A recent visit to Atlanta, where I was a juror at the Margaret Guthman New Instrument Design Competition held annually at the Georgia Institute of Technology, got me thinking about the contraptions we use to turn musical ideas into what we hope become meaningful, moving sound.
Over two tightly compressed days, the other jurors and I – my colleagues were Pat Metheny, the jazz guitarist, and Marcelo M. Wanderley, a professor of music technology at McGill University – heard demonstrations of 24 instruments. It was clear that an incalculable number of hours went into these creations. Some were astonishingly clever and some clever but flawed.
One entry, the Electric Mbira, by Josh and Wes Keegan, brothers from Colorado, was an update of an ancient African instrument (also called a kalimba) using modern materials and machining to make it reliably tunable – unimportant for traditional kalimba players but crucial if you hope to graft this instrument’s lovely, tactile sound into a Western ensemble – and electrified to give it access to modern effects processing.
Some instruments, like the Spiral of Fifths, built by Ruben Dax Sonz-Barnes, addressed conceptual or technical problems that musicians – particularly fledgling musicians – have in the real world. A small, round MIDI-controller, the instrument has 36 buttons and a joystick, and is sectioned into areas representing each key, with related keys together and distant keys, well, at a distance. Because the sections are identical, transposing is not an issue – playing in F-sharp major (with six accidentals) is as easy as playing in C (with none); and the key layout is meant to make improvisation easier: If you wander into a distant key, you’ve done it deliberately.
Others imagined an entirely new, more balletic (or at least, kinetic) approach to music making. Leo Bettinelli’s Stimulierte Emissionen Klingen is a large frame in which laser beams and photoresistors create a red-glowing grid. When the player breaks the laser beam, a sound is heard. Performers (several can play it at once) look like they are playing a large futuristic harp, and because the kind and quality of the sound is determined by the computer program the player is using (with different sounds plotted through the grid), a performance might sound like a symphony orchestra, a percussion ensemble or, perhaps, many qualities of brash noise.
Similarly, Greg Beller’s Sound Space, Andreas Bergsland and Robert Wechsler’s MotionComposer and the Mi.Mu Gloves, the latter a sophisticated corporate product (no inventor was listed) that is already being used by Imogen Heap and Ariana Grande, all use motion sensors to allow musicians to “place” notes in space and then grab, touch, hit or point to them in order to bring them to life during a performance.
It was quite a wonderland, and it was tempting to envision a musical universe in which some of them were adopted – meaning taken up by significant numbers of players who would develop standard performance techniques and repertories of works composed with their sounds and physicality in mind.
But seeing and hearing these creations led me to wonder: Is inventing and marketing a new instrument really the way it works? Since the time of Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone in 1840, it has been. The late Robert Moog, one of several pioneers of the consumer-level synthesizer could have attested to that, too. But we have no idea who invented most of the instruments of the Western orchestra. Most evolved slowly over the last 500 years. Flutes were given keys, horns and trumpets acquired valves in comparatively recent times, and stringed instruments have seen numerous refinements – but at their cores, these instruments are what they were centuries ago.
Strangely, the refinements have largely frozen: It is as if their late 19th-century versions have been deemed perfect, which makes sense, given that the repertory of that period has been frozen as the zenith of the style. Having become a museum culture, the orchestral world is fully in preservationist mode. So listeners’ (and musicians’) desire for new sounds has partly been sated by turning the clock backward instead of forward. Now 17th- and 18th-century versions of the orchestra’s instruments (as well as keyboards) are now standard for performances of pre-Romantic works.
Composers seemed happy to write for the 19th-century orchestra until relatively recently, but they have gradually been forcing orchestras to update, adding electric guitars and keyboards to their scores, writing concertos for electric violins or trumpets and adopting electronic sound. Young composers have embraced the laptop as an instrument, and many would no doubt snap up some of the instruments shown at the competition.
But they might also warn instrument builders about instant obsolescence. Both hardware and software mutates quickly these days, and composers who rely on computers have horror stories about works being rendered unplayable not long after they were created. Kaija Saariaho made precisely that complaint in a pre-concert talk at Zankel Hall a few seasons ago.
In the end, we awarded our top prize to what may have been the most low-tech instrument in the competition. The winner was the Golf Club Sitar/Tabla by Ken Butler, a visual artist from Brooklyn who fashions his instruments from urban detritus – the models he showed were built of old golf clubs, tennis racquets, hockey sticks, canes, kitchen knives and shovels, yoked together in various peculiar combinations but always with an electric instrument pickup affixed somewhere so that the instrument’s sound can be sent through effects pedals and amplified.
Butler’s instruments are whimsical pieces, and he considers them art works first, instruments second. But they offer what Metheny, Wanderley and I all regarded as extraordinary possibilities. Each had a surface that could be drummed on as well as at least one tunable string meant to be bowed or plucked. In his demonstration, Butler used the instrument with a looping pedal to create a percussion and bass backdrop, against which he played a spectacular improvisation that, to the ear, seemed to transform his instrument into a sitar, a rock star’s guitar and a Baroque virtuoso’s fiddle.
Some of the more high-tech entrants, who considered Butler’s work less serious than theirs, were incensed at our decision to give Butler the $5,000 top prize. But he is serious: He has built 400 of these strange instruments and sold 100. And we felt it was important to take into account not only the technology but also what a gifted musician could do with the instrument. Butler’s improvisation was the most dazzling and truly musical performance we’d heard.
Instruments may be simple or complex, ancient or newfangled, intuitive or ingenious, acoustic or power consuming. In purely visual and tactile terms, some are beautifully proportioned finished pieces of art; others are more utilitarian bang-around pieces. What they have in common is that they are inert until we pick them up and play them.
The great violinist Mischa Elman, who was renowned for his warm rounded tone, found an amusing way to make that point one evening when he was receiving well-wishers backstage after a recital.
“Oh, Mr. Elman,” one enthusiastic woman said, “I just love the sound of your violin.”
“Really?” said Elman, lifting his violin case to his ear and looking puzzled. “I don’t hear anything.”