The Experimental Troubadour

21st century composers of serious music have a unique set of tools available to them – a complement to writing music in the traditional genres such as orchestra, opera, chamber, and other performance groupings. It began with musique concrète, computer music, and a mixture of the new and the old, resulting in music made only for recordings, opening to the world of the experimental troubadour.

This is a composer who most effectively works at a digital audio workstation (DAW), records, imports, performs, produces and mixes their own music, for a final product that is authentic in every respect. Unlike the medieval troubadours, who wrote and sang lyrics while accompanying themselves on a lute or viol, the experimental troubadour has access to everything that makes sound, from analog or digital recordings, midi, tone generation, electronic instruments, composition programs and sampling, to one’s own and others’ sound-making efforts. Through this almost endless world of sonic possibility the experimental troubadour may explore their personal connection to the world of sound and dream of new approaches and gestures.

Unlike a purely electronic composer, an experimental troubadour may make little distinction between constructed, composed, introduced, quotation, or found sound in choosing sources, finding or creating the sonorities that fulfill a particular personal vision. While the term – troubadour – implies solo voice, and perhaps romantic qualities, the expansion of the imaginable opens a myriad of alternate directions encouraging new cultural evocations.

Presently popular music has become so available and marketed that the knowledge of art music has fallen, more than ever, away from general listening awareness. Music downloads have become the norm for listening to music. Audiences of all kinds still attend concerts but the vast majority of interest in music is realized through streaming sites such as iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Apple, etc.

While this might seem a possible death knell to serious music, an experimental troubadour has solved one important problem. Their music can be heard in this very format, available for anyone to download and enjoy. Comparable to the historic troubadour, the experimental troubadour maintains intimacy by participating in the delivery system of a personal listening device. This is not to imply that concert presentation is impossible. Electronic music, for which the efforts of an experimental troubadour is a subset, can be presented live and at festivals. When I was in charge of the Washington Composers Forum, we produced a concert series, Electro-Nights, in a large recording studio, sizable enough for audience seating, utilizing a fine studio monitoring system, with narratives about the works, of and by, the composers. A live venue for an experimental troubadour could then prove to be enriching to both audience and artist.

The DAW is commonly used in commercial music production. But when a composer approaches it as a purely creative environment, a richness emerges that is unprecedented. The metering of music becomes a compositional choice. Density can be controlled by the overlapping of limitless tracks or voices. Musical segments and fragments are converted into sound files that can be moved, replicated or edited. Form itself can become a fluid operation, changeable and as flexible as desired. The DAW makes available an open timeline for a working interchange between the microscopic and macroscopic. A single sound event or gesture can be edited down to a microsecond. Conversely, compositional parameters from beginning to end may be fleshed out preconceived, or left open for future adjustment or expansion.

Creative work becomes completely free, which is in keeping with how the serious arts have developed. Whether it be abstract expressionism and nonobjective visual art, free verse in poetry, absurdist theater, non-linear fiction – or twelve tone, microtonal, indeterminate, improvisation, and open form in music – the ultimate goal has been freedom. An experimental troubadour embraces this freedom leading to undiscovered realms and a new appreciation of a very rich area of musical art.

Ron Fein is a composer and director emeritus of the Washington Composers Forum. He has worked and studied with Morton Subotnick, Earle Brown, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, and William Hibbard. Ron has been a supporter of new music through his writing for the Washington Post, Library of Congress and Independent Journal. His music has been performed by the Kronos Quartet, Gregg Smith Singers, San Francisco Opera, and others, but in recent years he has been an experimental troubadour with a body of work available on all major streaming sites and on CD.