For all the ubiquity of electronic instruments and computers in the past half century, it’s still comparatively rare for composers to add these sounds to the largely-unchanging makeup of an orchestra. Therefore, as composer Ned McGowan writes a concerto that claims to be the first for iPad, he’s forced to admit the addition of a computer remains somewhat novel.

A composer himself, Frank Oteri has compiled a list of works for orchestra and technology. The scores typically call, however, for the integrated instrument of a “synthesizer”; computers are often relegated to making appearances on tape even in relatively recent works. (One notable exception is Morton Subotnick.) That list from 2001 is naturally in need of an update.

Like the superset category of “computer,” the iPad itself is notable largely in that it can become anything, whether imitative or not. McGowan’s approach, he tells CDM, is to use a variety of applications: Geo Synth, Bowls HD, TC-11, TapStereo, Monolith LOOP, CutUpMachine, SampleWiz, and Animoog.

In the first movement, which he says is meant to explore the “expressive” quality of the device, the music sounds strikingly like a Martenot or Theremin, two analog instruments with their own orchestral history. The Martenot, championed by the likes of Olivier Messiaen, might even rival the computer in works, and perhaps could be a model for future computer interfaces. Other movements sound to me less like a discrete instrument and more like computer-composed sound accompaniment for the instrumental ensemble.

I am personally unconvinced by McGowan’s argument that the iPad can be seen as an instrument independent of the computer simply because it has a touchscreen. By the same token, any conventional computer with a mouse has a consistent “gestural” input – whether it’s a good input is immaterial. But as for whether the iPad – or computer – is fair game as a material for a composer, I don’t see why not. And these debates seem worth having. Composers use instruments crafted by instrument makers; why not applications crafted in code? You can view McGowan’s arguments for why he did this and how he approached the composition in a separate video below:

The performance at top is performed by Keiko Shichijo on the iPad with the Sinfonia Rotterdam, conducted by Conrad van Alphen, as the second installment in the Rotterdam Concerto series initiated by the Doelen and Sinfonia Rotterdam.

  • kent williams

    One of the (few) benefits of being older than the average CDM reader is that I’ve been around for several waves of this kind of stunt composing at Universities.  There’s a formula:

    whatever is the latest tech fetish that coincidentally makes a sound + orchestra = 15 minutes of fame.

    So in 1965 they started featuring Moog Modulars as soloists, and in 1979 it was an Apple II, etc.  At some point Max MSP was the new shiny and swept through academia like wildfire. It’s hard to say now what the fallout will be for any of these gimmick pieces.  There is the ephemeral pleasures of seeing new music performed, but artistic merit is always assessed in arears. Unfortunately many composers will die without getting their due.

    The real problem with any of this stuff is that to have any lasting relevance a technology has to have the potential for deep musical expression, and it has to persist for longer than a few years.  The last novel instrument that met those conditions was the Saxaphone.  The Sousaphone was more recent, but it’s just a Tuba with delusions of grandeur.

    A more recent example, the Chapman Stick, seems never to have really caught on.

    • Peter Kirn

      True, although I must admit I was impressed looking over the list above from Frank. You have some of the biggest names in 20th Century composition who were fairly consistent contributors to the rep here – not just as a one-off, but on an ongoing basis. 

      I’d say there are just barely enough Martenot works to say it can count as a novel addition to the orchestra… but that was before WWII, so hardly recent. It is stunning that the computer, at over a half a century of digital sound, would still be a flavor of the month, then. Or maybe it really just doesn’t fit in the orchestra, partly because it can be a whole orchestra. That’s not true of a Martenot or a piano or anything else.

      Come to think of it, I’ve been around for a few waves of this, and I’m not that old. 😉 (I also grew up as a kid in Louisville in time to see the tail end of the Louisville Orchestra’s golden age of orchestral premieres…)

    • Dennis Moser

       Oh, and Peter: that “recent” thing — a lot of radio announcers STILL refer to Debussy as “modern” when he’s been dead for 100 years. One of ironies of classical music is the  time frame that is invoked … 😛

    • Peter Kirn

      I agree… though if we mention the sax, we have to include the Martenot. And to me it was interesting to hear the iPad sounding … how shall we say … Martenesque? 😉

    • josh giesbrecht

      How likely is it for any electrically-amplified instrument to become a regular part of an orchestra? Most orchestra halls are built for natural, un-amped acoustics, right? Anything amped is not really in its natural environment there.

  • Dennis Moser

    I’d like to hear a better recording (or experience this first hand).

    The biggest factor surrounding the use of the computer/iPad is the sheer mutability of sound — it can “emulate” all manner of other orchestral instruments and beyond. If the piano is the “king” of the orchestra (they say the the organ is the “queen”) because of the range of expression, timbre, and texture, then the humble iPad has to be the freaking Emperor of the Universe, just from this example alone.

    I’m not sure that the issue is whether or not the tool is to be treated as an “instrument” or that we just aren’t seeing enough work that truly gets beyond the “flavor of the month” sensationalism.

    “Classical” music has been in crisis mode for the past 75-odd years; things like this offer some hope, but there’s still a lot to be done. This may (or may not — depends on if we see more work from the composer and a coterie of virtuosos of the iPad coming forth) be a step in the right direction.

    • Graham

      Orchestral music IN AMERICA has been in crisis for quite a while. In Europe, where orchestral music is part of the cultural fabric, it has been doing fine (as can be seen in all the videos of more experimental ensembles performing). Sadly, American orchestral music has always been outside of the mainstream cultural experience and has always been seen as somehow elitist and undemocratic. This wasn’t at all helped by the academic focus of American orchestral composition in the 50’s and 60’s with the rise of aleotoric and serial composition. The Eastman composers during this period should be admonished for their singleminded drive to remove all humanity and emotion from music composition, which resulted in the complete alienation of the American audience.  /rant

      Anyway,  I think the ephemeral and malleable nature of electronic and computer based instruments definitely works against them being part of an evolving and “permanent” part of performing literature. The very nature of an instruments inherent limitations enables a performer to recreate a piece in performance – if the nature of the instrument is it’s lack of limitations, it makes it more difficult for more than one composer to approach that instrument in a compositional sense.

  • sniff

    I’m struck with a similar feeling to when I saw DJ Radar perform with a full orchestra. I don’t mind the music too much, but the fact that the ipad is given such central focus with the name and projections during the concert does give it a gimmicky feeling. But maybe this isn’t the composer’s fault but more of the producers and people trying to sell the concert, in any case I don’t think it’s helping the music.  

  • Brandt Schneider

    Here in ct we just premiered Doug Ogradys iAlchemy for orchestra and iPad ensemble with the Waterbury Symphony. It was a great experience.

  • RupertBrown

    I think its cool but would be helped by being quitter in the “mix”. It feels like its playing over the top of everything else not with the other instruments. That being said the quality of the recording isn’t great and this could just have something to do with the mic placement.
    Maybe the fact that all the analogue instruments are capable of such huge dynamic range and while the ipad could do anything its playing fairly consistant notes.

  • Yur2die4

    She is the only instrumentalist who relies on a table. Which also happens to impose some limitations upon the instrument’s overall mastery. Perhaps there can be a remedy for that.

    I believe that the devices of this genre’s single most powerful feature is their ability to be turned on and off with minimal consideration. The same goes for the streamlined handling and juggling of apps. You get a flavor in your mouth, you swipe to and open the app for it. Tinker around. Turn it off.

  • Alst