A Forest Xylophone Plays Bach

This is a charming video, but it also illustrates some deeper ideas:

Composition. It shows how a piece of music can be rendered on an unusual instrument and remain recognizable.

Instrument. It shows how a musical instrument can be fashioned out of descending wooden steps and a falling ball.

Agency. It shows that a music “performance” need not have a human performer.

Context. It shows a world of tempered melody set against a forest soundscape.

Interface: On The Ergonomics Of Musical Instruments

“Most of the works are not about something–they are not trying to tell something–but they are more made like interfaces for the viewer.”
– Cevdet Erek

Recently I came across the music of the Turkish artist and musician Cevdet Erek, who creates sound art installation works that deal with sounds, space, and rhythm. Here is some video of his excitingly-titled “Room of Rhythms” (which I imagine is completely immersive bass-wise when you’re actually in it):

And here is a short profile on Erek:

Erek plays the davul, a Turkish double-headed bass drum struck with a mallet and a thin stick. The davul is commonly used in folk music, not only in Turkey, but also in Iran, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. (Interestingly, the Greek name for the davul is davouli, and in Greece the instrument sometimes goes by the names toumpano/tymbana/toubi, all of which connect to the Greek tympano—the source of the name for the modern timpani drums of the western orchestra.)

Erek’s recording Davul features the drum solo, in all its abstract beauty. I wouldn’t call this easy listening music, but then this blog is not about easy listening. Anyway, here is the first track, “Heal”:

As I was listening I started thinking about the ergonomics of playing an acoustic instrument–in this case, a davul drum with two different kinds of sticks at the same time. Then it occurred to me how difficult or even impossible it would be to program Erek’s freeform and flowing rhythms in my DAW software. How would I render all those timbral and timing subtleties? This lead me to marvel and wonder at how it is that musicians interface so well with time-tested acoustic musical instruments and how far electronic ones still have to go to earn our goodwill. With hands and sticks we connect seamlessly with our drums and percussion instruments. Ditto with our keyboards, and our lutes where one hand usually frets and the other bows or plucks. It’s all so ergonomic: we designed acoustic instruments with our playing bodies in mind, while at the same time we have spent centuries adapting ourselves to instrumental demands and resistances. Listening to Erek play I thought about how the electronic and digital turns in music making raise enduring questions: How do we relate to our instruments and thus to our musics? Can I interface with my laptop software the way Erek does with his davul? Is the electronic musician’s modality of relating—pushing buttons, turning knobs, triggering clips and scenes, etc.—still in need of thinking through?

For more posts on the ergonomics of music making:




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:

The Sound of Vuvuzelas

I hate it when I go to a vuvuzela concert and then people start playing football!  It’s so annoying!” – YouTube viewer

In last month’s Wire magazine, Marcus Boon wrote a thoughtful end piece on the phenomenon of vuvuzelas at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa.  If you remember, vuvuzelas are those small plastic horns that many South African fans blew at the football matches, creating an unbelievably loud (around 120 decibels) and insistent communal drone buzz.  It was, as Boon points out, noise in the signal of the Word Cup TV broadcasts; television couldn’t filter out this insistent sound of the people just enjoying themselves.  And while here was much talk of banning vuvuzelas from the games, the sound of these instruments was also a reminder of the sonic power and affect of noise, as well as how drone can bring people together.  But what does the vuvuzela drone-noise signify exactly?  It’s hard to say.  Here’s is an extended excerpt from Boon’s take on the sound:

“I cam to think of it, perhaps naively, as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalised spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA.  A reminder that (. . .) if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude (. . .)

To me, it was also a reminder that drone music is not a technique invented by the minimalist avant gardes, but one of the sounds of the people, spanning a very broad historical and geographical continuum, from the bilbical horn that blew Jericho down to the sound OM that gave birth to the universe in the Hindu scriptures, on to all the various folk musics that rely on sustained tones.  Drone music is easily configured as a collective technique, if only because playing sustained tones together is a simple method of amplification in a non-electronic culture–for example, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, where monks blow massive mountain horns simultaneously to produce the raw blast of sound that invites the deities to the ritual.”

From YouTube, here is an informative video on the vuvuzela put together by Dr. Dan Russell, a physics professor at Kettering University:

Interviews with Roger Linn

Instrument designer and musician Roger Linn is perhaps most famous for inventing the first drum machines (in the early 1980s) to use digitally sampled drum sounds, the LM-1 and LinnDrum.  In the years since, Linn teamed up with Akai to invent the MPC-series of drum machines/sequencers, and lately Linn has turned his attention to making unusual products for guitarists such as the AdrenaLinn filter/effects/sequencer units.  In a way, through his products he has deeply shaped the sounds of popular music over the past thirty years.

I found several interviews with Linn at sweetwater.com (that won’t show up in a google search).  Here, Linn outlines the history of some of his innovations such as the LinnDrum.  In the final video, Linn offers his perspective on what is missing in musical hardware innovation today.  He’s amazed that we are still largely playing guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, and muses about what a new controller or control surface needs to have in order to compete with these old-fashioned instruments, what a new controller needs to be truly interactive.  He says:

“What is the new control surface that allows people to not only to just do superb solo work…but also work with other people, to use wireless sync to be able to synchronize together?  Instead of the old-fashioned way which is to read the same sheet music…You’ve got this interactive merging of the worlds of real-time and recording editing in the form of looping where you basically record something and immediately play back on top of it.  There are all kinds of great ideas happening, but people are implementing those ideas using fairly poor hardware interfaces–just a keyboard or guitar or mouse–you’re rolling a bar of soap around on a table. It’s silly.”

An unintentionally funny part of this is that musicians playing acoustic music together do the “wireless sync” thing pretty effortlessly together!  (It’s called listening.)  Another thing to remember is that widely-used, time-tested instruments like guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums are more than simply musical “controllers.” What makes them enduring is that they have deep histories of use, a kind of collective consciousness embedded in them that includes all the things that were ever played on them–a repertoire of expressive possibilities.  When someone decides to take up the drums, for instance, he is dipping into an ocean of other people who have played that same constellation of instruments (I’m thinking of a drumkit here), struggled to overcome the resistance of the instrument, struggled with learning a technical facility to enable the feeling of being “expressive”, and so on.  Simply put, there is a lot going on beneath the seemingly simple surface of an “old-fashioned” instrument, and that might be part of why we continue to be drawn to them.

The kinds of new electronic/digital controllers Linn is describing don’t have this collective history embedded in them (yet), and this may be part of the reason why it will take time and a lot of work by a lot of musicians to move them securely into our collective embrace.  But consider what happened to turntables after DJs began using them in new ways in discos, in hip hop: thirty years later we now have digital turntables that are widely used and considered expressive instruments.  (And DJs are considered a breed of musician too.)

You can view interviews with Roger Linn here.

The Hang Drum: Real and Virtual

Do you like the sounds of steel pans and gamelans?  Then you might really be intrigued by the sound of the Hang, a percussion instrument created and hand-built by the Swiss company PANart (Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer) since 2000.  The Hang consists of two steel sheets welded together to make a convex shape, a little like a UFO.  The top sheet has a main pitch hammered into its middle, along with 7 additional pitches located as indentations around its perimeter. The instrument almost looks like the concave steel pan turned inside out.  To play the Hang you place it on your lap and tap it with your hands and fingers, which brings out the instrument’s many overtones.  Due to some YouTube videos that show the Hang in action, demand for the instrument has skyrocketed in recent years.  Yet there is very little information on how to obtain a Hang, besides buying a used on eBay for thousands of dollars. Moreover, PANart has no website with information on how obtain one.  I have a percussionist friend who has one or two, but I’m a little afraid to ask how he obtained them (!)  It’s all a little pleasantly mysterious in a time when just about everything is one click away on Amazon.com.

As with so many audio-video things, YouTube is a good place to check out the Hang in action.  Here’s a clip of the most-watched Hang video (over two million views so far): an original piece by the Austrian percussionist Manu Delago.  The piece is a moody and catchy one, showcasing the Hang’s tuning and dynamic range,  along with Delago’s groovy percussionist’s rhythmic flow.  You can watch his performance here.

If you want to get your hands on the Hang’s sound but like many of us have no access to obtaining the actual instrument itself, you might want to consider downloading a sampled version.  The company Soniccouture sells a virtual instrument called “Pan Drum” which is a meticulously sampled Hang drum that has earned rave reviews.


Soniccouture specializes in reproductions of instruments from around the world, including the Chinese gu-qin, the khim Thai dulcimer, the Balinese gamelan, and a version of the mbira from Zimbabwe.  For US $79.00 you can own Soniccouture’s Hang samples and play them from your MIDI keyboard, add effects, and mutate them to your liking. Soniccouture’s website describes its Hang software as “a unique and evocative instrument that will bring indefinable atmosphere to all kinds of musical production …”

Unique and evocative?  Indefinable atmosphere?  All of this talk about musical mood leads us back to timbre, or sound “quality” in music.  Timbre isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a whole lot of what makes one music sound different from another.  Think of the crunchy distorted electric guitar timbres in rock and metal musics, or the liquid metallic shimmer of steel bands, gamelans, and now, the Hang.  Timbre is a big part of why we are attracted to or repelled by a music.  Companies such as Soniccouture recognize our love of timbre and the simple fact that different timbres make us feel different things; they may even mean different things.  And so we continue searching for new sounds for making our music.