Introduction to Software Synthesis

The collaboration between the NYU Software Synthesis class and The Csound Blog officially begins now. Course instructor Jean-Luc Cohen-Sinclair has prepared an introductory statement to set the tone for the semester:

How would one define computer music today, in an age where all music could be to a degree called computer music? What sets works such as ‘Kontakte’, ‘Mutations’ or ‘Stria’ apart as masterpieces of computer and electronic music?

Perhaps it is that these works explore and confront musical dimensions that had until then been largely ignored or loosely codified by Western music. Dimensions such as tuning, dynamics or timbre. If music, as Varese once observed is organized noise, noise itself for instance, has been largely rejected by the West as a viable musical element. Perhaps because, until recently anyway, Western music relied on a system of clearly categorized pitch classes based on transposable relationships.

And indeed, until the advent of the computer, these dimensions were very difficult to explore, as Varese himself lamented for much of his life.

The computer however is the ideal instrument with which to explore these and many more musical fields. Though as computers became more powerful, and cheaper to mass produce, they were by and large, put to a very different musical use. Instead of creating instruments that could produce unique and new sounds and music, manufacturers and consumers have increasingly embraced it as a means to reproduce the sound of existing instruments. The computer these days is mostly used to imitate rather than to explore. While this makes a lot of sense on a commercial and practical level, it is almost a perversion of the instrument and what it is capable of doing. Perhaps this was bound to happen once most synthesizers began to ship with a keyboard that mimics a piano instead of a completely new interface? Yet there is so much more this technology can be used for.

Enters Csound. Coding provides the composer with an entirely new interface, one never used before by any musicians until recently. That interface does not give us white and black keys set a semi tone apart, or limits us to a particular range of tonal possibilities. It does the exact opposite. Sure, Csound and most computer music languages allow us to work with equal temperement tuning fairly easily, but just as easily afford us the luxury of absolute frequency control, completely new timbral possibilities and surgical control over dynamics.

It almost begs the composer to do so.

Our efforts over these next few weeks will focus on exploring the strengths of coding as a means of musical creation and embrace them as a tool for sound synthesis and composition. Have fun and enjoy the ride.

Synthesis Fall 2010

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