Nearly as long as we’ve had electronics, musical inventors have tried to imagine new electronic instruments. In the crowded world of new instrument design, the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition has emerged as a key prize for the best work, with creations battling fiercely for attention.
But in the oddball world of sound and music, how do you judge a winner? As a starting point, organizers this year asked the judges what they personally found important. With an expert panel including synth pioneer Tom Oberheim and reacTable creator Sergi Jorda, those answers are themselves revealing.
As for the competitors themselves, even with eclectic entrants, one theme stands out. Human gesture and performance presence is a strong dimension of the winners. And in perhaps the most promising first-prize winner yet, research begins to crack the code of how to make real gestural analysis work, even allowing everyday objects to become musical instruments.
To help us learn more, Competition founder and Georgia Tech Music Technology director Gil Weinberg grants CDM a window into the philosophy of some of these leading technologists, and introduces us to this year’s winners.
First Prize: MO, Interlude Consortium. Everyday objects become novel gestural interfaces.
From the project site:
The MO tangible interfaces are a series modules to capture various gestures, from motion to touch. The central module MO contains motion sensors (3D accelerometers and 3axis gyroscopes) and transmits the data wirelessly. Moreover, two accesorries, i.e. other sensors can be added to both side of MO.
Second Prize: MindBox Media Slot Machine, Humatic Berlin. A vintage slot machine is transformed into a compositional interface.
Christian Graupner , Humatic
….media artist, director, composer
… performer, choreographer
Norbert Schnell, IRCAM — Centre Pompidou
… interactive music & sound design
Nils Peters, Humatic
…system developer and software artist.
Third Prize: Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee, Leon Gruenbaum. It began as an ergonomic computer keyboard, but years of layered work on relative pitch makes it an instrument – a bit like a macro keyboard for composition.
Honorable Mention: Hexenkessel, Jacob Sello. A conventional acoustic timpani is both projection surface and multi-touch input.
From the creator’s description on the video:
The Hexenkessel is a modded 22″ timpani using LLP multitouch technology for control of live-electronics & dmx-light. the realisation of the instrument involves a modified led-projector, webcam and IR-Lasers. the programming is done entirely using max/MSP/Jitter + CCV. The instrument-hack is non-destructive and costs less than 300$.The instrument is intended for the use in multimedial stage performances and innovative concepts of new music.
Pioneering Judges Offer Their Philosophies
A musical instrument design may seem like subjectivity atop more subjectivity, a meeting of the aesthetic of the object with personal musical expression. Judges were asked, therefore, to describe the philosophy they brought to the contest. The reason, explains organizer Weinberg: “To steer it away from general statements – this is the better instrument than this – to make it more personal, about the judge’s opinion and artistic manifesto and instrumental manifesto.”
Tom Oberheim, the man who created the first polyphonic synth product, responded:
The first thing that I look for in a new musical instrument is its musicality. This means where appropriate: does is sound good, is it playable, does it add to the music making language. Then I consider if the device has some sort of universality; in other words, can it be used by a variety of musicians from different backgrounds. Finally, I consider the ease with which the device can be learned.
The ultimate goal for any new instrument could arguably be the potential to create a new kind of music. In that sense, baroque music cannot be imagined without the advances of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century luthiers, rock could not exist without the electric guitar, and jazz or hip-hop, without the redefinitions of the saxophone and the turntable. Yet, this extremely ambitious objective is often beyond the reach of its creator (eighty years separate Adolphe Sax from Coleman Hawkins, and no less than thirty go by between Les Paul and Jimi Hendrix). Being a bit more pragmatic, as a performer, my goal when constructing the instruments I will play is clear. I need instruments that are enjoyable to play and that mutually enhance the experience when playing with other musicians. Thereby allowing me to create or co-create music that will surprise me as much as possible, that will keep revealing little hidden secrets at every new performance. Music not necessarily better, nor worse, than a piece that I could compose in a studio, but music, in essence, that could not have been created in any other possible way. As a ‘professional’ luthier, I need to take some additional considerations into account, but the overall goals do not change: my aim is to create instruments which people can enjoy playing; instruments that will be able to enrich and mature the performers’ experiences in any imaginable way; instruments that allow scope for the performer (particularly in the case of a non-expert user) to be proud of the music created. In order to survive in the extremely demanding instrumental ecosystem, any new instrument should clearly excel in something. It should either be able to do one thing that no other instrument could or, at least it should do it better (whatever this can be and whatever “better” may mean). My last advice would be that when envisaging new instruments one should not only concentrate on the instruments’ sonic capabilities, on their algorithmic power or on the amount of sensors used. One should also be especially careful about the instruments’ conceptual capabilities, and consider how new instruments impose or suggest new ways of thinking to the player, as well as new ways of establishing relationships, new ways of interacting, new ways of organizing time and textures; new ways of playing, in short.
Jason Freeman, a composer, technologist, and Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech:
For me, new musical instruments are significant for their potential to transform our experiences with music. They may enable us to create new acoustic or electronic sounds not previously possible. They may encourage us to think about musical content, structure, and hierarchy in unusual ways. They may suggest new methods of musical collaboration, performance, or education. And they may make musical creativity more accessible to everyone. I am interested in instrument makers who have thought deeply about their work from technical, musical, and design perspectives to create musical instruments that transcend novelty to suggest new paradigms for musical creativity.
A Chat with the Organizer
Now in its third year, the Guthman competition has become a coveted award. As a result, says organizer Weinberg, who is director of the hosting Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, quality and quantity were up in entrants. And, he says, he feels that entrants have transcended some of the typical designs in the field.
“New interfaces for many [means], let’s think about an object that we didn’t use before, and some kind of gesture, stick on some sensors, make some music … But I think the winners of our competition were outside of this realm, really innovative, completely new approaches for playing music,” he says.
On the prize-winning MO tangible interface:
In a section of the performance, they took a ball – a soccer ball – and did some [musical] gestures with it, threw it … moved it … on the hands, on the floor. Each one of these gestures was recorded with the gesture recognition. And then they actually threw the ball to the audience. The audience members started to throw the ball back and forth. If you threw it in a particular way, it made a particular sound — and everything’s wireless, completely — if you threw it back and forth in a different way, it made a different sound. It was really fun; people threw the ball at each other, threw the ball back at the stage. And all made music that was pretty cool to listen to.
Basically, the instrument becomes an intelligent entity. It can sense similar but different gestures and create something smart and relevant musically.
On the slot machine:
The gesture is mostly visual — the intelligence here is of the human performer. He makes his own gestures, accompanied by sounds. And it allows you to manipulate and change [the sound] — and get some surprises, because it is a slot machine, after all.
You can play, explore it. He was able to very expressively pet and touch and click and manipulate the slot machine to create some very nice — not only musical outcomes, but visual outcomes. In some cases, this guy is lying in the sea and making gestures in the sea. Sometimes he’s hanging stuff on the walls, and making sounds with his mouth. Sometimes it’s basic stuff that you can manipulate in real time, with a pretty unique interface — it’s not a monome, it’s a slot machine. It surprises you.
On the Samchillian:
Some instruments – controllers – have this short or sometimes long learning curve, but once you get to a certain point, you know it, and that’s what it can do. And you cannot get better at it. I think the Samchillian is really an instrument with a learning curve that’s very long, and just like other acoustic instruments, violin, piano, there’s a wide range of [technique]. And this guy was really a virtuoso with this instrument. He was able to play chords, all kinds of arpeggiators.
What I liked about it is it’s an instrument more than a controller. There’s always more to learn about how to become better with it. And I think that’s valuable.
Notably, Weinberg has no illusions about the challenge of making new instruments. It’s no accident that the winners were typically the result of years of development and evolution. “I don’t think any of the great instruments were invented in months,” says Weinberg. “It’s a lot of iteration, a lot of building… only a few are good enough to stick.”
And perhaps the great electronic instrument, while getting nearer, hasn’t yet been created. Weinberg says one example of a new instrument design that doesn’t work particularly well is the legendary Theremin – it’s beautiful in the hands of only a couple of artists, but generally a design that stumps musicians and is hard to play.
Looking at the winners this year, though, there are ideas on which new work can be built, not just impressive one-off instruments but real research into handling pitch and gesture. That, at least, should present a bright future. But with the competition heating up, aspiring engineers may want to get started on those designs now.
Thoughts? Questions about the work? Let us know.
More on the MO tangible interfaces from the IRCAM-based Interlude:
That work isn’t yet available for download, but an “augmented score viewer” is.