The system that broke the writer's block

My Technology: Tom Conti and his Cubase Score programme for composing classical music
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The Independent Culture
The midi set-up in my London studio uses a normal computer with a programme called Cubase Score, which writes orchestral music. I have wanted to write music all my life, but have a mental block about writing it on manuscript paper with a pencil. It's my only neurosis. When I was a child I loved a music teacher who went away. After that, I took against music and had nothing to do with it for a while.

Cubase Score has enabled me to do what I have always wanted to do, which is to compose music for lots of instruments. It has become an absolute obsession. If I had my "druthers", as they say in the US, I would just sit up here all day and write music. Endlessly.

You put all your orchestral parts on to the computer; either using a traditional music score on the screen - playing it in from the connected keyboard - or you use a graph score. After it is on the computer, it sends the signals out through this thing called a midi interface that joins the computer to the modules. The modules have various functions; two are the same, which means you can double up on strings, making a bigger, fatter sound. The other modules have different functions, perhaps better percussion or soft string sounds.

You can have as many modules as you like to build up the sound, as long as the computer has the outputs. I am sure big name professionals have huge stacks of the things. If you have more than one it is much easier when you come to alter, for instance, the bowing; there are so many ways to bow a fiddle string, different attacks and the like which produce very different sounds.

You can put program changes into the computer, but they take time; it might only be a split-second, but in musical terms that can screw up a passage. So if you have another module that can produce a different voice, then you just write it on a different part of the computer program and it switches to it automatically.

The sounds go into the mixer. An effects generator sits underneath and gives a certain amount of reverb, so you can make the music sound like it is playing in a big hall. It's pretend acoustics (if you are writing a chamber piece, you wouldn't want it to sound like the acoustics of the Albert Hall). Finally, it goes in to the amplifier and the speakers, DAT machine or CD. The joining-up part is pretty simple. Although not if you look down and see the spaghetti mass of chords. It's frightening.

The biggest problem any of us come across when working with any kind of computer is presumed knowledge by experts who write the instruction manuals. They expect you to know what the terminology is; they don't say volume here, they say velocity. And I say: "Why don't you just say volume?" And they say: "You have to think like a computer person."

Well, I am a musician, I don't want to think like a computer person. Why don't the builders of the software think like a musician? We want loud, soft, slow and fast that's what music is, those four things. But no, you have to battle on.

You begin to understand how the mind of the man who wrote the program works and how the system functions. There are huge chunks of it that I don't understand or don't use. This is because most of it is written for composers of popular music, and some sequencing tricks you use for pop are no good for the music I write. You can certainly experiment more. It's easier to decide that the trombone isn't right.

But there is so much to learn apart from the technology. The things all musicians are taught - like the span of an instrument. You have to learn orchestration, in other words. I imagine this [system] would be severely frowned upon in a music school. And I can't blame them for that - I feel that it is cheating, really.

Tom Conti is starring in `Jesus My Boy', a new play by John Dowie, opening in London at the Apollo Theatre on 10 December for a 12-week season (Box Office 0171 494 5070)