On Techlust: Native Instruments’ Maschine

I’m at Tekserve, in the audio department, and I spot a beauty: Native Instruments’ Maschine, a hardware-software rhythm machine.  I move in for a closer inspection.  Its top is made of metal and I run my fingers across the smooth, cool brushed surface.  I pick up the musical object off the display table and assess its weight: a solid few pounds.  I put it back down and continue exploring.  Its dials are smooth and rotate infinitely, and I so I twist them around and around, imagining what parameters they might control.  Its buttons produce subtle clicks–confident sounds that will surely respond to my touch and help me, one day, switch something on or off in an instant.  And then there are those sixteen beautiful 1.5 inch square rubber pads.  Soft like gummy bears, they’re mini drums that can absorb the impact of an incoming finger, and so I start drumming on them, my fingers playing silent patterns across the four by four grid.  Feels nice.  I pick up Maschine again, rotating it in my hands, and even consider smelling it–after all, I’m sizing up a potential musical mate. (This from someone who regularly smells his Kindle as if it were a paper book!)  What, I’m wondering, might I do with this thing?  Will this be, finally, the instrument that allows me to create fluidly, or will it lure me down a wormhole of complicated procedures that will blunt the creative process?

Maschine is a recent example of electronic music software assuming a physical presence in order to attract musicians. The thinking is that we like tangible things–vibrating strings, membranes, or even smooth moving knobs and smushy rubber pads–with which to interact and make music.  But the fascinating paradox about the tools of electronic music is that as the palette of sound possibilities has increased exponentially with software innovations, the music making process has become increasingly less physical.  There are two ways to think about this.  On the one hand, the shift has encouraged many people without traditional music training to just go ahead and make music.  On the other hand, those of us with training are always looking for a foothold, a link to the physical.  So far, this foothold or link comes in the form of MIDI keyboards and other controllers such as the Akai APC series and the Korg Kaoss touch pads.  Maschine harks back to hardware instruments from the late 1980s and early 1990s such as Akai’s MPC workstations, like the unit in the pic below:

These instruments are still popular with hip hop beat makers who program their patterns like a potter plays with and molds clay: the boxes allow them to feel like they’re getting their hands dirty.  This is a good thing, because our hands often know as much or even more than our minds, and letting our hands play with instruments is a direct route to new ideas.  Maschine is both an attractive piece of hardware and a powerful piece of software, hence its appeal for electronic musicians.  Below is a Native Instruments promotional video for the instrument featuring Jeremy Ellis hammering away on those rubber pads:

On Kinesthetic Sense In Musical Experience

In his engagingly perceptive 2006 article on tennis virtuoso Roger Federer, the late David Foster Wallace discusses the idea of “kinesthetic sense” and its importance in successfully returning a hard hit tennis serve, a situation where one has just a split second to react and do the right thing.  For Wallace, kinesthetic sense comprises:

“the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks.  English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on.”

As in tennis, so in music: any musician who has learned to play an acoustic instrument with a high level of skill has undoubtedly spent many years practicing–usually various kinds of patterns (scales, rhythms, melodies) in an effort to train his or her body to do things (play melodies, nail rhythms with aplomb, improvise freely) in the heat of performance–smoothly, effortlessly, accurately, with feel and without thinking about it.  Expressive finesse.  In music performance, as in a tennis match, stuff happens and players are required to react, letting their body-minds move the appropriate way without deliberation.

The idea of kinesthetic sense and the skilled body trained over many years faces a new kind of competitor in the case of digital music making: the laptop running a software program.  Here, the musician with a dog’s lifetime of embodied, kinesthetic know-how is confronted with a strangely cool opponent, who, unblinking, offers a world of possibilities but with a catch: this is a disembodied game and we won’t be needing your kinesthetic sense, thank you very much, just
you’re decision-making.

I am, of course, exaggerating a bit, for electronic musicians use midi controllers (and now ipads) with their knobs, buttons, and faders to control their music.  It’s getting interactive.  But for the most part, performing music on a laptop is a whole new game that remains a strange sonic sport.

What interests me lately is how the attributes of kinesthetic sense–what Wallace described as “feel, touch…grace, control, reflexes”–are manifest in the electronic musician’s interaction with a laptop computer-based musical system.  What are the components of this sense, considering the skilled musical body is not so much in play (to continue the sports analogy)?  Is it even appropriate to use such a body-centric concept when most of the electronic musician’s labor consists of decision-making?  And anyway, can this decision-making be mapped in way English ethnomusicologist John Baily (1977) mapped the motor patterns of dutar lute players in Afghanistan, or the way American sociologist David Sudnow (1978/2001) traced the finger paths of the jazz pianist?

I leave you with two video clips of virtuosic kinesthetic sense in action.  The first is the great jazz drummer Max Roach (1924-2007)  taking a solo on a set of hi hat cymbals.  The second is the experimental electronic music duo Autechre (who can’t be seen in this clip because there are no stage lights!).  Same sport, but entirely different games!