Some years ago, following my emigration to the Berkshires from New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I decided to pursue my formerly serious, but lately moribund interest in photography.
Getting into it after a 20-year hiatus, I discovered that if I wanted to be au courant, I would need to - in chef Emeril Lagasse’s phrase - "bump it up a notch" by going digital.
And why not? As a composer I had, over a two-year period in the early 1990s, mastered "Finale" - the complex music notation software, in order to print and publish my music. Going digital with photography meant learning "Photoshop" - Finale’s equivalent in the super-sophisticated manipulation of photographs imported into the computer and from there, processed. Both programs allow for the virtually unlimited transformation of music and images. Whatever you can imagine - and then some - given enough expertise, can be realized.
Recently, I’ve been conflating the two artistic worlds I inhabit, asking myself if music can be "Photoshopped." In this column, I’d like to suggest that the latter is being done, and in fact, has been going on for, as I see it, over 100 years, in one form or another.
Try to follow me in my perhaps convoluted logic.
What does it mean when we say that a picture is "Photoshopped"? I’d define the term this way: The importing of an image into the computer for the purpose of editing, and thereby altering it.
Of course, this is an erroneous judgment. The precursor darkroom/film photography had always, from its inception, been "manipulated" for effect. The use of filters, media (including metal and many grades of paper) and exposure times resulted in substantial changes from the original, "natural" source image. I prefer to see today’s photoshopping techniques as a good thing and a great advancement in the visual arts: They are an unparalleled resource, opening up new vistas of creativity literally "as far as the eye can see."
How does photoshopping relate to music? Is there a pure, natural and un-processed music from the classical tradition that survives un-altered in performance today? Here, the key word is "performance."
We don’t perform Bach’s harpsichord music much these days on the harpsichord, a precursor of the piano. Why? The piano, by the 1790s became the dominant solo and orchestral keyboard, and with its larger tonal capacity, replaced the earlier instrument. Bach, when he heard the first Cristofori pianos, around 1720, hated the new instrument.
Would he approve of his preludes and fugues, harpsichord concerti and accompanied sonatas being performed on these "modern" instruments?
Take the case of Haydn and Mozart’s symphonies as they’re performed today. These are essentially intimate works, written for 25-35 players. Yet, unless you hear a chamber orchestra specializing in this 18th century repertoire, using stringed instruments with gut strings, wooden flutes and the other instruments in their earlier incarnations, you’re not hearing these composers’ works the way they were conceived "back in the day." Our much larger orchestras, even with reduced numbers of strings in an attempt to approximate the original, still sound unmistakably modern in this music, especially with the strings’ use of wider and constant Romantic-era "expressive" vibrato.
Cesar Franck’s use of the English horn (an alto oboe) and Berlioz’ espousal of the saxophone added new timbres to the orchestra. Are these added "tone colors," in essence, photoshopping the sound of the venerated classical orchestra? What about the "Wagner" tubas, used in the composer’s massive "Ring" cycle of music dramas? Going further afield, we have Richard Strauss’ use of a wind machine in "Don Quixote" and in "An Alpine Symphony;" Respighi’s recording of a nightingale in "The Pines of Rome" and Mahler’s use of cowbells (herdenglocken) in his Seventh Symphony. All these exotic additions changed what an orchestra can be, though one might counter that adding "instruments" such as cowbells and birdsong might make the orchestra, which after all, is an invented collection of disparate sound-producing contraptions, sound more natural. But we don’t hear music that way. The orchestra, as it’s normally constituted, sounds natural, and these external additions appear as welcome intruders, if you will. For my money, George Gershwin’s use of actual French taxi horns in "An American in Paris" is the best and most ingenious use of an artificial, but everyday sound made musical in the most delightful way. All this, to me, is musical photoshopping, and I love it.
It took only a few years after Gershwin’s 1928 Franco/American opus to totally break away from the sound world of the past. Edgard Varese (1883-1965) wrote music for sirens and anvils in "Ionization" (1931,) and John Cage wrote a piece for 12 radios. With the post-World War II use of magnetic tape, and soon after, with the invention of various types of synthesizers, electronic music was born, and the sounds of the machine seemed poised to replace the natural, familiar instrumental music as we had known it for 350 years. These were non-naturalistic, artificial sounds that had no precedent in music.
Yet, in their gifted creators’ hands and minds, from these techniques composers were able to contrive a brave new sound world that, with careful listening, still expressed essential musical ideas.
Love it or hate it, today’s world is a photoshopped world. We have aspartame-coated cocoa puffs, polystyrene go cups and antibiotics in our meat. On the positive side, we have gluten-free bread, one-percent, lactate-free, long shelf life milk, hybrid vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines - this last may not be to your liking if they block your view of the mountains. Music - and everything else - has gone the Photoshop route.
Reading this, you may feel like it’s not worth it; the natural look (and sound) is better. Maybe, but next time you take a look at your sister Kate’s wedding pictures, you might ask yourself "What happened to that mole on her neck and those freckles on her nose? They’re not there. Hmm ..."