocks of DAW notation. Ultimately, DAW software distinguishes itself from other notational styles as a synesthetic tool akin to word processing in its application. In fact, it is a notation whose design parameters, inspired by Sica’s call for relentless flexibility, unite so seamlessly that they retreat from the user’s attention rather than become more apparent, especially as a composer grows increasingly comfortable with their use. The pervasive invisibility of DAW notation in our routine contact with sound and media compels us to shine a critical light on this ingenious device for the inscription and birth of new music.