Notation Software (1)

I’ve had and will continue to have struggles with notation. I finally realized that I love delving into these problems. I’ll talk about conceptual and performance issues later, but this set of posts will deal with software.

I started writing music by hand. I might have continued, but my handwriting is terrible and I make lots of mistakes. Then I learned Finale. It has its bugs, but it worked well for me for a number of years, and I still use it for some pieces. I especially appreciate its basic willingness to be fooled. The software almost has a built-in wink. “Well here is how it’s supposed to be done, but if you really want to try that … oh go ahead then.” I spent a year with Sibelius and found no such flexibility. I’m sure I could have found some workarounds if I were more clever, but I felt a bit like e.e. cummings facing Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect function: there were lots of unnecessary battles to fight.

So for a time, I was back on Finale. Then I began to embrace my own tendencies and realized that as a composer, I’m not always interested in the major on-staff elements: notes and rhythms. The question became, what parameters are in play in each piece, and what notation will convey those most clearly? I wrote a set called enclosed for various instruments. In addition to a couple of pieces in Finale, two were notated in Microsoft Word, one in Excel, and one has an important PowerPoint component. (I’ll talk about the other enclosed pieces in a future post.) Since then, I’ve discovered OpenOffice and the parallel NeoOffice for Macs. These are useful open-source (free) alternatives to Microsoft Office. NeoOffice works so well on the Mac that I find I usually prefer it to the others.

So those pieces posed no real software dilemmas. I already had and knew those programs, and they did what I needed. (The children’s board book didn’t involve new software either. That was done by hand.)

In the meantime, I became acquainted with Quark at the magazine office where I worked. I had another piece to write which I realized would have to be a graphic score. There were many tricky layout issues to consider, and it made no sense to try to execute it in any of the programs I was comfortable with already. Boštik was due shortly after I arrived home from a six-week trip in Europe, so I (quite literally) sketched it while I was traveling. Once I got home and figured out the notation, I camped out at the magazine office for several evenings and a couple of weekends, learning Quark enough to notate the piece. I didn’t have to fight any battles to put each element where I needed it to be, graphics were easy to import, and the tools I needed were easy to find. For this kind of work, a real layout program was the only solution apart from notating by hand, which I cannot do well.

Friends in the publishing industry told me that Adobe InDesign has become the industry standard for layout programs. I was working at Wellesley College at the time, and found out that there was a great deal available to students, faculty, and staff for Adobe products. I paid just over $300 and got the Adobe Creative Suite (CS3), which includes InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash, and Acrobat Professional.

Then I had to get a computer that would allow me to operate these programs. I was on a small laptop at the time that had a nasty habit of crashing. I needed a larger screen and more power. A friend who knows about these things told me that Apple’s certified refurbished computers are as reliable as the new ones, so I got a 24″ iMac at a huge savings. It didn’t come in a pretty box, but there was no other compromise involved.

Adobe releases CS4 next month. Free trials will also be available. If you’re affiliated with a college or university, be sure to go by way of Adobe’s education store for a substantial discount. But also check to see if your institution is offering even deeper discounts. Adobe is not shipping CS4 for 30 days, so there is more time to talk about each of the components of the Creative Suite as they might be useful from a notational standpoint. I’ve thought about using some sort of interactive Flash notation eventually, but for the upcoming discussions I’ll keep to the Design Standard package, which is geared towards print: InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat Professional. They have been quite useful to me already.


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