Robert Piéchaud is an invaluable contributor to the music notation software community. If you use Finale, you’ve likely been the beneficiary of Robert’s work in achieving more realistic playback, automation, and more.
In addition to being a software engineer, he’s a composer, performer, font designer, and more. Now he’s released a unique product called Medieval 2, a comprehensive package that works within Finale to create early music notation. With its unmetered nature, neumes and other special characteristics, early music can be a challenge to set in existing scoring programs. Medieval 2 aims to make it much easier.
We caught up with Robert to learn more about Medieval 2 and about his work in general.
Q: You’ve created many essential Finale features, such as Human Playback, FinaleScript, and Score Merger as well as fonts that work well with Finale and other programs. Were these projects that you initiated? If so, was it because you personally saw a need in your own work for these tools? In other words, do you create tools because you need them in your own work, or because you see that others would benefit?
Most of the time, I gave the first impetus to the projects you mention, except, I would say, for Human Playback which, back in 2002 or so, started with a simple question from John Paulson, the former CEO of MakeMusic. He wondered how we could improve the MIDI playback so it didn’t sound too robotic. The code I developed across many versions of Finale (until v. 2014) was the answer to that.
That said, initiating a project doesn’t necessarily mean I need it personally. For instance, I truly enjoy the music of the Middle Ages but I don’t really need it in my work as a musician! The reason why I start such projects is generally aesthetic or based on a technical challenge where I identify myself with the needs of others.
Q: You obviously are thoroughly familiar with Finale. What other software do you use in your regular work — notation software or otherwise? What is it about Finale that makes it suitable for your work?
As much as I may be familiar with technology, I try to stay away from it in my daily life — computers, software and devices. But I must acknowledge there are tools that are truly inspiring and George Williams’s typography program FontForge is one of them. When I write music, I love my pen and paper more than anything else — because no other tools give me as much freedom and peace! — but then I switch to Finale when a clean copy is needed, relatively late in the compositional process.
Speaking of Finale, I believe that its flexibility is its number one advantage. But Dorico, with its impressive design and default output, is catching up at a very quick pace. In general, I use tools that keep a strong link to our “analog” world and lead to actual and useful production such as books or scores, and not just to ever-growing digital content! For that reason, you won’t find me on any social network.
Q: Let’s talk about typography. When you first designed November, there weren’t many third-party music fonts available. You’ve said that you “imagined a font you could say was human“. What is it about November that gives it that feeling compared to the other music fonts available at the time?
This is nothing new for you, but a page of printed music is something that should inspire the musician, and typography and layout are at least as important in music as in written books. During the 1990s, high-definition printing and vectorial design brought us some amazing new possibilities, but they also revealed the relative poor quality of available digital music fonts: the better the print output, the colder the result, as if the page were dead! And the lack of typographical diversity in music was depressing.
So I started the November project with the promise that a straight line would never be truly straight! I worked on incredibly small details that you don’t actually “see” but rather perceive as part of the whole. Unlike bitmaps, vectors and Bézier curves give you an almost infinite and fascinating control over the microscopic aspects of a glyph.
Tell us about November 2, the successor to November, and how it was developed for today’s needs. What are the improvements?
The November 2 project first started with the simple idea of expanding the repertoire of glyphs. But at about the same time, in 2013, I heard of the Standard Music Font Layout initiative, and that gave my project new life, this time as a vast range of symbols with a universal encoding on top of a even more meticulous design. Also, I wanted November to be used in virtually any notation environment, not just in Finale.
Q: Medieval is not a font — it’s a plugin solution that is integrated into Finale. It includes the Neuma font family and several text fonts. How does it work?
Medieval is indeed a clever mixture of fonts, C++ plug-in code, and special settings living in symbiosis with the host program Finale. In the 1990s, as music notation software became popular, I noticed that there was no satisfactory solution to digitally set music created before the 15th century. So I came up with the idea of a font (Neuma) that would account for the fine medieval music features — neumes or ligatures — but I soon realized that much more than a font was required to adapt to medieval paradigms, where things such as rhythm and melisma are written in a very different fashion.
Q: The first version of Medieval dates back to 1999. Tell us why Medieval 2 was needed.
First, this is due to the “natural” and fast obsolescence of software in general. Operating systems and Finale itself had evolved and many users were asking for an update, so I had to do something. But beyond that, I had many new features in mind and I eventually rewrote the code and revised the fonts entirely! It took a long time for me to be able to find the time to complete the project, to the point where sometimes I thought I would never do it.
Q: Can you share some examples of music created with Medieval?
Below are a few, from the 10th century on, with of course the well-known square chant notation — neumes — as well as some later styles, such as École de Notre-Dame, Ars Nova, or Ars subtilior. I hope these give a good idea of what Medieval 2 encompasses and of its output quality:
Q: If someone is not working with early music, would he or she have a need to use this?
Well, I am conscious that Medieval is a rather specialized tool! And I do hope that it will generate greater interest for this extraordinary period of music and make people realize that the way we notate music has changed radically over time.
Q: Tell us about your thoughts creating music notation solutions that span a millennium of music.
We are used to saying that “music is a language”. If this is true, we must admit that the way we have written this language for more than a millennium is extremely varied and rich, as is the music itself, and with much more sophistication than for spoken languages or mathematics. And when it comes to setting any kind of music digitally — a relatively new venture in music history — I would simply say that nothing should be lost in translation, whether it regards the way we approach the structure of music, or the graphical and semantic diversities. This is what I have tried to account for in my work as a music software and font designer.
Q: Recently there have been a number of font designers creating music fonts. Do you have any favorites?
Yes, that is a really good thing (although I wouldn’t say there are that many!). Abraham Lee, who shares with me very similar views on music typography, has made a tremendous effort to emulate old styles of music fonts, taking very small details into account. And I also really like Daniel Spreadbury’s Bravura, a font that served as a guinea pig for the SMuFL project as it was emerging, and that is now Dorico’s default font. In Bravura, too, one finds these micro-irregularities that make a font look alive. (Editor’s note: You can find Norfolk, a Sibelius-compatible version of Bravura, on the NYC Music Services web site.)
Q: What are your thoughts on SMuFL and its potential?
SMuFL is probably the best thing that has happened to digital music typography since the inception of Adobe’s Sonata in 1985. The main problem with music fonts so far was the lack of standard regarding the organization of symbols within a font file, leading to chaotic situations. Unicode’s music symbols table was an interesting attempt, but, due to its poor design, it failed and no major player in the industry adopted it. Hopefully things will be different with SMuFL, keeping in mind that font designers and industry players need to work extra hard to meet SMuFL standards. But getting to a stable, well-thought universal paradigm is definitely worth the effort!
Q: Do you plan on creating versions of your tools for other music notation software?
I would love to. For font design, it seems simple at first sight: a font should work in any program. But in reality, the designer may come across several frustrating situations (Sibelius not supporting SMuFL is a typical example). So in general I try to embrace as many cases as possible; in November 2, for instance, I target Finale, Dorico, Lilypond, and Sibelius, each with its idiosyncrasies.
For tools involving actual programming, it is even trickier since there is no standard. For the third-party developer, there are very different ways of “getting in” depending on the notation program. As a matter of fact, Finale has the more advanced API but also the least documented one! For now, there is no way I could do Medieval 2 in Sibelius or Dorico, as it clearly pushes the limits. It is up to the vendors to open up a bit more to third-party designers!