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The Virtuosic Mouse: Manual for the New World of PC Composers

The Virtuosic Mouse: Manual for the New World of PC Composers

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The Virtuosic Mouse: Manual for the New World of PC Composers

308 pagine
4 ore
Apr 25, 2020


Computer manuals provide instructions for how to use hardware and software. This manual instructs composers how to creatively approach music made on the computer. With some help in terms of historical context and projections into the future, a new art form can provide directions for music never imagined and where it might fit into the larger picture of all creative activity.

Apr 25, 2020

Informazioni sull'autore

Gregg Wager has been composing music since 1975. His works include Adjacent Lines and Equal Parts and an opera, Where is Frank Mallory... He is the author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Music Since 1975: Cultural Psy-Ops, Genuine Mavericks, and Other Trends in the Post-Vietnam Era.

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The Virtuosic Mouse - Gregg Wager

The Virtuosic Mouse: Manual for the New World of PC Composers

Copyright 2020 Gregg Wager

Published by Gregg Wager at Smashwords

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Author's Note



Part One: Past: Breaking Out of Current Cultural Shackles

Chapter One - Style: Testimony to Post-Modernism, 1975-2000

Chapter Two - Tuning: Could Martians Sing the Sound of Music?

Chapter Three - Instruments: Pitfalls of Musical Persona

Chapter Four - Politics: Natural Selection and Clean Scores

Chapter Five - History: Turning Lead into Golden Oldies

Part Two: Present: The Home Computer Revolution

Chapter Six - Art and Information: Secret Hermeneutical Decoder Ring

Chapter Seven - Social Order: Cybersex With Jar Jar Binks

Part Three: Future: Beyond "State-of-the-Art: Chauvinism

Chapter Eight - Religion and Purpose: Plans for a UFO

Chapter Nine - Humans: Lara Croft’s Oscar Gown

Chapter Ten - Technology: Micro-Chocolate-Chips

Afterword in 2020

About Gregg Wager

Other books by Gregg Wager

Connect with Gregg Wager

Author's Note

It has been 15 years since the Virtuosic Mouse appeared as a monograph that was primarily distributed by posting it to my personal Website (i.e., for free to anyone interested). At that time, I had been an adjunct professor in music composition at Purchase College, and a few of my students expressed interest in reading my writings, including any unpublished manuscripts. I did not engage in any commerce at that time. I also never assigned reading, only requiring my students compose and analyze new music.

Still, more commerce-driven energies of that era helped form the general topic of the Virtuosic Mouse: making music on home computers and possibly even making professional recording studios obsolete. I contributed features on this to both the New York Times and Relix magazine. I was even consequently attacked by name in the newsletter of the powerful Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Those were the years when Napster had portended its own revolution. Editors at the usual opportunities for music journalists had to specifically tell us not to pitch stories about Napster. It was very similar to the movie Wayne’s World, when inside the music store, a sign hung that said No ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ The Napster story was told too frequently and not with a happy enough ending.

Today, YouTube is an easier, quicker way than Napster to conjure up any song in your memory you want to recall. A host of other Websites, including Bandcamp, provide independent young composers a way to not only get their music heard, but also to make a little money for themselves while doing it.

The recent controversy over the string of films made by Marvel finds a veteran filmmaker like Martin Scorsese decrying the activity as against the art of cinema. He perhaps forgets a similar protest 100 years ago against cinema by those who only partook in the thespian discipline of comedy and drama via live actors on a stage. Still, there is a point of arrival when computers allow larger and larger onscreen explosions until that ultimate moment when what’s depicted is the universe exploding.

Other than this complete annihilation of the universe, nothing drastic has changed at all in the past 15 years. Young creative forces seem just as flummoxed and perplexed as ever as to what on Earth they can be doing to get in early on the next new wave of musical practice. Show biz entices viewers on television, but when adjudicators cash in on talent, it’s like vampires sucking out a life force. Unlike a vampire’s promise of eternal life, nothing kills off an art faster than draining your soul. Social media has improved drastically, but has already tread upon issues of monopoly, brain-washing, addiction as a form of marketing, and international espionage, making it a not so fresh and sunny forecast for the future. Cell phones are still useful, now worn like clothing.

In a completely unforeseen and stunning development, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel presided over the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the past 10 years during an era of that organization’s unprecedented prosperity, making it probably the most successful American orchestra ever. Thankfully, it has provided me regular work contributing program notes.

I hope anyone interested will read this long essay as something still relevant. It can be considered an amorphous syllabus. It’s not nearly as cute as I thought, let alone profound. Still, it reflects a lot of thinking about how new technology should be approached, even if it is not that new anymore.


I had miraculous experiences as an adjunct professor at State University New York at Purchase teaching private lessons in music composition. I posted the Virtuosic Mouse online for my students to read and only made it required reading if they didn’t have any music to write that week. It was amazing how their musical output increased after that. Still, I know a few of my students told me they read through the Virtuosic Mouse in those nascent years of their adult creativity. When I catch myself feeling guilty for never fully thanking those young composers for the privilege of being their composition teacher, I can only hope I provided some useful guidance to them.

These years ended abruptly and horribly when my wife Jae-Wook suddenly needed a bone marrow transplant. Between teaching, freelance journalism, radio blurbs at WNYC radio, and those long days on the streets of New York City driving a cab, no money was set aside for health insurance. A frantic telephone call to one of my two Senators (her initials are HRC) found me a loophole and $2.3 million for the procedure, along with all the other expenses for six months in the hospital at Beth Israel and Mount Sinai Hospitals. Thanks to the doctors for their work. Thanks to Jae-Wook for surviving and to her family for all their support, especially her brother Jin-Hong for flying in from Seoul to donate his bone marrow.

Whether writing coherently and correctly spelling are important in the process of getting ideas on paper or not, I still greatly value my friendship with a veteran newspaperman who helped me with one final edit of this book: Robert Bartley.

Many who through a sense of tough love, weeding out the deadwood, or just doing the right thing have acted as obstacles to my overall success. Without acknowledging any latent masochism on my part, I thank them. They have now and then provided me with a modest but definite sense of victory.


Adapting computers for making music began during the 1950s in many of America’s universities. It was originally a thorny, painstaking process, laden with and burdened by high theories of what computers were at that time and what music was supposed to be. Dedicated scholars did their best to find applications for the early computers and project fantastic futures.

At that time, most early computer music enthusiasts worked mostly on modest developments of notation, playing back pitch sequences, and even programming computers to innocuously improvise melodies. To suggest that computers could actually change music instead of being merely an elaborate tool to facilitate music, became the quixotic battle cry of few wild mavericks.

Today’s more user-friendly computers allow even the most average musician to make music. The process has become so easy that the conventional definition of what a musician is, let alone what a composer is, may already have been radically changed forever. The nuts and bolts of a once tiresome method of writing music with pen and paper are now practically obsolete. Mastering the mouse has replaced calligraphy.

Early computer music pioneers felt responsible as high artists to learn the intricacies of hardware and programming software. Today, composers can no longer compete as both musician and computer expert, but shouldn’t try to. After all, the skills of a dishwasher repairman have very little to do with the skills of a cook.

Despite fears expressed from both classical and popular music worlds, computers are not ready to replace the old Western instruments, but they might at least seal off the development of such instruments once and for all—something that happened to the violin as early as the 18th-century. Typing on a keyboard and moving a mouse can freely explore musical ideas and emotions just as easily as a skilled violinist playing a violin. Computer games supply exercises in dexterity.

Still, the timidity as reflected by today’s computer practitioners is much more profound than it might at first seem. With all the talk about how computers are going to change our lives, there is still reluctance to accept how computers force us to evaluate our traditions and discard things we once believed were irreplaceable.

That is why a manual such as this is necessary. There are lots of instructions for programming computers, but not so many guides for the PC users themselves, especially as the software becomes easier to use and the prospect of a musician being a pure informationist becomes a reality.

Because the topic is so far-reaching, few want to open up this can of worms and take a good look inside. Perhaps applying the brakes to progress, in light of computers as well as other bugaboos of today’s most advanced technology, such as cloning, isn’t such a bad idea. Then again, how can we possibly not speculate about a near future that is so utterly different than even the boldest projections of science fiction in the 20th-century?

Maybe we do have plenty of time. But those of us who create are getting impatient.

The following manual is a bit different than your garden-variety computer manual. The average how-to computer book helps unravel mysteries confronted when encountering a new PC technology. The following manual unravels mysteries, but the mysteries lie inside the PC users themselves.

Specifically, what do PC users see when they sit down to make music on their home computers? Do they see a sophisticated musical instrument? A fun toy? Or just another elaborate household appliance?

Using historical context and other influences outside the safe and dry environment of our trusty keyboard and mouse (not to mention the box that houses a motherboard, CPU, RAM and other devices), this manual seeks to free us from shackles that many of today's culturists would like us to ignore. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that a philosophy called Post-Modernism guides today’s most outspoken commentators on culture, although they disagree as to what that precisely is.

One of the more recent views of composers and music critics espousing sympathies to the Post-Modern way of thinking—perhaps in a grand spirit of anti-chauvinism and progressiveness—is that it is now bad for composers to shock their audience. This particularly erects the cloudy illusion that the arts are now returning to a non-shocking normalcy, although whatever that non-shocking normalcy was or whenever it existed in the past remains an enormous question begged. Alienated by this conspiracy of innuendo are creative innovators of the 20th-century who were once assumed to be great: Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Igor Stravinsky, et al. Somehow the arts are now driven by the false assumption that only 20th-century audiences were shocked by art and this shock was not only something unusual for the arts to do, but ultimately undesirable as well.

It’s hard to believe that shocking your audience gratuitously has ever been a goal for any thoughtful artist. Shock has always been the sociological byproduct of useful innovation whether you are a 19th-century aesthete like Richard Wagner or someone even more iconoclastic like Jesus Christ. Vowing to rid the arts of shock implies that there is some ideal artistic state now at hand that doesn’t require the type of innovation that might create shock. Unfortunately, shock is not a cliché, it is a reality of progress. To avoid it even runs the risk of neurotically freezing progress.

Even if there was an unwritten law in the avant-garde that artists are obliged to shock, creating an antithetical law that artists are now obliged not to shock their audience is just as constraining. Looking over your shoulder to make sure that your innovation doesn't shock might keep an artist from fully exploring unused capabilities.

Much like the popular children’s toy, the Chinese finger-cuffs, the harder Post-Modernists try to move away from 20th-century Modernism and its spirit of innovation, the more entangled they become in it. To free oneself from the finger-cuffs, one must see that the easy solution is based on not struggling. Likewise, continuously struggling against a course of events occurring almost 100 years ago also gets one nowhere.

The Post-Modern idea that the musical styles from centuries of cultural development are available to composers in some sort of frozen time capsule, shouldn’t imply that we should voluntarily freeze the environment we now dwell in. Innovation and shock were just as much a part of the 18th- and 19th-centuries as in the 20th. The avant-garde of the 20th-century may indeed be outdated at this point in history, but claiming that their premises were totally misguided and wrong is biting off more than even the most articulate, verbose and witty Post-Modernist can chew.

If it takes about 25 years for a musical practice to solidify into something you can name, the blur of the last quarter of the 20th-century (1975-2000) aptly focuses into a prevailing mode of thinking called Post-Modernism. Then again, it is also currently the fashion among serious Post-Modernists to claim not only the present but also the past: some say their movement goes back as far as 100 years; others say even 500 years.

The rubric Post-Modernism in fact began with good intentions in architecture during the 1940s—a term for adding more human metaphors and contours to buildings than mechanical metaphors. In the field of music, Post-Modernism took hold at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, by and large involving mixing preexisting musical styles. It became a more provocative term than more descriptive terms such as eclecticism or collage.

Now, Post-Modernism is a vast intellectual movement touching all disciplines of the humanities, including philosophy. Post-Modernists also enjoy interpreting significant historical events such as the Berlin Wall coming down or the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, often testing out their cryptic logic with some ironic comment or opinion.

At odds with Post-Modernism is a stereotypically truculent serious composer—one who steeps themself in scholarly journals, takes academia far too seriously, ignores out of a sense of morality the commercial aspect of art, and cringes at the thought of enjoying popular music and culture. Post-Modernism supposedly rescued such individuals from their own self-destructive urges, using a sense of humor as the weapon of choice. Cutting through the dour mood that only serious music could serve gave rise to a music that often employed silly pastiche and mixing diverse preexisting styles to pollute the serious composer’s notion of a purity of style.

Post-Modernism also boosted the role of popular music without bowing down to it. It was a Vietnam-era version of peace with honor: a way of declaring a draw in the cultural war between classical music and the newest popular music (even though most observers might give a clear victory during this time to popular music, as far as its influence on today’s culture is concerned).

Now that the original Post-Modern innovation of mixing styles—not only preexisting styles but elements out of the high/low distinction in the arts as well—has evolved into a standard practice by composers, perhaps it’s time to move on to other things. Perhaps the Post-Modern movement is now even confusing its adherents more than freeing them from past constraints.

Above all, the word Post-Modern itself has stymied the public at large to no end during its relatively short life. The 25-year rule might imply that we ought to be able to use the word Post-Modernism now without starting a controversy. That is not the case. The controversy continues. It is still taboo to break taboos.

Seeking to smash our notion of Western culture and its chauvinism to smithereens, more iconoclastic Post-Modernists embalmed all preexisting styles from the cultures of the world and wrapped them into little packages. Artists in turn felt obliged to unwrap these packages carefully, while mixing and matching them, humorously if possible. The only real appreciation of the deep origins of these styles and their real potential came in the form of continuously and elaborately eulogizing over them. By not properly burying styles of the past, we keep ourselves surrounded by ghosts, or mummies at best. In this way, Post-Modernism has been a sort of mass séance since the mid-1970s.

20th-century Modernism indeed chipped away at many cultural taboos, but Post-Modernists not only felt the need to abandon that job, they became suspicious of it. Perhaps there was too much pressure from the public at large that modern art during the 20th-century was a hoax, an elaborate charlatanism. Post-Modernists act as double agents in that they sometimes side with these routers and hecklers of Modernism, but also find themselves routed and heckled by them as well. The lack of definition as to where exactly Post-Modernists stand on some of these issues becomes the foil of their wit and loquaciousness.

Meanwhile, popular music ascended to its own cultural throne during the Post-Modern era, but instead of popular musicians feeding and encouraging the skepticism of Post-Modernists about modern art, they often embraced it. To the Beatles or Frank Zappa, the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage became more interesting than it was for the Modernists themselves. Still, the momentum to soften pop culture's original revolution into a banal form of show biz and commercialism often overlooks the nod that rock musicians, not to mention jazz musicians, gave to the avant-garde. Oddly, the slippery Post-Modernists contributed to this softening process, downplaying the tumultuous affect that rock music had on the 1960s (or that jazz had on the 1920s, for that matter) and defining the Beatles or Zappa (not to mention Stockhausen or Cage) as just another category of style that Post-Modern composers can borrow from.

Now that home computers threaten substantially the potential monopoly of corporate conglomerate show biz and its recording industry, the specter of Post-Modernism that keeps us rehashing old issues ought to be exorcised. Other issues we ought to confront that were put on hold during the Post-Modern guilt trip include: what’s left of the once highly-evolved, multifarious Western system of tuning instruments; dedicating our lives, even altering our personalities, for the mastering of a preexisting musical instrument; the ruthless political system that determines which musicians are talented enough to gain access to virtuosic performances and state-of-the-art technology; and the current strategy of today's musicology, attempting to stretch the notion of artistic practice to encompass centuries, even millenniums of time, rather than dealing merely with the latest applications of new inventions and ideas. These abandoned children of the 20th-century form the first part of this book. They are, however, not prodigal children returning home, but shackled prisoners. Their recidivism depends on whether or not the freeze of Post-Modernism thaws.

If these shackles aren’t broken, the powers that be will continue to control the arts, bequeathing recognition upon their own collection of worthy artists rather than allowing listeners to react freely to information presented to them. In this way, these controllers of today’s creative world would like to lock its audience into a room with no windows. Compare this situation with the Internet, where anyone can create a chat room and Websites allow anyone a stage to present information.

Post-Modernists now entice us to wear shackles that keep us inside their world. Their sticky wicket should never blind us to the fact that we are the new informationists and ought to be proud of it.

Part One: Past: Breaking Out of Current Cultural Shackles

Chapter One - Style: Testimony to Post-Modernism, 1975-2000

In order to accurately relate the cultural epic of Post-Modernism, the author reverts to first person singular and refers entirely to personal experiences. Of these, there are enough to exemplify how this epic developed and, like most epics, manifested itself in absurd situations that in retrospect help define exactly how Post-Modernism actually took root as a cultural force.

I began composing during the summer of 1975, right before my 17th birthday. The fall of Saigon had just occurred so unceremoniously in April that no one I knew even talked about it. Mythologies that accompanied other American Wars, especially the Civil War and World War II (both, like the Vietnam conflict, concluding dramatically in April of a year ending with a five) never kicked in. The only images Americans had to stir their thought about current events were pictures on the television of helicopters being pushed into the Pacific Ocean. Viewers saw this, but couldn’t seem to put two and two together as to why. In fact, the average citizen actually still thought that Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace a year earlier, was somehow the President who ended the Vietnam War. Under these circumstances of utter chaos and confusion and, for me, isolation, since each individual American participated in their own confusion their own way and weren’t encouraged to share it with anyone, I put pencil to paper and wrote a fugue in D minor for piano—my first composition as an adult (almost).

This fugue had a long Bach-ian subject, along with the standard form of a fugue. It started out academically correct, little by little moving outside the fugue paradigm, eventually breaking fugue and harmonic rules. It was a fun way to lose my compositional virginity, even though my sexual virginity would remain intact for at least a few more years.

Like the confusion during the Ford Presidency, my little fugue didn’t quite know who or what it was. It sort of assumed that it was a naive first attempt by a naive young man who thought that all great music came from great composers who mastered the basics before going on to innovate. Little did this fugue really know that it was actually emblematic of the era that had just begun: Post-Modernism.

After all, fugues were supposed to be dead. Why wasn’t this one? It lived by dint of the rules it broke, sort of. But it also would have lived even if it hadn’t broken rules, although it might have been more boring that way. The inherent contradiction in the term Post-Modern itself wraps Post-Modernism in a blanket of contradiction and, since no one can really explain the contradictions of the big wide universe yet, confusion. To this day, no one is quite sure what Post-Modern is supposed to imply, exactly, although it has a sort of anything goes or everything’s possible air to it. As far as my fugue was concerned, it believed that anything went, not thinking about the confines of self-imposed fugue rules. Neither the tonality of the standard fugue nor the Modernist’s taboo on such outmoded genres was sacred. The no rules mentality turned out to be a mixing of one established set of rules with another. This was the diversity that Post-Modernism represented: even Post-Style; even Post-Chauvinism. Any strident rule-breaking was smoothed over with a wink to the audience, intended to be humorous.

So although tonality was considered a thing of the past, along with fugues, my first composition was timely under the banner of Post-Modernism. The fact that I felt compelled to break rules of both tonality and fugue-writing in this fugue enhanced its Post-Modern identity. And with these contradictions came yet another contradiction: this naive young man embarking on the rough journey ahead towards being a composer could, in hindsight, claim to be not naive at all, but prescient. I was reaching into the hat of my subliminal consciousness and pulling out a Post-Modern rabbit. I didn’t recognize the rabbit, but it was indeed a rabbit. Confusion and contradiction. Confusion because of contradiction. Vice versa.

Why do I expect that this interpretation of events in the middle of the second half of the last century undoubtedly will stir up eye-rolling ire and skepticism in some? Answer: the word Post-Modernism has done nothing but wreak havoc on the lives and careers of all who dare use it freely. I’m living proof.

This word wreaked havoc in my sophomore music history class almost three years after my first fugue had been written. The word Post-Modern was bandied about by the author of our

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