Digital music gets a cubist makeover

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The cube’s capabilities were put to the test at an informal concert at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) at the end of January.

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Michael Poll - Classical Guitarist [MP]

I am Michael Poll, I am a classical guitarist. I have known Andrew McPherson since we were at the University of Pennsylvania together. I have been following Andrew's research now for a long time and when I got the email asking me to be involved it sounded fantastic. I didn't know what the instrument would be, or what the project would be, but I had full faith that it would be something cool.

Dr Andrew McPherson - Queen Mary University of London, Electronic Engineer [AM]

I am Andrew McPherson. I am an Electronic Engineer and a composer by training, currently designing digital musical instruments.

Dr Victor Zappi - Queen Mary University of London [VZ]

My name is Victor Zappi and I really love technology and music and so I am doing a lot of electronic music.


We've designed an instrument to be deliberately as simple as possible, which is just a box that produces a tone, and the goal of the project is to understand how it is that musicians react to a very constrained musical situation.


Maybe these kinds of studies can tell us more about what are the constraints of the features of an instrument which give the possibility to performers to master the instrument.


To truly have a blank slate, with no guidance and no models, in some ways is a musician's dream, it is a blank pallet. My only fear is that my ideas might be too conservative.


So, we have this box and it's not designed to connect to any existing instrumental tradition, but every performer is going to come up with their own creative ideas of how they are going to express themselves on this instrument and what we are really interested in is the relationship between constraints and creativity. So, we are not so much studying the instrument as we are studying the musicians; the relationship between humans and technology.

What we've got, it's very simple, a cube of about 8 inches on the side. On one face we have a speaker and on another face a little two dimensional sensor area so that the sensor is based on capacitive sensing that's used in smart phones and, in addition to that, a pressure sensor underneath. Inside the box is a small computer to map what somebody does to the sounds that are produced and it plays either one note or a small range of notes, but deliberately not enough notes to play a sophisticated tune, for example.


We were really concerned about how performers felt about the instrument because we didn't say anything about the shape or the capabilities of the instrument and when they first saw it they were kind of disappointed, but then each of them said that they were really into the instrument.


The first experience involved bringing it home and having my first practice session. I took it out of my backpack and started playing around with it and my girlfriend said, “what's that?” and “that's horrible, turn that off!” And I said, “no, no, I have to do it, for this project, they are doing research on electronic instruments.” and she said, “that's nice, turn it off” and then I said, “here, you try” and she started playing around and she said, “ooh, that's kind of fun!” at which point the practice was allowed to continue for at least a few more sessions.


We've gotten a really diverse range of reactions so far, it's been really exciting actually. We've had a number of different playing techniques, a lot of things that we anticipated, and really interestingly, a lot of playing techniques that we didn't anticipate. Techniques for producing different percussive sounds, different drone-type sounds, even multiple sounds layered on top of one another, which I wouldn't have expected to even exist in the instrument. The most surprising was the performer who bent down in the middle of a performance and literally licked the sensor which left behind just a little bit of water and, on a capacitor sensor like this, having water on the surface means that it registers a touch that stays there. So now the sensor was activated continuously and we had this long drone sound happening and he could proceed to use both of his hands to tap on the box to filter the sound coming out of the speaker and then in perfect rhythmic time, as he was playing, he just reached over and wiped the water off and went on with his performance. It was remarkable.

So, this is the first stage in a project that we call hackable instruments. As long as there have been musical instruments there have been performers doing strange things with musical instruments. A really great example is the electric guitar. Distortion on the electric guitar would have originally been an engineering limitation of the amplifier; you simply can't play it any louder or it will begin to distort. And, at some point, musicians discovered that, you know, hey! It actually sounds pretty cool when you distort the amplifier likes this and all of a sudden you find the emergence of rock and roll and all the styles that followed that are really based on these distorted guitar tones. So it's the unexpected techniques that have actually given the instrument its identity it has today. And the idea really is that in digital instruments, conventionally, there can be a sense that all of the possibilities are sort of pre-scripted by the designer. There is really not that much room to kind of step outside of what the designer has intended and discover things that are truly personal. So, what we are trying to do is, kind of starting from the most basic digital instruments, see if there is a way to incorporate the sort of spirit of exploration and these ideas of the lucky accident.


We have gigabytes of audio video recordings, data from the instruments tracking the way that they are using the sensors; what they prefer, what they do, what they avoid, and on the basis of this we will design a platform to develop a new instrument and we want to include the possibility to hack the instrument; to change the instrument, modify it, according to the needs and the preferences of the player. They are not supposed to be engineers or PhD students or whatever. They can just be a casual player and if they want to change the instrument according to their needs they have found the right instrument for them.


We have to accept as the designer of a musical system, as a designer of any technology really, but especially something designed for the creative arts, that what the performers are going to make of it and what they are going to do with it may not be exactly what you expected, but there are going to be certain design principles that make it more or less likely that somebody does something really original with it and we are trying to discover what those principles are.