Projects in Experimental Instrument Building:
"An Invisible Instrument"
Maybe one of the most fundamental insights gained in the anti- authoritarian late sixties as far as music is concerned, is based on the factual constatation that our so called 'serious' or 'classical' music culture is for the largest part historical. More than 94% of all 'serious' music concerts are devoted to the mere reproduction of long existing and already very well known music. The whole training of professional musicians in our conservatories and universities consists of nothing but the reproduction of an internationaly similar Western-European repertoire that was delivered to us by historical preservation. Pianists play mostly 18th and 19th century music, violinist have a repertoire ranging from the late 17th century up to the remainders of late-romanticism at the beginning of the 20th century. Symphony orchestras play a repertoire of composers ranging mostly from Bach to Bartok with a strong quantitative peak on popular 19th century music.
This is in no way evident, since western music culture before the 19th century had always been 'contemporary': musical performances always consisted of new music, and the idea of playing a piece that the audience already heard before again was unthought of. Audiences would have rejected such repetition as mere lazyness of composers and musicians alike.
Socio-economical factors were at the origin of the historicism that overtook our music culture slowly from the beginning of the 19th century on. Only that 'known' music became a part of a market: access to it became something one could sell and buy. In order to make it possible to sell a product such as a ticket to an opera or a public concert, marketing dictates that the product advertised for, ought to be known. You cannot sell something unknown to a customer, since the real value of the unknown cannot be estimated.
These, amongst of course many other, factors lead to what we could call the economical marginalization of the creation of new music. The more any new music deviated from the paths of the already known, the less it could be part of the music market. To jump into this century, however, very often these facts have given cause to a reasoning whereby new music as such became considered as marginal -or in other terms 'elitist'- in a broader than socio-economical sense. It became an accusation if not an insult.
But this is a symptomatic for a highly unhygienic way of reasoning, since the selection of socioeconomic criteria as a base for the justification of a human activity and interest, has absolutely no ground. Moreover, it does things appear as if new music 'became' something really obscure, marginal and as a whole, unnecessary and irrelevant to general culture. Allow me to indicate a couple of arguments for the opposite thesis:
1. Would anyone call mathematics 'elitist', 'marginal', 'unimportant' and for these reasons an activity to be deprived of public support, on the sole ground that the articles mathematicians publish, the research they present, the lectures they deliver and their entire abstract activity is accessible mostly to not much more than a handfull of equally specialized colleages?
2. New music is in this time really not a bit more 'marginal' or 'elitist' than it used to be throughout our whole known music history: the audiences for which Beethoven's stringquartets, Schubert of Hugo Wolff's 'Lieder', Bach's 'Wohltemperierte Klavier' ... were performed in reality were quite a bit smaller than contemporary new-music audiences in our time even if often, one will hear of concerts with only about two dozens of people attending. Audience was not even an important consideration for quite a large part of music production in the past. A large part of the music even was written for the performers and mainly for their pleasure of performing!
For these reasons I generally feel tempted to inverse the argument by stating that new serious music has never been more 'popular' and in any case never had a larger audience than exactly now and in our time!
3. A substantial, although not always properly recognized part of so called 'avant-garde' music production since the beginning of this century, was and is conceived to take place outside the rituals and conventions of classical music distribution. My own 'Symphony for Singing Bicycles' for instance takes place in the midst of city traffic and involves the participation of a group of local cylists. The attempt being to interest (from the latin: inter-esse) people, to confront them with something not quite normal and thus causing a chain of social interactions and communication. The mostly involuntary audiences that come to see and hear such a project never have asked the question as to whether this was to be considered 'art' or not. They were simply puzzled by the event as such, and thus they were seduced into coming up with an explanatory conceptual framework for the event for themselves.
Historicism, as I hope having pointed out sofar, became a main characteristic of that part of our music culture where economic criteria may be applied and where such application can be justified. It leads to a music culture where musical expression became a highly codified musical activity wherein performing musicians had to express themselves through musical stereotypes belonging to the historical repertoire. Musicians are thought to project their emotions and mental concepts, through the exclusive use of standards. Their musical expression gains social acceptance through the reference to the standards at the one hand, and, by the commensurability such standards imply. The advantage of the introduction of commensurability as a value in musical performance being, that it renders competition possible and hence, survival of the performing artist on the music market. Virtuosity entails commensurability and became a condition for survival chances of musical performers.
Musicians that tried to present more original work, or made use of instruments for which no standards were set, were often labeled as 'avant- gardist' and considered subversive or 'counter-cultural'.
For my topic here, a highly important and problematic side effect of this situation became that the introduction of new musical instruments in standard music practice was excluded. And, as a matter of fact, our music- culture has failed to create any substantially new instrument since this very 19th century: Our orchestras do continue to play exclusively instruments invented and built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and our conservatories do teach exclusively craftmanship on those instruments. Moreover, in recent times conservatories all over Europe have extended their offerings as to instruments one can study, but instead of broadening the scope into the contemporary, they went further in the past by adopting instruments such as the recorder, the harpsichord, the traverso, the lute...
. Now, a musical instrument -generaly and philosophicaly speaking- is an artefact made and designed to extend human expressive possibilities using non-semantic sound beyond those offered by using body and voice alone. Instruments are tools people use as extensions of their physical possibilities.
Tools however, are not 'general', they are always constructed such as to make some precize and well defined class of actions possible. They are characterized by a certain degree of optimization to their task in conjunction with their user. Hence one could say -although this may sound a bit idealistic- the instrument encloses or contains characteristics of its purpose. In musicology it can be demonstrated that an instrument such as a violin, is constructed and optimized for mostly tonal music with a strong emphasis on melody-line. The piano at the other hand is optimized for the use of the pitch-continuum as a discontinuous series of discrete tone-steps: the chromatic scale. The lay-out of the keyboard, here again, is optimized for a certain organization of the musical intervals and harmonies in relation to the motorical possibilities of the human hands. Thus the instrument, seen in conjunction with its instruction, 'contains' an image of the music it is made for.
For this reason it is quite evident to perform historic music using the tools delivered to us through that very same history.
New instruments would only have a chance of being accepted in reproductive music performance and practice, if they would produce the same commensurable acoustic result at the one hand, and be more efficient in acquiring the neccessary craftmanship and handling at the other hand.
The problem however is that the general and almost exclusive acceptance of historical instruments in our contemporary music practice, limits and compromizes our contemporary possibilities for musical expression. The tools we seem to be forced to use do not facilitate new music. The instrument behaves as obstinate and unwilling to the player, when it comes to realizing novel acoustical actualizations and images. As a consequence, new music in general appears as technically 'hard to play' and hence, -already for this reason alone- the majority of musicians dont feel very comfortable playing it.
The classical instrument, in the hands of those who feel compelled to give expression to thoughts and feeling of our time, is experienced as some sort of prothese: it is a tool, something a musician is intimate with, yet at the other hand it is often unwilling and obstinate. It is like a wooden leg or an artificial limb.
My personal research and artistic activity over the last twentyfive years, has been deeply marked by the problematics of musician and instrument. Thus I experimented widely in the most diverse areas of instrument building and many of my compositions are written and conceived for newly designed musical tools.
In particular the relation between the motoric gesture of the human body and the instrument it handles, has been one of my prime concerns.
Our Logos project 'Pneumaphones' for instance, is almost the exact opposite of the organ: in a church organ the sound production is as far removed from the tactile and sensual as it could possibly be: thousands of mechanic components isolate the player and his body from any other than timebased interference with the actual soundproduction. In 'Pneumaphones' I did inverse the whole concept, by allowing the airflow to be modulated directly by the movement of human bodies. The instrument is played by moving, pushing and tolling on and over tetrahedron shaped inflatable seats. The performance becomes more a social event, a happening, than a concert in the classical sense.
Acoustical instruments, such as Pneumaphones, however lack something I consider essential for any kind of more universal ideal instrument: it is in no way programmable. It is, in other words, impossible to change the mapping of motoric input parameters into auditory results. For all acoustical instruments this mapping is an intrinsic part of the design of the instrument.
Only through the introduction of electronic technology, it became conceivable to realize instruments that are 'open' to a certain extend. I will save you at this point the many experiments I performed over quite a long timespan in the area of electronic instrument design, and skip directly to one of the most recent designs I have been working on. These designs are all related to different attempts to make instruments that would not behave like a prothese to the player, instruments whereby the player would no longer have to handle some kind of external object, but instead, whereby he could use his motoric body gesture in a direct way as the controlling input to a sound generating device. This lead me to the realms of radar technology.
My investigations and experiments into the area of musical uses for radar and sonar systems go back to the early seventies, when I started to build my first movement-to-sound converters. On the local flea-market I had discovered a small book on industrial and military applications of ultrasound, published in 1952, the year of my birth. It immediately gave me lots of ideas for musical applications. The problems to overcome were considerable however, since for work in this field, no standard components were available on the electronics market. Thus I had to make the basic components such as transducers and microphones myself. Only with the advent of integrated circuits in the seventies, working circuits became a realistic possibility. The first equipment using ultrasonic technology that I built, was developed between 1972 and 1982. The first real-time performance piece that we, this is, the Logos-Duo composed of Moniek Darge and myself, realized taking advantage of this technology, was 'Holosound'(1983). This highly theatrical piece we have been travelling with for a decade, has had over 200 performances all over the world. The Holosound-equipment I built for it has seen over 6 completely different and every time improved versions of the hardware. The equipment was capable of translating three-dimensional body movement into relevant sound material, thus implementing something that could be called 'sound- holograms'; hence the name 'Holosound'.
My research into the underlying technology did not come to an end with this first achievement however. In 1988, at the occasion of the International Computer Music Conference in Koeln, Germany, I presented a first midi- compatible version of the Holosound hardware, one that enabled musicians to use three-dimensional body movement as a wireless multichannel midicontroller.
In april of 1992, after another extensive period of electronic research, I started work on what eventually became 'A Book of Moves', a full-evening multimedia production using a specially develloped version of both hardware and software of my sonar technology. I finished my doctoral dissertation on this and related topics and presented it at Ghent State University under the title 'An Invisible Instrument'.
The first edition of the 'Book of Moves' was premiered in Perth, Australia, thanks to Evos and Pica on 24th of July 1992. In the weeks after this premiere, the piece was further performed in Melbourne, Tokio, Miyoshi (Shikoku,Japan), Shangai, Beijing, Oud Heverlee, Ghent (Flanders), Amsterdam, Bonn, New York. Since than the piece had over a hundred performances all over the world. In 1997, it was already at its fourth revised edition.
The compositional idea behind the composition was to design a series of very different, yet invisible, musical instruments. In each instrument, specific movements would be used as controllers for specific musical parameters. The most 'simple' of these 'mappings' of movement parameters into musical ones, was set up as follows: amplitude could be controlled by the amount of moving body (moving body-mass), octave-position of a sound, by the absolute velocity of a movement, pitch by the accelleration of decelleration of the movement. Since the system operates fully 3-dimensionally, these angular (vectorial) parameters were used to control 3 different musical voices independently; the panning of these voices in the sound field, following the spacial set-up of the transducers.
Although this simple mapping does work and is used as the base underlying some of the pieces ('Call' and 'Solo') contained in 'A book of Moves', more elaborate algorithms lead to far more interesting musical results in most of the other pieces in the book.
In the piece called 'Topoi' the inputs from the transducers are used to feed a simple neural-network that attempts to map relations between 'harmonic' chords to the results of topological analysis of the moving body (the performer). In the piece 'Beat', the performer plays an invisible but very large percussion set, where all the instruments are arranged in the space and there the mapping translates acceleration into dynamics. In the piece 'Lead', the performer actually gets to conduct a full but virtual orchestra.
Although the piece might appear to people as having a lot to do with dance, it was neither conceived as a dance piece nor is it actually very appropriate to be used as a dance piece. First of all, it really is and behaves like a real musical instrument and should be played as such. Moves that are too "elegant," for instance, do not lead at all to musically interesting results. Furthermore there is the fact that dancers are trained to follow the music as it goes, whereas here things only work the other way round. The movement has to be performed as a rhetoric sound producing behaviour and not as a gesture of mainly visual nature.
The minimal aspects of staging (costumes and lighting) that we use in our performance of the book, are there mostly as an element in the rhetoric of the piece.
For whoever is interested in the technical side of the hardware and software used, I could add following description of the setup:
The transducers work on ultrasound and can be tuned to frequencies between 42 and 200kHz. The operating frequency determines the frequency range of the received differential tone-clusters. The lower this frequency, however, the larger the area covered by the system. The higher the frequency, the higher the resolution will be. There is one emitter and three receivers each placed on the vertexes of an imaginary tetrahedron and pointing to its point of gravity. The received signals (carrier plus differential tones) are fed into a high precision analog computer that calculates the Doppler-shifted differential frequencies. A second analog computer takes care of the Fourier transforms and does the conversions from the frequency domain into the time domain. It also does all the required lin-log conversions and the square rooting needed for the power calculation. This analog computer outputs 16 channels of analog data: 3 channels with vectorial movement-amplitude information, 3 channels with vectorial velocity information, 3 channels with non-vectorial power information, 3 channels with vectorial accelleration data and 4 channels carrying the integrated sum of vectorial amplitudes and power signals as well as the momentaneous non-vectorial peak-values of velocity and acceleration. These channels are fed into a dedicated microcomputersystem with a fast multi-channel 12-bit ADC converter. This digital computer is responsible for the conversion of the preprocessed analog data-stream into musical parameters, for the different mappings used in the 'Book of Moves' and for most of the midi-control. Although in the original (first edition of the Book of Moves) version, I used an industrial microcontroller, since the second edition I ported the software to a modified 80486DX platform. This laptop system takes at the same time care of all the midi-processing, including the real-time midi-dumps to whatever midi-gear is connected to the setup. I designed the system to work with a modified Emu Proteus sound module, but I might very well change this in an upcoming version of the piece. All hardware, exception made for the laptop computer, was designed and built by the author who also wrote all of the software, without using any commercially available packages other than the programming language compilers.
In no way this piece can be considered as a form of movement controlled sequencer, since none of the sound-structures exist neither in hardware nor software prior to the performance of the piece. The algorithms residing in Eproms and on the harddisk of the computer only hold the extensive math relevant for the musical syntax of the different pieces that make up the Book. The 'Book of Moves' is a real time algorithmic composition taking its control-inputs from the performer.
From 1994 on I further developped the invisible instrument technology such that it could be used no longer only as an input device to control pre-existing parameterized musical material such as samples and FM-synthesis algorithms, but also real-time acoustical input. This lead to the full evening composition <Songbook>, premiered in 1995. As the name implies, this composition uses vocal sound as its fundamental material. Gesture allows the performers to control a wide range of manipulations in real time on their own vocal sounds and utterances. This piece can, because of the intimate links between gesture and sound, be considered to be a fundamental study in musical retoric,
Separate from 'Book of Moves' and 'Songbook', the non-impact instrument I am able to present nowadays may contain some perspectives of wider cultural and philosophical consequence:
1. Through such technology it becomes possible for anyone to participate in music production with the full freedom of decision as to where to balance off craftmanship against the will to interprete or to express.
It is in principle possible to leave all traditional musical craftmanship (reading the right notes, playing them on the right moment and with correct pitch and dynamics) to the computer -or for that matter, maybe an interactive CD-ROM system adapted for such performance- such that the performer could concentrate on merely the overall interpretation of the musical data. This does not make a deeper insight in the music to be interpreted superfluous however, but was'nt exactly this the dream of so many musicians?
2. Since this instrumental user-interface is fully programmable, it may open the possibility towards the development of a musical culture that is more oriented to individual and small-collective expressive and creative development and thus could free us from the limiting conditions of commensurability.
Through adapting the software and the mappings, a specific instrument can be implemented for every individual, perfectly in balance with his or her possibilities in terms of gesture controll. Gesture is, as I could experimentally verify, just about as different from the one person to the other, as our fingerprints or handwritings show individual differences.
3. Because of the open-architecture of this device, it is in principle open to the most varied levels of active participation in music culture. It is not by necessity something you have to be a 'professional' at, since the criteria for measuring this -commensurability- are absent as soon as one starts to program the instrument to a particular player.
4. To conclude, I would like to answer a question you may ask: what does all this has to do with democratic politics, let alone with European federalism? If the realm of politics can be defined as the way a society structures and shapes the distribution of power amongst and between its members, and if a democratic society can be defined as a society wherein decisions about common interests are taken after consultation of its informed members and wherein also the results of these decisions are in the interest of a largest part of those members, then the capability of expressing in the broadest sense becomes a condition for any kind of democracy. We can listen to a voice only if one is given a voice. Thus every step going into the direction of an enlargement of expressive possibilities, is a bonus towards the realization of democratic states and societies.
Our western culture for a long time has stressed the prime importance of verbal expression. Yet, without denying its importance, I would like to stress the equal importance of varied forms of non-verbal expression, since very often they appear to be visionary for feelings and concepts that seem to breed and live in a culture and that can only later in time be clearly verbalized. Verbalization of feelings and concepts can only happen after they become something shared by at least a group of people. Verbalization entails some form of objectivating semantic convention or agreement and this in turn and by necessity, means standardization. But verbal expression, even when the semantics of it appear to be unambiguous and shared, has part of its pragmatic meaning embedded in its unavoidable non-verbal parafernalia, which maybe we could globally call its 'rhetoric'. Thus I do think non-verbal, and in particular gestural and sound expression, are conditional for both the understanding and the shaping of a society that wants to maximalize its survival chances. The presence and the utterances of different concepts and feelings within a community, are not only just enriching the palette ('the united colors of Beneton'), but are real conditions for the possible life of a cultural community.
First published on the web , July 25th 1997 Godfried-Willem RAES
Last update: 2008-11-25