Leo Bettinelli plays the red lasers of his Stimulierte Emissionen Klingen

Instruments and Us

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.

Close-up of hands playing the Electric Mbira

The Electric Mbira

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.

Ruben Dax Sonz-Barnes demonstrates the Spiral of Fifths against the backdrop of a projected diagram of the instrument

Ruben Dax Sonz-Barnes demonstrates the Spiral of Fifths

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.

Black, fingerless gloves with microchips and lights

Mi.Mu gloves

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.

Ken Butler plays his Golf Club Sitar / Tabla

Ken Butler plays his Golf Club Sitar / Tabla

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.”

Allan Kozinn

Allan Kozinn wrote about music and musicians for The New York Times from 1977 to 2012, the last 21 years of that tenure as a staff critic. …more 

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2 Responses

  1. I am very curious whether the designers were given the criteria — performance — on which you seemingly based your award. I use the word “designers” quite deliberately, as it was described as a “design competition” (not a performance competition), and your first few examples seemed primarily concern with the instruments as, well, instruments. Only at the end did you present this twist, that “performance matters.” I would argue that that should be an entirely other competition, and if I were one of the designers, and not informed that the quality of the musical demonstration would be key (crucial?) to winning laurels, I’d probably be irked too. Many of the instrument builders I know are interested in building an instrument. Period. What performers do with it is a secondary consideration. It seems that there should have been two distinct awards.

    I am also compelled to point out that performer/sound artist Laetitia Sonami is one of the true pioneers working with motion sensors and, specifically, an “instrument” in the form of a glove. Her first lady’s glove dates to 1991. (I’m often frustrated when people mention Imogen Heap and the performance glove as if it’s astoundingly new technology.) In addition to Laetitia, composer/performer Pamela Z also works with kinetic devices … I could go on and on … my point being that it is not at all difficult to “imagine a musical universe” where these devices will be adopted, because they already have been! Profiles of such people would make for lovely companion articles to your piece here, and also allow you to highlight what seems to be important to you: performance. (As it is to me; I’m a performer at heart.)

    Finally, I’m a bit surprised by a few sentiments in this article. Composers “forcing” orchestras to include unusual instruments? How about “encouraging,” “urging,” or “introducing” ? And to warn of the “horror stories” of tech that becomes obsolete misses an inherent built-in challenge — one that designers and performers find keeps them fresh and inspired! Constantly informed about what’s new! On their toes! The pace at which tech develops is something that, I would hope, any 21st century composer/instrument builder/designer/performer would embrace and incorporate and allow–with full awareness–to influence their repertoire and performance techniques

  2. Allan Kozinn says:

    Neither I nor the other judges were told what criteria the designers were given. I can’t speak for the other judges, but before the competition I watched videos that Georgia Tech had created about the competition, this year and in the past, and it was clear from what the administrators said in them that musical usefulness was a central issue. And that stood to reason: the point of a musical instrument, after all, is that they are the vehicle through which musicians (composers as well as performers) express ideas. You may want to separate that from musicality, and other “performance” related criteria, but I couldn’t, nor could the other judges. We heard and saw plenty of instruments that were striking, technically and visually, but which, in the demonstrations, did not yield much of musical interest. It wasn’t the were weren’t willing to imagine that they might be — I think the three of us all have pretty active musical imaginations – but for whatever reason, many of them simply didn’t seem to have that specific quality, which all three of us were looking for. We did not mistake it for a performance competition, but there was no way, from our shared point of view, to not the musicality that an instrument could potentially afford, in to account.

    As for the glove — yes, of course, and one of several reasons that glove didn’t make it to the finals was that there were many other things like it; and as I said, this version was already enjoying considerable commercial success. There were other kinetic devices that impressed us more, some of which I mentioned.

    It would be lovely to think that composers can gently “encourage” orchestras to include unusual instruments. Everything I’ve heard over the years from the players and composers who have wanted to do so — and also from the administrators they’ve dealt with – leaves me assured that “forced” is the correct word. No doubt that will not always be the case. But clearly, things move slowly in the orchestral world. (It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone doubted that.).

    And finally, again — composers I know who have created works with specific software/hardware combinations and have seen either or both become obsolete regard the issue with horror. Yes, it’s true that they can regard the new software and hardware as an inherent challenge, and I believe most do. But they are also faced with having to revisit their older works, which are sometimes complicated combinations of aural and visual materials, and try to reconfigure them to work with new machines — which may only be around for a few years. Most composers I know would rather create new ones than have to retrofit their old ones; but most also want their older works to continue to live and thrive — hence the description of their “horror stories.”

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