Bach to the Future

A music engraver tells the tale of how he turned to computers to help him grow his special business.

Music and machines can make strange bedfellows -- until you want to run a successful business

Computers and craftsmanship have always seemed to me like oil and water -- two ingredients that just don't mix. A classical pianist by training and a music engraver by profession, I kept my distance for many years from computers' coded commands and mechanized files. Even during the early 1980s, as computers were revolutionizing my industry, I resisted them. But I also knew that at some point I'd have to exchange my pen and ink for a computer if I wanted to turn my craft into a successful business. To my surprise, over time I learned that automating offered me significant gains in efficiency and few, if any, losses in quality. In fact computers allowed me not just to start my own business but to see it thrive. My company, Camerino Musique, which I formed in 1988 in Paris, was the first computer music-engraving company in France.

Music engraving is an art with a proud history of painstaking craftsmanship. The patience and devotion it requires seem distant in spirit from everything computers stand for: speed, logic, consistency. Just picture Bach composing the Brandenburg Concertos in the 1700s. His work was far from finished when he wrote the last note. The score still had to be engraved so that it could be printed out as sheet music. Bach had to take a sturdy panel of wood and cover one side of it with a malleable lead-and-copper alloy. He then literally had to etch the composition, note by note, in mirror image, onto the metal with special instruments called gravers.

Because engraving is so labor-intensive, engravers have long sought ways to automate the process. When I first began engraving, in 1981 in New York City, I used a special typewriter to key in standard notes and symbols but still drew in all the nonstandard symbols, like slurs, by hand. But by the late '80s, several engraving software packages had hit the market. I had nightmares of watching helplessly, my trusty drawing tools in hand, as computers churned out measure upon measure of perfectly formed notes at dizzying speeds. I was at a point in my life when working for someone else was no longer satisfying but was repelled by the thought that computers would be the only way to gain an edge in the market if I started my own business. Still I decided to take the plunge. Figuring that technologically Europe was six months to a year behind the United States, I packed my bags and flew to Paris. Once there I gritted my teeth and bought two Macs and an engraving software package called Finale, from Coda Music Technology, and started Camerino Musique.

Over time my commitment to hating computers began to waver. It wasn't that I suddenly started to like them. Rather, as I became immersed in running the business, I was too busy using -- and benefiting from -- the technology to give much thought to how much I disliked it. The Internet alone has proved pivotal in my effort to grow and streamline my company. From the start I've farmed out a lot of work to musicians in the former Soviet Union -- friends of mine (I grew up there) who were starving. I buy them computers and copies of the engraving program. The practice makes enormous financial sense because what I pay them, while exorbitant by Russian standards, is negligible by Western standards. Only a few months ago I was still using expensive couriers both to transport manuscripts to Russia and to get finished disks of the work back. Today I use the Internet to get the finished work back -- an innovation that has cut delivery time from two months to just minutes.

Attention to detail remains as important as ever. Even on a computer, I have discovered, music engraving is still a craft. In engraving music, unlike typesetting text, the threshold for error is minuscule. If a word in a novel is misspelled, the damage is negligible. But the slightest engraving mistake can change the effect the composer was trying to achieve.

I still don't like computers. For me they are a tool, not a pleasure. But I have learned to expect a great deal from them. I am never satisfied with my computer systems: they are never fast enough or versatile enough to meet my increasingly exacting standards. I am ensnared in perpetual rounds of upgrading -- more memory, more speed, more storage.

Finally, I must admit, computers may even serve a higher purpose -- sustaining art as much as business. When Bach died, practically broke, his sons sold the wooden boards he'd engraved by hand for money to live. Most of those boards have long since been destroyed. Today, with multiple copies ensuring longevity, all we'd have to do is load the correct file.

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George Edelman ( is CEO of Camerino Musique, a music-engraving company in Paris.

Last updated: Sep 15, 1996

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