For all the ubiquity of electronic instruments and computers in the past half century, it’s still comparatively rare for composers to add these sounds to the largely-unchanging makeup of an orchestra. Therefore, as composer Ned McGowan writes a concerto that claims to be the first for iPad, he’s forced to admit the addition of a computer remains somewhat novel.

A composer himself, Frank Oteri has compiled a list of works for orchestra and technology. The scores typically call, however, for the integrated instrument of a “synthesizer”; computers are often relegated to making appearances on tape even in relatively recent works. (One notable exception is Morton Subotnick.) That list from 2001 is naturally in need of an update.

Like the superset category of “computer,” the iPad itself is notable largely in that it can become anything, whether imitative or not. McGowan’s approach, he tells CDM, is to use a variety of applications: Geo Synth, Bowls HD, TC-11, TapStereo, Monolith LOOP, CutUpMachine, SampleWiz, and Animoog.

In the first movement, which he says is meant to explore the “expressive” quality of the device, the music sounds strikingly like a Martenot or Theremin, two analog instruments with their own orchestral history. The Martenot, championed by the likes of Olivier Messiaen, might even rival the computer in works, and perhaps could be a model for future computer interfaces. Other movements sound to me less like a discrete instrument and more like computer-composed sound accompaniment for the instrumental ensemble.

I am personally unconvinced by McGowan’s argument that the iPad can be seen as an instrument independent of the computer simply because it has a touchscreen. By the same token, any conventional computer with a mouse has a consistent “gestural” input – whether it’s a good input is immaterial. But as for whether the iPad – or computer – is fair game as a material for a composer, I don’t see why not. And these debates seem worth having. Composers use instruments crafted by instrument makers; why not applications crafted in code? You can view McGowan’s arguments for why he did this and how he approached the composition in a separate video below:

The performance at top is performed by Keiko Shichijo on the iPad with the Sinfonia Rotterdam, conducted by Conrad van Alphen, as the second installment in the Rotterdam Concerto series initiated by the Doelen and Sinfonia Rotterdam.