I personally regard the harmonic system used by composers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as one of the finest achievements of Western civilization. My compositions employ that basic system ....a system we call functional tonality....in other words, music in a key. The abandonment of tonal harmony in the early 20th C. stands out as a major cause of classical music's declining popularity today..... a decline we see in dwindling ticket sales, mounting orchestral bankruptcies, shrinking CD revenues, and a cutback in radio programming. If classical music has any chance of winning back its audience, it must return to the harmonic idiom used by composers of the past.
 


Virtual instruments are one of the miracles of modern technology. Any instrument in the orchestra can be "virtualized"....e.g., violins (either as solo or in section), clarinets, trumpets, timpani, harp etc.....even the human voice (as solo or in chorus). Here's the way it works with the violin. In a recording studio a professional violinist plays each note his instrument is capable of ....one at a time....from the G below middle C to the G four octaves above. He plays each note legato...then does it again using each of the other articulations common to the string family, i.e., staccato, marcato, detache, and pizzicato. All notes are recorded in a sound-proof studio, then placed on a DVD which can be purchased and uploaded onto anyone's computer. Once all these sounds are on your hard disk, you can use a software program to map them to your electronic keyboard. You simply instruct the software program to access the violin files on your hard drive and relay them onto your keyboard. Now....if you play C on your keyboard, you get the same C that the violinist made back in the studio. If you play D you get his D. At this point the software becomes truly magical. While the original violinist played only one note at a time, the application allows you to combine his C, D, and any other single notes he played to create a melody of your own choosing. By manipulating the dynamics and timbre of the instrument you can make the melody as expressive as you want ...perhaps loud and strident in one section while soft and lyrical in another.
 


Typically I start with a fragment from a sketch book. Let's say I've decided to write a four-movement piece for orchestra that depicts the changing seasons here in Vermont...a piece I will probably call Vermont Seasons. I expect to use the full orchestra....flute, clarinet, trumpet, french horn, timpani, etc. all of which are lying in wait on one of the hard disks inside the computer...ready to be summoned by choices we make in the software program. what I need first is some themes...at least two for each of the four movements. For the autumn movement (Vermont's most beautiful season) I would like something sweeping and grand...a broad, lyrical theme that suggests the rolling hills and rounded valleys that make up this gorgeous landscape.

I begin by selecting the violin track on my software. The software not only tells the keyboard which instrument to play...it records what you play onto the computer's hard disk. So now I can tell the computer to playback what was just recorded...and, as I listen, I can start to add the other string parts...the second violins, violas, celli and contrabasses. After listening to the strings my ear tells me that some sort of counter melody is needed...like a sub-plot in a novel. The most likely candidates are the woodwinds. Here's where the keyboard-computer combination really shines. As I listen to what I have just written for the strings, I switch to a different track in the software (shown on the monitor) so that when I play the keyboard now it sounds like a clarinet. I try out a run in the low register where the clarinet is especially beautiful...and then listen to it against the background of the string parts I have previously entered. I play back the strings over and over as I experiment with the new clarinet part...until I am satisfied with how the two sound together. Then I record the strings and clarinet together.

Once I have the clarinet and strings the way I want them, I consider the possibility that a flute or two would sound good here, playing something entirely different from either the strings or the clarinet. I go to the monitor and instruct the keyboard to access the flute files on the hard disk, then tell the computer to playback the strings and clarinet parts I've already recorded, and experiment all over again until i have a combination of sounds that I like. So layer by layer, I keep adding parts, until I have the whole orchestra playing. One of the great advantages of composing digitally with virtual instruments is that I get to hear the piece as I write it. I don't have to wait for years to find out what my music sounds like.