When we talk about “expressivity” in musical performance we’re usually referring to the degree to which a musician is able to coax emotion or affect out of his or her instrument and make it seem to “sing” (the human voice remains our gold standard of musicality). We expect, as well, that there be some kind of obviously perceivable one-to-one, direct relationship between the musician’s actions and the resulting sound. So, a gentle bow stroke on the violin should produce a corresponding gentle sound, or a vigorous roll on the timpani should make a booming one. Part of what makes a great musician is his or her fluid command over that violin bow/violin or timpani mallet/timpani pairing to the point that you forget that there is in fact a lot of technology involved in what you might have thought was an apparently transparent connection between musicians and their gear. Virtuosity makes you forget about the gear and takes you away to wonderment.
In the course of writing a short article on electronic percussion for the Grove Dictionary Of American Music, I hit upon an interesting instrument by Korg called the Wavedrum. What’s interesting is that the Wavedrum combines digital sampling and synthesis with what looks like a very realistically sensitive and playable control surface.
The Wavedrum seems to play just about like a real drum: you can play it with sticks or mallets or your hands anywhere on its drumhead or along its rim and the sound shifts accordingly along a continuum so finely graded that it just might trick you into feeling, ”hey, wait a second here, I can really express myself here.”
But the Wavedrum doesn’t have an acoustic bone in its electronic body. What it has is clever coding and advanced triggering technology.
Just as devices like the Apple iPad–with its fluid touchscreen that responds to our fingers like it’s an extension of them–remind us that what we liked about reading the newspaper was really its responsiveness to our handling it, the Wavedrum reminds us that what we like about acoustic instruments is how they can’t really lie. Like ventriloquists, we throw our voices and try to get the instruments to sing on our behalf, or else we end up looking and sounding like…dummies.
Here is a clip of a drummer demonstrating the Wavedrum at a music
trade show. (Yes, the clip is sponsored by Korg, but I’m not endorsing it, just using it to make some observations.)
If you want more grist for this mill, watch this clip of drum machine pioneer Roger Linn demonstrating one of his experimental, not yet released musical instruments. Again, the relationship between gesture and sound is fluid: