An online infomercial that’s been making the rounds of gadget freaks, music nerds, and connoisseurs of schadenfreude opens with a short bald man standing in front of an odd tabletop device—three silvery columns attached to a horizontal base in a sort of W shape. To the accompaniment of a canned rhythm track, he starts waving his hands in the spaces between the columns, breaking beams of laser light to trigger sampled drum fills and ersatz DJ scratching. The misplaced enthusiasm in his performance is painful to watch, but he can’t touch the embarrassing moves of the dude in sunglasses who turns up later to “play” what’s supposed to be a kick-ass guitar-rock song on the same machine.
The machine in question, the Beamz Music Performance System, is hilariously lame, even for a $600 toy aimed at people who want to create the illusion that they’re playing an instrument. But it did get me thinking again about a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately—the potential of technology to transform the physical language of music making. New instruments with spatial or visual interfaces rather than purely mechanical ones (keys, strings, membranes, reeds) could lead to radical reimaginings of the relationship between the player’s body and the music played and even to new kinds of performance altogether.
The range of sounds available to musicians has exploded in the past century, thanks to innovations like amplification, sampling, and analog and digital synthesis, but in that time the instruments themselves haven’t changed all that much. You play an electric guitar with basically the same techniques you use on an acoustic guitar, even if there are a few extra knobs and switches. Even sequencers and drum machines can be thought of as modern descendants of music boxes and player pianos. Only the theremin and the turntable have introduced substantially new ways to physically play music.
Over the past decade, though, as new technologies have emerged at an accelerating pace, tech-savvy musicians and music-loving geeks have increasingly applied them to instrument interfaces. One of the best-publicized examples, if not the most practical, is a multiperson instrument called the Reactable, which got worldwide exposure when Bjork took one on her Volta tour last year. It creates its sounds with the same waveforms and parameters that modular analog synths have been using for decades, but there’s zero precedent for the way those sounds are accessed and modified.
The Reactable’s interface is a glowing tabletop on which players place translucent plastic pucks, each of which controls some aspect of the tones and pulses the machine can create: volume, waveform, pitch, tempo. The table reacts by means of a camera and projector inside, drawing animated circles around the pucks and connecting them with lines; players can move or rotate the objects or use iPhone-style gestures to manipulate the animations. Playing the Reactable doesn’t look anything like playing a keyboard—it looks more like six-year-olds messing with blocks. Its inventors wanted it to be possible for someone with no musical training to learn to play it without assistance, but it’s also a potentially powerful professional instrument, wedding complex sound manipulation to a simple visual language.
Local electronic musician Protman, aka Joe Hahn, might not be making music at all if he hadn’t moved past traditional instruments. “Most computer musicians I know employ a piano-based MIDI controller, which also employs a few knobs, pads, sliders, et cetera,” he explains via e-mail. “I’ve probably gone through a couple thousand dollars’ worth of these trying to find something that encourages me to use it and make more music with it, but they always wind up collecting dust.”
What Hahn does instead is adapt controllers from video-game consoles—Nintendo NES, Xbox 360—so that they can interact with composition software. For him, it’s a matter of ergonomics. The problem with piano-style controllers, he says, is that “you can maybe control two or three parameters simultaneously depending on the interface, and they often require such exaggerated, sloppy motions to get anything interesting done with them. Game controllers are designed to maximize ergonomics and perform with great immediacy. Punch now! Kick now! Tweak now! Transpose now! Throw that snare drum into the delay chain now! Swap between your choice of random toy-instrument samples now!”
Hahn acknowledges that the community of game-modding musicians attracts lots of people who are just looking for kitschy kicks, and his own act is powerful nerd bait—he often works a Dance Dance Revolution mat with his feet and a video-game controller with his hands. But for Hahn the important thing about modding is the chance to transfer a highly refined skill set from the reactive task of gameplay to the creative work of making music. “I spent easily a thousand, if not several thousand times the amount of time improving my video-game skills than practicing the Casio piano my family bought me when I decided to take piano lessons,” he says.
For the most part these new musical body languages are still the territory of hard-core geeks and experimental-music types, and until someone as popular as Bjork but a little less eccentric brings a Reactable to MTV, its effect on the mainstream will likely remain negligible. But that may be only a matter of time. The tremendous popularity of Apple’s multitouch screens, which respond to a vocabulary of gestures rather than maintaining a strict finger-equals-pointer relationship, may turn out to be the catalyst that helps a totally new type of instrument cross over from the media lab to the rehearsal space. Plus there’s a whole generation growing up with gadgets like the Korg Kaoss Pad and the Nintendo DS game Electroplankton, whose abstract interfaces turn simple touches into sound and untrained kids into musicians. I doubt instruments based on those principles will ever replace guitars, keyboards, and drums, but sooner or later someone’s going to figure out how to become a rock star with them.
I got a glimpse of what that might look like at the Boredoms show three weeks ago. To open their set, front man Eye took the stage alone with two wired-up translucent orbs in his hands, glowing a warm yellow. I’ve been unable to find anyone who knows how those orbs work—nobody at the band’s U.S. label, Thrill Jockey, could help—but as he wove them back and forth across his body, brought them together, and moved them apart, they produced a series of tones that sounded like he was somehow playing electricity itself. It was transfixingly weird and totally thrilling—he looked like some kind of pagan techno-shaman delivering a world-changing message to his tribe. It felt like I was finally in the future.v
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.