September 16, 2011 10:04 pm

Sonic boom

New technology is leading to some innovative instruments – but will musicians embrace them?

What images come to mind when you hear the phrase “musical instrument”? A string quartet filing neatly around a grand piano? A drum kit emerging from a cloud of dry ice, cymbals shimmering? Polished brass belting out carols on a frosty day?

Viewers tuning in to this year’s Prom 30 may have had to think again. Standing next to conductor Vladimir Jurowski was virtuoso turntablist DJ Switch, his hands dancing over his decks in a blur of scratching and mixing as he performed Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of the Russian composer Sergei.

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Turntables are manifestly not a new technology, nor are they new to the concert hall: John Cage’s 1939 work Imaginary Landscape No. 1 – one of the first electro-acoustic musical compositions – uses two variable-speed phonographs. But Prom 30’s collision of a classical orchestra against a set of decks serves as an important reminder: instrumentation and the possibilities for musical expression are a set of permanently shifting coordinates, no more static than technology or society.

Icelandic singer Björk has never shied away from exploring musical innovations and her new album Biophilia is a case in point. For it, Björk commissioned a series of instruments: a 10-foot pin barrel harp called the Sharpsichord, a pipe organ and celeste re-fitted with bronze gamelan bars to create the Gameleste and, most spectacularly, four three-metre-long pendulums known as Gravity Harps.

Unveiled at the Manchester International Festival in June, they accompany Björk on “Solstice”, a delicate, floating track propelled not by any obvious time signature, but by the tension and motion of the pendulums’ gravitational swing, as their strings brush against a stationary plectrum. It is a fascinating piece of engineering that on stage adds a visually hypnotic dimension to the song.

For their inventor Andy Cavatorta, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, the Gravity Harps’ arresting physical presence is just one part of their appeal. “It’s easy to make sound effects,” he says. “It’s hard to make instruments. I’m always trying to give my instruments more expressive range, perhaps because I find this part so difficult.”

So how do you achieve expressive range? “I’ve always compared an instrument’s expressivity to that of the human voice, which has emotional dimensions that defy reduction to just pitch, volume and timbre,” explains Cavatorta. “Pick up any string instrument and you’ll find you can’t play the exact same note twice. And as you learn to play well, you learn to use all that variety expressively.”

It is a view shared by Dr Lippold Haken, lecturer at the University of Illinois and designer of the Continuum Fingerboard, a keyboard that gives the player continuous expressive control in three dimensions – pitch, volume and modulation. Indeed, Haken’s aim was to create an instrument that – unlike most synthesisers – wasn’t instantly playable, but required practice to let the player’s fingers shape the “details of the sound”.

“Most musicians who want to purchase a synthesiser will go to the store and try each one for a few minutes; the one that sounds the best, they purchase. The Continuum is not at all like that – you won’t sound good right away,” says Haken.

In the past three decades, digital technology has had a profound effect on instruments and what musicians expect of them. Analogue synthesisers have largely been superseded by computers and controllers that use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to send digital messages about various parameters to the amplifiers.

The Continuum represents something of a compromise between MIDI sequencing and expressive playing. Its parts are electro-mechanical: a layer of neoprene rubber covers hundreds of precision-machined aluminium rods suspended by piano-wire springs and mounted with magnets. Magnetic sensors register finger pressure, allowing for subtle vibrato techniques and other internal sounds that are then converted into MIDI data.

Other digital innovations have resulted in equally exotic instruments. The Reactable looks at first sight like the control panel of an alien space craft, with its translucent luminous surface and hieroglyphic blocks. It is instead a highly intuitive variation on the analogue synthesiser.

Designed by a research team at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, the Reactable is controlled using small blocks, or “pucks”. Once placed on the instrument’s surface, the pucks – each representing a function such as an effect, sample or beat – interact to generate seemingly endless musical possibilities.

In giving such unusual physical shape to the live creation of sound, the Reactable has captured imaginations and design awards in equal measure. After seeing an online demonstration in 2006, Björk incorporated the Reactable into her live show.

Yet for Ken Moore, a Google designer whose hobby is devising new types of instruments, the Reactable’s novel interface is a fad, its musical potential limited. “The definition of music is broad and subjective but Reactable performances more often involve sonic experimentation than ‘real’ music,” he says. “Will audio tracks recorded on the Reactable live long and become classics? I doubt it.”

Moore’s point is that, while devices such as the Reactable are amazing to play and to look at, they fall short in terms of their capacity to respond to expressive human gesture. His solution is to use motion-sensing equipment (namely the Nintendo Wii gaming system) to create a Theremin-like instrument, capable of creating sound by mapping a player’s movement.

Though he admits his controllers currently “lack the level of sensitivity and quick response that a performer would need to play with great musical expression”, Moore is optimistic about the potential for this technology. “One day we’ll see performers summon amazing music from a set of incomprehensible motions and gestures,” he predicts.

He is not alone in his optimism. People such as Moore may be hobbyists, but many see their readily available tools – a few sensors, a laptop and good software – as having liberating potential. “If you can write code, you can create and distribute digital instruments for free,” Cavatorta says. “Electro-acoustic instruments require expensive and esoteric parts and materials, as well as knowledge of acoustics, electronics and mechanical engineering. They cost money to duplicate, move or store.”

This accounts for the proliferation of laptop-based instruments. The Reactable, for instance, has crossed over to the tablet app market, as have numerous synth-emulators, adapted to harness the increasing ubiquity of touch-screen devices.

Conversely, producing physical instruments on any sort of scale remains a challenge. Björk’s commissions are all one-off works. All 300 Continuums in existence have been built in Haken’s basement. UK-based firm Eigenlabs, whose multi-function Eigenharp is described modestly on its website as “the most expressive electronic instrument ever made”, has grown steadily since its creation in 2001, but its signature model remains at over £4,000.

The great compositions in music have come about not through idiosyncratic technologies, but through musicians working with culturally embedded instruments. It’s not yet clear whether digital technologies will produce an instrument around which musicians coalesce and innovate, or whether they will remain the preserve of computer geeks. But for Cavatorta, “whether they become a rich new musical direction or just a fad depends upon whether we can make something truly meaningful with them before the novelty wears off”.

Björk’s ‘Biophilia’ is released on October 10 on One Little Indian

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