Links – Symbolic Composer

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Nigel Morgan writes . . .

I began my association with the software application Symbolic Composer in 1990. As a teaching academic at Anglia Polytechnic University I had been investigating how the new MIDI technology might support and enhance the pre-compositional work of a composer . . . and found the direction being taken by developers towards sonic production and desk-top publishing of scores was doing little to enhance the craft of composing. It was for this reason I began to investigate current research into generative and algorithmic software. Through the MA research into fractals and music composition of composer Janet Owen Thomas I discovered a very early version of Symbolic Composer for the Atari computer. It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. Making contact with its Finnish author I became involved first as a composer testing the system against my day-to-day work, and then as a co-developer porting the system to Macintosh, eventually providing support for other composers keen to use the software. These included a number of internationally regarded educators and composers, Professor Gustav Ciamaga of Toronto University and David Lumsdaine formerly of Durham and King’s College London. My active work as developer has now been taking over by the brilliant Polish composer Janusz Podrazik.

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My position in regard to the use of such software as Symbolic Composer has remained unchanged in the fifteen years I have now worked almost daily with it. For me it provides a creative environment that I have been able to customize and extend to reflect the ever-changing nature of my work. Whilst many of my colleagues and contemporaries pursued the delights of digital audio I have stuck with SCOM: it continues to provide a dynamic way of conceptualising, realising and integrating pre-compositional ideas into the almost finished composition able to be read by a MIDI score-writer. I have been fortunate to discover the American Nightingale software. This scorewriter is able to read MIDI time-signature information, interprets MIDIfile data flawlessly. Most crucial for my work it does not constrain the composer to work within defined bar structures: the bar line can be a graphic object.

Read Nigel Morgan’s paper given to the Oxford Symposium Beyond Art?

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Symbolic Composer has not made it necessary for me to jettison any of the craft and technique that I acquired during my studies and early years as a composer. Rather it has enhanced my technical legacy and held up a kind of mirror to my craft. The composer Alexander Goehr has said that –

‘the problems of language, meaning and form must remain central
to a composer, and he has constantly to set himself up against the history
of his own art’.

SCOM has allowed me to do exactly as Professor Goehr suggests. SCOM enables me to accurate describe, retain, review and reuse if necessary compositional processes and strategies often completely hidden in a finished notated score.

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In 2005 my working relationship with SCOM has continued to develop. I am now using it as a tool for rough prototyping of orchestral scores – with some success. Some compositions are entirely composed with SCOM – my recent string quartet Objects of Curiosity is a good example. Other pieces
have a degree of input: the virtuoso chamber organ part of The Text is the Star has elaborate passages realised and varied by SCOM routines out of the names (as symbols) of the Magi. In composing my work Schizophonia I began developing techniques of setting words using the software. The composition

Vocalism and Psalm IX are both composed in SCOM using this technique. Some compositions – such as
 9 Figures on a Hill – have little contact with the environment, but I am aware that the thinking behind such ‘free’ composition is often heavily influenced by my experience of programming in LISP, the language the Symbolic Composer is built upon.

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That Symbolic Composer has continued to develop as an application for Macintosh and more recently for PC is testament to the lively community of composers that continue to support it. Peter Stone’s vision remains an inspiration to us all. Janusz Podrazik’s determination to first realise his own intentions as a composer have resulted an extraordinary library of functions and extensions. Others such as Norwegian Jesper Elen and New Yorker Howard Elmer have brought enthusiasm, exciting ideas and libraries to the community. There are many more – the list of composers currently working with the system is impressive.

As to future I have long wished to use the software as a basis for bringing together musical events and sound objects. With the arrival of OSC this may soon be possible, linking with such applications as PD and SuperCollider.. Indeed, Peter Stone has already prototyped a version of SCOM that hooks up to Reaktor. Watch this space!

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There are a number of Nigel Morgan’s scores available with the SymbolicComposer score-files used in the composition. These are:

Array – for solo violin

Dreaming Aloud – for solo guitar

Interactions – for piano (left hand) and interactive computer system

Objects of Curiosity – for string quartet

Concerto No.1(Instrumentarium Novum) – for orchestra

Psalm IX – for four voices

Touching the Distance – for solo piano

Self Portrait – for seven musicians

There is also a Guide to Composing for Orchestra with Symbolic Composer [pdf]

This is a detailed examination of the radical I-Function approach Nigel Morgan has developed for his orchestra project Instrumentarium Novum. The Guide demonstrates how the current library of I-Functions work from the Score-Sheet mechanism and shows through a sequence of score examples how the first page of Concerto No.1 is built up from the rough prototype in seven layers to the finished full-orchestral score.

Links

MRAC Publishing

SymbolicComposer