Deskilling the Orchestra

The master of the Abacus can solve complex and lengthy arithmetic problems with incredible speed, faster often than an expert on a ten-key calculator, yet the training and practice required to accomplish this renders the skill rather irrelevant to a world in which some limited practice enables the neophyte with a calculator to do much the same thing. This finely tuned mastery may indeed be a remarkable and impressive curiosity but is unlikely to play a significant role in common practice.

Just as the intensely rapid keying facility stemming from years of practice at the supermarket cash register has been rendered antiquated and superfluous by the presence of UPC coded packaging, database lookup, and bar-code scanners, many fields formerly requiring finely developed skills have yielded to the pragmatic considerations of speed, efficiency and the economic factor of reducing the expertise required to that of an unskilled worker with a few hours of training.

Certainly, the traditional crafts will continue to occupy an honored historical position, but the planes and augers of Colonial Williamsburg woodworking have elsewhere all but succumbed to the onslaught of routers and sundry laser guided power tools of a modern age.

The art of the musician, on the other hand, has always involved the production of sound by exploiting the characteristics of wooden sound boards, gut strings, vibrating reeds, horsehair and stopped holes. Endless hours and years of practice are commonly put into the mastery of these devices, mastery then displayed to the wonder and delight of an appreciative audience. Yet, strangely, the connection to the mechanical limitations of 16th, 17th and 18th century technology still reigns in the realm of classical music. Musicians spend many years mastering the devices and techniques of instruments whose most recent major developments and improvements were probably the clarinet, French Horn and Tourte bow of the 18th century.

As any music student will have learnt, often through many hours of onerous practice, the hands, mind and reflexes of the musician must be made to conform to and engage with the properties and peculiarities of instruments that were state-of-the art long before sailing vessels were supplanted by steamships and muzzle-loaded muskets surrendered their dominance to more efficient means of slaughtering the proletariat in fulfilment of the rapacious goals of aristocracy.

The brilliance of a live performance does seem to stem at least partly from the uncommon and, to the vast majority, unattainable skill displayed, just as a circus audience gazes in awe at a wire-balancing juggler, but this is not really regarded as the primary message of the art which remains the interpretation of musical compositions, including those dating from the ages from which the instruments come — sometimes as reproductions but also often as well-maintained and invaluable relics of antiquity.

This music has been clearly defined — the notes, bars, dynamic indications, tempi and structures recorded in pages of five-line staves whose contents are accessible only to the privileged cognoscenti initiated through a long process of training into the secrets of this historical and rather arbitrary code.

But why have the brass, winds, strings and percussion of the band and orchestra not also been eroded by the waves of simplification and expediency which have all but eradicated the justification for and value of hard-won skills of past centuries by providing intuitive and readily accessible digital interfaces? It does indeed seem that the field of music and music pedagogy is a lone bastion of artistic anachronism.

The instrumental interface of acoustic, pre-industrial age musical instruments is of course only incidentally and superficially influenced by human anatomy and ease of use. Given current resources however, any sound could be produced in accordance with any interface one might choose — hand motions, eye motions, brain alpha waves, facial expressions, anything. The bridge between input and output could easily link any form of input to any form of output in ways whose potential could really only be fathomed by experimentation and evolution.

The “art” of the performance of composed written music need not concern itself with the choice of notes as that data is predefined by the piece played and could therefore simply be plugged into the instrument leaving the performance artist entirely free to concentrate on interpretation. This interpretation could then certainly involve traditional dynamics and tempo (volume and speed) but could easily also encompass the wave form (tone), the envelope of the notes (attack, decay, sustain, release) and a vast array of other possible interpretive parameters far beyond the capabilities of an acoustically-bound traditional musical interface. Criticism of sounds thus produced as being far too perfect, similar, regular, artificial could all be countered by nuanced software devices and even stochastic imperfection as desired.

To be sure, there are many who would disparage any attempt to make the skill of playing a musical instrument into something that can be acquired with an hour or two of practice and would disdain the music thus produced, but just as computer-guided machine tools have survived and triumphed over that opprobrium, the democratisation of music production and its accessibility to those who love music but have not undergone the discipline hitherto requisite to producing it will likely prevail. Noble and nostalgic sentiment will certainly never die altogether. As long as the abacus master is appreciated and performances with “period instruments” continue to inspire audiences, and while traditional handicrafts continue find markets and visitors enjoy displays of ancient line-o-type machines and nineteenth century diving equipment, these will certainly be preserved. But when it does become possible for a music-lover to perform a favorite cherished work with little practice but with far more creative and artistic latitude than ever available to the classically trained virtuoso, there will be many who will avail themselves of the opportunity and thus may very possibly raise the nuances and potentials of musical interpretation, through experimentation and gradual refinement, to unprecedented heights.

K. Titchenell  (