Embracing Abandoned Technologies

Embracing Abandoned Technologies

My feelings about the possible discontinuation of the Sibelius music notation software program are somewhat colored by my attraction to abandoned technologies. They are also informed by the fact that I, for the most part, abandoned pen and staff paper for music notation software more than a quarter of a century ago.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Abandoned Technologies

While most folks walk around with one all-purpose handheld device, I prefer carrying around three: a Palm T/X and a FlipCam (both of which have been discontinued) plus a BlackBerry (which the rumor mill claims is also not long for this world). Photo by Kevin Clark

While reactions within the composer community to the possible discontinuation of the Sibelius music notation software program have ranged from shock and outrage to indifference, my own feelings are a bit more complicated. While they are somewhat colored by my attraction to abandoned technologies, they are also informed by the fact that I, for the most part, abandoned pen and staff paper for music notation software more than a quarter of a century ago. These two things are actually related to each other in my personal experience.

One of the activities I prided myself very highly on when I was a teenager was the creation of musical scores with meticulous calligraphy. I would literally devote hours to each individual page. My materials consisted of: Passantino manuscript paper (in various dimensions depending on how many instruments I was writing for); protractors (to guarantee that every stem was perpendicular to the staff and to measure each one precisely); numerous jars of Liquid Paper (not so much to correct mistakes but rather to customize margins and sometimes to increase spaces between staff systems, very time consuming and not recommended); and Paper Mate black ballpoint pens (blue pens when I composed in 31-tone tuning, but that’s another story). If someone back then had told me that I would no longer engage in this activity once I graduated from college I would have thought it an affront to the core of my personal identity. Yet the first significant purchase I made, the year after receiving my bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1985, was a personal computer (an Apple IIGS) and a color dot-matrix printer (the ImageWriter II)—which to this day remains the first and last time I ever bought products made by Apple. I was talked into bringing these machines into my life by several very persuasive salespeople—I would never have listened to just one—who convinced me that owning the then brand new IIGS (September 1986), which was specifically designed for graphic and sound applications, would completely change my composing regimen. For better or worse, it did.

Before it changed my music writing habits, it forever changed my relationship to writing prose. Whatever its flaws in retrospect, AppleWorks was a vast improvement over the old Royal typewriter I had been using for anything I wrote and wanted someone else to read. (The less-than-ideal manifestation of prose originating from that particular device, which I bought for a pittance at a Salvation Army thrift store, was compounded by my having no idea how to clean typewriter keys at the time, so all the Os were invariably completely filled in, etc.) But not only was the readability of the text printed on the Imagewriter a quantum leap beyond what I had been imposing on folks, the content also improved dramatically. Using a word processor was how I learned to edit myself. It’s still an uphill battle, but at least now it’s one I’m aware needs to be fought.

The earliest piece of music notation software that I became aware of that was compatible with the IIGS was something called Pyware Music Writer. (I was amazed this morning when I searched for “Pyware” that the company is not only still around but is still producing music notation software!) After those first few months adapting to composing words at the computer, using notation software seemed a parallel evolution for writing music. And it was. I no longer worked on a composition from beginning to end in a linear fashion, but rather ideas would flow for different parts of a piece and then, via the machinations of technology, eventually become a coherent whole. And I could make changes without constantly rewriting pages and going through gallons of Liquid Paper in the process.

The biggest shortcoming of the version of Pyware Music Writer I purchased, however, was that it was limited to six staves in total. As I was mostly interested in composing chamber music, especially since no orchestras were knocking on my door at the time, this did not pose an insurmountable problem. But I sometimes wonder, even if a performance would still not have been immediately forthcoming, if my inspiration would have led me to larger ensembles had the program afforded me the ability to notate for them. Perhaps a worse problem, however, was that my Pyware notated scores were extremely difficult to read in a dot matrix print out. I had gone from creating engraver-quality handwritten scores to abysmal computer-generated ones. I send out heartfelt apologies to everyone whom I had subjected to these scores for virtually a decade.

Still, I was reluctant to abandon ship after spending so much money on this equipment and so much time learning how to use it and inputting so many hours of work into it. Apple made it even harder for me to upgrade since they discontinued the IIGS and made their subsequent operating systems completely incompatible with it, which meant that if I were to switch to a more recent machine I would need to learn a completely different system and re-enter all my music again from the beginning. (Because of this and my feeling that Apple’s infringement suit against the Franklin Ace was unfair, I have remained fervent in my boycott of their products.) But eventually common sense won over my stubbornness and I switched computer systems. I still remember donating the IIGS to the same Salvation Army shop where I bought the Royal typewriter that it had replaced.

For a brief time I used Finale on my new PC, but I couldn’t get it to do what I was trying to do in a composition I was working on at the time—extensive passages involving different cross beamings in every instrument (which I believe it can now do)—so I went back to notating music by hand. And then I learned about Sibelius. It took me only a weekend to figure out the basics of how to use it and within a year I had transferred almost everything I had composed up to that point into it. I was using version 2.0 at the time. I’ve since upgraded to 5.0 and luckily all my older files open, even though they occasionally need a few tweaks here and there. Sibelius is now up to a version 7.0, but I’m not a technology chaser so I have no intention of upgrading anytime soon. And if the doomsday scenario folks are talking about comes to pass, I won’t be able to purchase newer editions anyway.

The years of being saddled with the Apple IIGS and Pyware Music Writer taught me to do the best with what I had, something the folks who wait in line overnight to buy the latest iPhone will find incomprehensible. Often the latest technologies are not the most useful. Back in 1998, some friends who were annoyed that I kept forgetting appointments chipped in and bought me a PalmPilot. It was discontinued last year, but my alarms still go off like clockwork and guarantee that I’m where I’m supposed to be most of the time. The handy and very easily searchable memos and address applications also help me remember and quickly access a ton of information I otherwise would have forgotten. Last year I bought a FlipCam about a month before it ceased being manufactured; it also remains a constant companion. I have no intention of throwing my BlackBerry out amidst rumors that it too might not be long for this world. And I laugh at all the folks who have abandoned their CD collections for iPods, cloud services, or whatever the latest soon-to-be-discontinued technology-du-demain is; my thousands of LPs still sound great! And so do harpsichords, recorders, lutes, analog synthesizers, and myriad other musical instruments that were supposed to have been made obsolete by “improved” instrument designs.

There is no way we can ever catch up with what we think the future will be, or rather, what others (mostly marketers) tell us the future will be. At the end of the day, that time could be better spent honing our skills with technologies that work for us and that we are comfortable with. I still haven’t mastered all the details of Sibelius 5.0 (or even 2.0, for that matter); its already available intricacies will probably serve my compositional needs for the rest of my life. Now all I need to do is make sure that a computer that can run the software will last as long.