Composing for Multimedia

BELOW IS A CONDENSED VERSION OF AN ARTICLE I WROTE FOR THE PERCUSSIVE ARTS SOCIETY:

Composing for multimedia involves a delicate balance between realization of inspiration and logistical actuality. Composers must take into account logistics, orchestration of separate media elements, and proper notation for mixed media scores. At the start of the composition, the artist must unify in the mind the disparate components of the piece. Whereas in the past, orchestration decisions involved choice of instrument and timbre, contemporary multimedia composers also incorporate visual imagery, interactivity, performance art, and a countless number of nonmusical elements in their compositions. Often the artist must compose the parts simultaneously in order for the overall piece to be successful, which may involve writing computer code, orchestrating traditional acoustic elements, producing video, developing dramatics, and writing text. In this way, composing for multimedia elements shares the multiplicity necessary in composing for opera, where the composer plays the part of music creator, backstage director, set designer, and librettist.

Deciding what multimedia elements to incorporate into a composition can be a daunting task. A number of composers insist on including every possible multimedia element in each of their pieces, less for artistic reasons than for the overall “shock and awe” of such a grand work. Such a piece will lack coherence in the end performance. The composer must observe the nuances and subtleties of multimedia's effects in the piece. A live ensemble with a carelessly thrown in video is as incongruent as an amplified tuba in string quartet. In a sense, the composer orchestrates the digital intermedia piece by adding technology to the compositional palette. The composer must select components of the work with previous expectations of what the piece requires.

When notating a score for multimedia, or any composition requiring special spatial arrangements, it is imperative that the composer takes into account each element carefully and accurately. Little standardization exists for multimedia scores. Communication is imperative to ensure proper execution of the music. Having been a performer for the past eighteen years, as a composer I respect the input of each musician and often revise the composition according to technical considerations without compromising the overall context of the piece. Though I enjoy giving the performer artistic freedom, detailed instructions and diagrams regarding unfamiliar actions (ex. squeezing a baby doll into a microphone or walking on bubble tape), accompany each score.



Multimedia compositions using video have unique logistical issues, such as placement of the video projector in relation to the performers. During the second performance of my work, World Order #4 (see above), the video was projected against the back wall, directly behind the performers. Unfortunately, the narrator left her chair center stage. Throughout the work, the shadow of a looming chair marred the video projection. In addition, the purchase of a miner's light was necessary to ensure that the narrator could read her text while moving about the hall, something that I had not foreseen during the composition of the work. For the first performance, the narrator read the text using the refracted light from the video screen. Another work, Fluidity for Marimba, for video and marimba, presented such difficulty in synchronizing the score and the silent video that the marimbist was unable to perform the piece in concert. In the future, such a piece will have a practice DVD with a visible time clock ongoing to make practice easier.


Documentation of events needs to be a high priority for every musical performance, but most notably for any multimedia works involving live performers. Because an audio recording cannot capture the full impact of a composition, digital video currently is the most effective route to document intermedia performances. It is suggested that a minimum of two cameras tape each performance, allowing for splicing later in a video editing program. Rarely will a stationary camera catch every nuance of the piece. Recent technology uses DVD-ROMS as storage space. External hard drives also can hold large video files. In addition, video documentation should be saved in the Quicktime format, or some other format that allows for lossless compression. The primary goal is to create a file that can be manipulated later into other formats with full quality. Innovations, such as HD-TV and new DVD formats, will continue to transform the documentation process.

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