The electronic music analog to visual media’s question “is it art?” is clear. “Is it really a musical instrument?”

Ableton will this week officially launch its Push hardware with Live 9; we’ll have an online exclusive review alongside that release. I know that the company is fond of calling it an “instrument.” For a profile by the German-language magazine De:Bug, Ableton CEO Gerhard Behles even posed with a double bass, the Push set up alongside. The message was clear: Ableton wants you to think of Push as an instrument.

We’ll revisit that question regarding Push, but this isn’t only important to Ableton. The question of whether something is an instrument seems to matter deeply to a lot of people, musical experts and lay people alike. So, let’s pick up that question to get the conversation started.

Digital music technology, most fundamentally, creates a level of abstraction between what you’re directly manipulating (such as a knob, mouse, or touchscreen), and the resulting sound. As such, it challenges designers to provide the feeling of manipulating something directly, making those abstractions seem an extension of your thoughts and physical body. It can also arouse suspicion and confusion in audiences, who may be unsure of what they’re really watching.

Because traditional instruments are bound by acoustic sound production the physical world, they don’t have the same problem of abstraction that digital (or analog) instruments do. But beyond just the sound source, I think people do respond to the activity of instrumental musicianship. We can think of that as the notion of playing a musical idea “directly” – making a specific and discrete connection of motor movement to musical output.

Even in acoustic instruments, there’s a spectrum of how “direct” the physical control of sound may be. The only instrument which you play without physical/mechanical intervention or abstraction is your own voice. All other instruments provide some degree of intermediary. This includes aids to finding certain pitches (frets, piano keys), and the mechanism by which you control sound. It’s not the same as designing a GUI, but it is still interface design, and it makes any performance a dialog with the instrument as an object.

Where this is potentially different from electronic instruments is that there is a clear, ever-present relationship between each gesture you make and the sound that is produced. Digital instruments can work that way, but they’ve also introduced a whole new category of interaction that didn’t exist in complete form before.

Meta-performance, composition as play

Composers and conductors had experienced these kinds of interaction, though not in the same way or all at once. Composers using paper scores can construct musical materials for other musicians, imagining more than what they can play themselves. They have (hopefully) heard those results, too, though they haven’t been able to control them in real-time. Conductors working with acoustic musicians can make gestures, interpreted by the human players, that shape music without directly making those sounds. But they can’t generally re-compose the music itself on the fly. (That is, they can impact parameters of expression or tempo, but not much more than that. Still, you can see why the roles of compose and conductor often go hand in hand – kudos, Leonard Bernstein.)

Computers do more. You might play a single line and have it automatically harmonized, or control a set of parameters that algorithmically manipulates musical materials, making composition into a kind of performance.

It’s this end of the spectrum that creates the most confusion. How much impact are you actually having on the music? The “conducting” metaphor, while woefully incomplete, is actually somewhat apt for describing the issue. Ask a violin section about a conductor they didn’t like, and they’ll often tell you the orchestra stopped paying attention and started playing the music themselves.

But it’s also this spectrum that can make digital music interfaces so appealing. The role of musician and composer are now effectively merged. The choice of where to sit on this spectrum is now your choice.

Controller or instrument?

“Controller,” then, might sit at the far end of the spectrum; the very name suggests a remote control for a software model. “Instrument” is a nicer term because it suggests you’re “playing” – not simply controlling parameters, which has no explicit musical meaning.

But there isn’t a clear dividing line. That’s why some people wondered last week just how much a Push instrumentalist was playing of The Flight of the Bumblebee. (In a simple, player-piano sense, in fact he was playing only about half of the musical line.)

The question of instrument-ness may be more elusive. If you play a line directly, each gesture controlling sound, you certainly fall in with the more traditional instrumental definition. Sure, triggering samples doesn’t give you timbral control of every nuance of a note – but neither does a piano. (And I love the piano.) But, at the same time, you might have at your command even greater musical detail that an instrument can’t provide. Somewhere, then, instrument-ness is about physical and emotional engagement. And that means that, absent a hard definition, we may find some of the control of larger musical parameters to have an impact, too.


Listen closely to terms, and you’ll get some clues. People talk about “playing” or “controlling,” for one – and I think, for all the value of controllerism, “play” is what many people most want personally. (Forget the audience – it may be what they want the most from their own experience.)

At least we can begin to understand that, on the computer, having physical engagement and direct motor control over details of the performance – whether small-scale parameters or large – matters. And we can assume that people are biased by a traditional sense of what “playing” is: playing multiple lines means more people, or at least more hands, so the soloist is often expected to directly control something.

I don’t think there’s a quantitative measure for “instrument-ness.” But qualitatively, there are plenty of shared concepts from which to begin. Those concepts matter so deeply to music, there’s also a great deal of value to be had in conversation and reflection.

Just don’t forget to play.

We’ll follow up more on this soon (and there is some academic writing on the subject I can recommend); so stay tuned.

Further Reading:

I’m particularly fond of two articles by David Wessel (with Matt Wright and Michael Lee) that look at the entire system of human / computer interaction as an instrument. (See image, here.)

From 1992, “Connectionist models for real-time control of synthesis and compositional algorithms” was an ICMC paper with Lee, drawing on neural research.

More recently (2002), “Problems and Prospects for Intimate Musical Control of Computers” was published in Computer Music Journal. The second of these gets more into the details of how to make a better instrument, improving expression and user engagement by reducing latency, improving intimacy, and providing greater continuous control over sound (and therefore improving on the piano, not just MIDI). It also deals with learning curve (providing a low barrier of entry but high potential for expertise) and even some implementation particulars with OpenSoundControl (OSC). But, as here I’m interested in much with the paradigm, I want to highlight this paragraph:

Unlike the one gesture to one acoustic event paradigm our framework allows for generative algorithms to produce complex musical structures consisting of many events. One of our central metaphors for musical control is that of driving or flying about in a space of musical processes. Gestures move through time as do the musical processes.

One example of that “flying” model is Tarik Barri’s performance, featured in the first half of our MusicMakers showcase video from last week. Tarik’s work involves flying through the musical structure; he even uses a device called the SpaceNavigator as a controller. (One reader commented in that story on visual spectacle; it should be noted that Tarik often works in visual media specifically, and is now touring with Atoms for Peace.)

But what’s important about the story above is not that all of us need to create fly-through music with joysticks or steering wheels. It’s that the paradigm in this case can cover a range of scenarios. Which you choose is still very much up to you, but now described in a way that different kinds of musicians can carry on an intelligible conversation about what they’re doing.

This diagram from Wessel and Lee sums up their thinking:

Via comments, Evan Bogunia shares his thesis paper:
Computer Performance: The Continuum of Time and the Art of Compromise

I’d be happy to read other research, though if we covered all the research into instruments, well, that’d be a lot — so let’s say other research in working out how to define the question, rather than the answer.

  • http://music.thinkbay.net Nikola

    You can’t really play a piano unless You devote countless hours practicing and getting the good tone out of it. If You devote the same amount of time on mastering a controller-software combo, and You are approaching it with the same level of musicianship You will most likely “play” it like any other instrument

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      no. this presupposes that the two different systems have the same ability to mediate between your intention and the production of sound, have the same “resolution” when it comes to discerning your intention. there have been very, very few controllers built that approach what even the most rudimentary acoustic instrument can accomplish in this area.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Svet-Atanasov/537162189 Svet Atanasov

      I think you learn how the specific mechanism of the instrument works through countless hours so that it begins eventually to mediate your intentions. If you don’t know what the piano does, you can’t play it

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      if i give you a rock, there’s a clear limit to what you can do with it as far as creating music, even though you might be very creative at tapping its potential for sound generation.

      if i give you a piano, there is still a limit, but it is far from the limits of the rock that it isn’t really work speaking of in the same way. the fact that the first time you see it, you don’t know what to do with it is not really relevant.

      saying “you can spend a long time learning to play ” isn’t particularly interesting if the ability of to mediate your intentions is very limited.

    • http://music.thinkbay.net Nikola

      It depends what You are searching for in “music”. Even rocks are capable of making “music” with a sufficiently skilled vidruoso that knows what he wants to achieve. Rocks are gaining popularity as a percussion instrument, as a side note – because using f.eg. two of them in a circular motion complements a percussion section with a sustainable and interesting sound.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      did I not cover that with my remark “if i give you a rock, there’s a clear limit to what you can do with it
      as far as creating music, even though you might be very creative at
      tapping its potential for sound generation.” ??

    • http://music.thinkbay.net Nikola

      Right, but there’s a limit to every musical instrument, right? My original remark was about learning to make music with the software/hardware combo of choice, and how the amount of effort is no different in a sense from learning an acoustic instrument. The possibilities are of course different, but the mastery is always achieved by digging deep. So i tried to answer the question – “What does it mean to be an electronic instrument?” with “You only need a devoted, musically skilled player and a usage pattern that You master.”

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      “if i give you a piano, there is still a limit, but it is far from the
      limits of the rock that it isn’t really work speaking of in the same way” ….

      “mastery” in this context isn’t about physical dexterity along. it is about finding a way to transform your intention(s) into music, via a mediator capable of subtle responses and shadings. my position is that almost no electronic instrument has the subtlety required to create the possibility of mastery (beyond what is required to simply play a regular keyboard, if it has one).

    • http://music.thinkbay.net Nikola

      I see Your point, and we differ on the possibility part :)
      I was also talking about finding the proper way to translate ideas, and not the actual dexterity. I just tend to think that with proper musical taste and understanding of technology we can program, wire and diy our way through deep musical interaction. We will see who will be right on that :)

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      oh absolutely. when i said “no” I meant “no current”. and when i said “current”, i meant “popular”: http://createdigitalmusic.com/2008/12/intimate-control-multi-touch-new-models-and-what-2009-is-really-about/ <= this changes everything, but so far hasn't taken off the way it should …

  • Numberless Archon

    The variable of pretension is a huge part of this equation that is ignored for obvious reasons.

    Some may find John Cage’s 4’33”, (a tablature of all rests resulting in silence) as an actual composition and even a statement of artistic genius, while others may find it to be a tediously ridiculous exercise in self-aggrandizement. The exaltation of self-importance is not often considered as being a key element of that piece – because the external validation sought by artists is often the cornerstone of their existence. To remove it would cause their entire house of cards to tumble down into the abyss of meaninglessness. Is it possible to copyright silence? Cage claimed to be influenced by Zen teachings, so it is possible that he may have brought elements of koan work into his own art.

    People who live only to increase the importance of their own self-image will have distinct issues with what is a “true” instrument… in the same way they will have distinct issues with what is a “true” work of art. It is only in the arena of comparative judgment where we will find heroes and legends. Some people will only settle for a Stradivarius, while some may regard an ordinary spoon as a musical instrument.

    It seems to be a matter of perspective.

    • edisonSF

      i like this comment…
      a good point well spoken….
      but if self importance is an artists weakness…
      what is to be said of nihilism?

      if someones life work doesn’t make them feel important, than what is left?

      if the ego is left out, than what message is to be portrayed in the art?

    • Arthur

      See: Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation.

    • edisonSF

      no thanks… ill stick to making noise….

    • Arthur

      Sorry I thought you were asking a sincere question. I couldn’t resist because the line “if someones life work doesn’t make them feel important, than what is left?” indicated to me that you have a lot of thinking to do.

    • edisonSF

      sorry arthur….
      must apologize..
      i shouldn’t have been so dismissive…

      was just running out of work….

      the question was of course sincere…

      i was making the point that if you spend all of your time practicing, living, and owning your creations…

      whats the point if that life isn’t fulfilling?…

      there isn’t any thinking to be done about it…

      just doing and enjoying, struggling and learning…

      not to be harsh…. but, i have no use for a book written 200 years ago, dissecting the intricacies of what making music and my iD and ego have to do with that…
      i’d just rather get in the studio and feel the love…

      and i don’t mean that in a way to put you down… just as a personal philosophy…

      thanks hoss..

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      “True” instrument, yes. But this question of what defines different instrumental activities can be a rewarding one – Cage being one fascinating inquiry into the idea (including instruments defined by emptiness).

      I would, however, be interested in learning the Pretensiphone. 😉

  • lemmings

    Calling Push an instrument is just a marketing soundbite to give their product a unique identity and get people talking about it. It is an instrument in some ways and isn’t in others. What I find interesting is that the limits of what a real person can coordinate during a performance makes it so that if we add certain capability to an “instrument” we sacrifice another. The piano has very few variables of control, but the degree of control in real-time over its small of variables is enormous.

    Push is really cool and useful, but I want to see more diverse and dedicated hardware controllers coming out too. Like if you compare Push with a Roland SP-404, the SP-404 has a really interesting workflow that you couldn’t replicate completely in Push. Yet you can’t integrate cool hardware like the SP-404 into the system of Ableton (recalling kits, patches, sequences etc.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/madsbloom Madeleine Bloom

    For me the definition of an instrument is that it actually can produce a sound. It may have to be plugged in or connected to an amp, but as soon as you need a computer with software that contains a MIDI instrument, it’s not an instrument anymore, but a controller.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Ah, but then “Push” (or any controller/computer combination) is defined by the whole system – controller *plus* computer with audio output would then meet your definition.

    • http://www.facebook.com/madsbloom Madeleine Bloom

      But then an ordinary remote control could be considered an instrument. Sure, if you take the word instrument as simply meaning tool.

    • http://www.facebook.com/madsbloom Madeleine Bloom

      Well, actually they’re calling Push the instrument. If you talk about a whole system, then in the case of a violin you’d be calling the strings the instrument, wouldn’t you?

    • http://twitter.com/djrobticho DJ Rob Ticho,Club mU

      If the need for a computer means a device is not an instrument, then countless hardware synthesizers would not be instruments. They may not be hooked up to a personal computer but they certainly have computers built into them. Also, would old school analog modular synthesizers not be instruments? These often have a midi controller connected to various analog oscillators and filters. Example: http://www.wiseguysynth.com/larry/namm/2003/analog_systems_01.jpg

    • atari5200

      This is what brings up such an interesting point within the realm of electronic instruments- where do you start making such distinctions? IfI play a VA synth with a built in keyboard, like, say an Access Virus KB, does it somehow become different than say, playing an Access Virus Powercore VST with a USB keyboard? If so, why? And if not, then you are opening up the floor to any combination of controller+ computer as Peter suggests below.
      A great example (especially as the man himself is posting in these comments as well) is something like the Monome. While I admit to be personally biased against the term “controllerist” which I think is just terrible on a number of levels, there’s no doubt in my mind when I watch videos of Edison playing a Monome he’s playing an *instrument*, not just being an -ugh- controllerist.

    • edisonSF

      thanks! much appreciated!
      to be honest, i have to agree with you on “controllerism”… in my silly humble opinion, the term itself implies DJing…
      which i’ve never even tried to do….

      when moldover coined it (live remashing!!)… i think it was quite accurate with what he was doing…
      but, as of now… he, along with some others, have pushed well beyond the bounds of his original intentions…

      i didn’t even hear the term controllerism till much after i had started my first monome record…

      for me personally, its all just electronic music…

      like all things some inCREDible displays have come out of the past 5 years… mostly not….

      but that can be said for most 5 year spans of EM…

      there are a lot of companies trying to “used car salesman” your wallets…

      and that just means the scene is alive…

      either way…

      ill definitely be purchasing the push…

      if it can do what NI accomplished with Maschine…. it’s worth it…

      if it’s pads are super rad…

      i’ll be banging on them a lot…

      thanks again!


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6817101 Evan Bogunia

    I love discussions on this topic. With the flexibility and affordability of digital music and computing technologies, it really is up to the artist to decide where they want there performances (or production practices) to lie on the line between instrument and completely automated system.

    Im going to do a little shameless self promotion here – I wrote my master’s thesis about this issue, and if anyone’s interested they can have a read here: http://tinyurl.com/cmuevtt

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Excellent! Well, I’m reading it!

      I’ve also added more research above, including yours.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Experimentaldog Chris SW Anderson

      Congrats on the MFA Evan! I just finished my MFA in a similar area. Shameless sharing moment if that’s cool with you and Peter? Here’s my thesis link (the pictures aren’t so good, but I’ll add a vid link)

      Thesis: https://theses.lib.sfu.ca/sites/all/files/public_copies/etd7525-c-anderson-etd7525canderson.pdf

      Project Vid: http://vimeo.com/49919224

    • http://www.facebook.com/jackmattson Matt Jackson

      Amazing performance! I really enjoyed the whole thing!!

  • http://www.pro-tools-expert.com/ Russ Hughes
    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Well, times are tough, and pianos last a very long time. That alone is going to create a dent – even before we get into music education cuts, and we’d have to talk about that before the impact of tech.

  • Jesse

    A few thoughts.

    1) As an audience member watching an instrumentalist, I think there’s a lot of connection that’s felt through getting your mirror neurons firing imagining yourself playing the instrument, even if subconsciously. That’s part of why we like watching, not just listening, and why it blows our minds when a virtuoso goes outside what we thought was possible, because we try to imagine ourselves doing it and can’t. It overloads our powers of imagination in a good way.

    2) With the abstractions of electronic music, often times the audience doesn’t know what’s going on, how the actions relate to the sound, and you lose that element of connection. That’s why most people go to the “it looks like they’re checking their email” reaction, because that’s what most people do with a laptop.

    3) The major difference between the two is that an acoustic instrument has a common starting place. It’s a known object with known functionality. We can relate to it. Its amazing to see a great instrumentalist because we KNOW how hard it is to make those sounds, because we at least have a basic sense for the instrument. Electronic/Digital instruments are versatile and programmable, and so there isn’t the same shared understanding with the audience about what the object does, and how amazing what the instrumentalist is doing to extract the sound from the object. That said, a bunch of coders watching a live coding performance have a good understanding of what the object is, and the art of playing it, and can feel some of that connection. Acoustic instruments are just a lot more common and less reconfigurable, so they are more likely for people to relate to.

    • atari5200

      This makes some good points in relation to a traditional instrumentalist vs. whatever you want to call what a contemporary electronic musician does in a live setting.
      Speaking from my own experience- I am an awful, awful keyboard player, and I write most of my electronic tracks through a process of comping, editing, generative sequencing and good ol’ mouse and piano roll. On the other hand, my finished tracks are meant to reflect this- so, (for better or worse) I’m not looking to replicate a synth line that a keyboard player would play, and nor do I want to recreate that experience on stage, since it’s not part of music to begin with.
      I hear a lot of this sort of thing when people talk about going to see electronic music live- that there is a need from the audience to correlate what the person on stage is doing with what is reflected in the music they hear. I think it’s time we start pushing (no pun intended) the conversation into new territory.
      I don’t have any answers, but I can certainly call myself a “musician” even if in many cases I’m really “playing” (or nudging, as I like to call it since I do so much generative work) a computer.

    • angstrom

      Jesse I disagree with all three of your points. I think as musicians we might imagine ourselves in their place, might try to deconstruct how the sound is produced, and ascertain the functionality … but a pure audience member doesn’t tend to do that. Have you ever really grilled a non-musician audience-member friend after sharing a gig experience with them? their experience is usually very different from ours, the things they look for are different and the way they enjoy the interaction.
      I did once share your opinion, but an extended period of grilling my non musician friends on this subject shocked me. They didn’t think about, or care about these things at all!

      Some quotes that stood out: “I’ve never really understood what a bass is” , followed by another friend confessing ” I don’t understand what bass and treble are at all, why is that a thing on my car stereo? ”
      Their lack of understanding who played that lead line, or how, or where the chords came from, or what they were, or that the singer mysteriously sang harmonies. None of this affected their enjoyment at all.

      What they enjoyed was: the energy, the songs they liked, the connection between band and audience, the audience vibe.

    • Jesse

      Hey angstrom, I agree that there is a lot more that goes into the audience experience than just their understanding of what’s happening on stage. In the extreme, who among us hasn’t had a great time at a party/show dancing to a dj who we know just pushed play on a playlist an hour ago? A show is collective event, and the audience can make it as much as the performance.

      Yet, there still exists this strange phenomena where a virtuoso can take their instrument and actually carry an audience along on a journey, communicating even without words. This can be true for an audience member regardless of their level of understanding. They may not be able to analytically describe their experience. They might talk about the mood or the vibe, or even just say it was fun. But in the end, the instrumentalist was communicating with them and the rest of the audience, using the instrument as their voice, even if the voice is an orchestra, and the instrumentalist a conductor.

      That communication, and the unspoken communication between someone and the rest of the audience that they’re all there, doing the same thing together, appreciating, clapping at the end of a song, is the source of an immense sense of connection. It is so powerful, partly because it bypasses verbal communication and the more executive brain functions. An instrument is more powerful with the more versatility and ability it has to allow for that communication. Often times, objects with such a wide range of expressive possibility (not the least of which being the human voice or body) have a lot of options and take a long time to learn how to “talk” with them, let alone developing something to “say”.

  • http://twitter.com/SylvainPoitras Sylvain Poitras

    Some of these considerations lead me to develop a hybrid instrument and controller: the meta-trombone. The notes I play on it are both musical material and control signals. I wanted to recycle all the practice time I put on trombone over the years into a controller, instead of learning intricate finger drumming to use more conventional interfaces.

    development blog: http://no-insects.blogspot.ca/search/label/meta-trombone

    how it sounds: http://sylvainpoitras.bandcamp.com/album/meta-trombone-vol-1

    • http://twitter.com/wi_ngo wingo shackleford

      That is some of the weirdest trombone music I have ever heard, and I mean that as a compliment.

    • http://twitter.com/SylvainPoitras Sylvain Poitras

      Thanks for listening!

      After all the time I spent on this project, I would have been very disappointed if the resulting music had sounded like “normal” trombone playing.

  • blehhhhhhhh
  • idm forum dickhead

    “What Does it Mean to Be an Electronic Instrument?”

    nothing, because musicianship is worthless and audience interaction is meaningless if you have no actual ideas to convey, covering up that lack of ideas with some motion sensors and a touch screen just isn’t going to cut it

    the supposed experimentalists have degenerated into a generation of noodlers worse than anything seen in buttrock floyd tribute garage bands

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Trolling, meanwhile, the highest form of cultural expression.

    • idm forum shitlord

      hit play on winamp, alt tab to ms paint, and at the end of your set turn the screen around to show the audience your doodle

      thats not trolling thats certified realness

    • edisonSF

      ah yes… i agree… everything beyond your timeline of interest sucks… everyone else should adjust accordingly….

    • Arthur

      So are you saying that any artistic form using motion sensors / touch screens / electronic interfaces assumes a lack of ideas, or are you just turning us on to the obvious platitude that an insincere art piece is uninteresting?

  • Onyx

    In the electronic realm, i believe that virtuosity is mastering “cheating”. by cheating, i mean that modern software enables us to do things that we can not do linearly. of course, we can become a one man band with a kick drum on our back and cymbals on our knees or something, but software automates this which allows us to do other things. what other things? THAT is the virtuostic (!?) stuff. building on the base of automation and creating something that can only be done by direct control of automated processes. if the computer is controlling it, then it itself is an automated process and thus can not be considered virtuos-ical-ish…one wizard of Oz is special, but in a whole scene of wizards, the one who has the most direct control of the expressive potential of the automation processes he/she controls, would be considered a virtuoso, IMO.

    • http://www.facebook.com/zubetei Zubetei Xzz


  • http://davelinabury.com/ Dave Linabury

    The abstraction exists only in our minds. In addition to being an electronic musician, I’m a digital illustrator. Bearing in mind that the plural of anecdote is not data, here’s a personal story from the digital art world that I feel applies to electronic musicians as well.

    In 1992 I had just finished a complex illustration in Adobe Illustrator and was showing it to a friend who is a classically trained fine artist. She said, “We’ll that looks really good. Too bad it’s not REAL art.”
    ME: “How do you figure? It takes just as much skill to draw on a computer as on paper.”
    HER: “True, but I use physical materials. That’s just a bunch of electrons floating around.”
    ME: “So is an oil painting. So are you.”
    HER: “OK, ya got me there.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/BenJJarvis Ben Jarvis

    This question always bugs me. Why? Because I think there’s a fundamental difference in the way some people view music. I consider the final product (a piece of recorded music) the ultimate point to musical endeavor. Whatever means were employed to get to that goal are equally valid and really only of interest to musicians. Some people view music as a contest of skill. They view the performance (in realtime) as the point to music. The more difficult a piece is to perform, the more they view it as musically valid. I think this will always be a controversy. All machines (including pianos, violins and the like) are simply systems designed to make conveying musical ideas easier. Every instrument is an attempt at reducing the friction between player and music. No instrument is more natural than another as they are all conceived by man. I think people that have invested a large amount of time in learning a given instrument resent people that play other instruments that may have a smaller learning curve. It seems to only happen in music, because it doesn’t happen so much in other arts. No one expects a writer to write his novels “live” in realtime on a typewriter. Photographers get the benefit of retouching and lighting and lenses. Only in music does there seem to be an artificial standard of “doing it the hard way”. Well, maybe painters do that too when they look down on digital artists, but that’s the only case I can think of.

    • http://twitter.com/ben_carey Benjamin Carey

      Hmm.. I see your point, however I would venture that something that is being missed here is that the actual physical engagement with a new technology (mechanical or electronic) form a large part of what drives the musical ideas themselves. What about instruments that frustrate the connection between performer and musical output, or create surprises for the performer to react to? Sure, the interaction might be of more interest to musicians, but the musical result of this interaction wouldn’t be the same without this unique human-machine dialogue. As you can tell, I’m quite suspicious of the romantic view of the artist with all the ideas that needs a ‘transparent’ interface with which to realise them. Some of the most interesting expressive techniques on ‘traditional’ instruments were discovered by accident and through a direct dialogue between human and instrument, they weren’t dreamed up separate to the interface/instrument. Surely, with the technology available and the possibilities afforded by new development environments, we can also view musical creation as being about discovery through interaction itself – interaction as helping to bring about those ideas??

  • Cool Ruins

    without getting too bogged down here i’d say that yes these are absolutely instruments. as a long time musician (drums guitar etc) i have just recently begun composing and developing a live set with ableton and maschine mk2. even after having used drum machines,keyboards and pro tools for years i do feel that these tools are something different. trying to apply old ideas to new technology doesn’t really make sense. we are entering a new era of sound design, manipulation and performance. embracing these tools as instruments is the only way to harness their full potential. i’m definitely choosing which parts i’m going to play on each song, whether it be a drum or keyboard part, or triggering a soundscape or my own chopped up vocals. i still very much consider myself a musician playing an instrument to make music.

    i still remember performing with my band in 2005-07 as a two piece with a guitar bass and a laptop for drums and keys and people would still question whether or not we were a band… luckily the people who design and play these things are WAY further along than the audience.

  • Eric

    It means never having to say you’re sorry

  • papernoise

    Of course calling Push an instrument is a marketing choice, it makes it sound better (please excuse the over simplification, but that’s the basic point). Push is and remains a controller. A highly interesting, advanced and expressive one though.
    The Instrument you end up playing is composed by more than just the controller. Basically if you combine a computer, a software that can produce sound (Abelton Live in this case) and a controller like Push you get an electronic instrument. What you get is just that you split three elements of the instrument into 3 more or less separate entities. It’s a modular instrument since you can change any of the three elements to vary sound capabilities, interactivity, expressiveness and so on…

    This makes it highly interesting for the musician (and I totally agree the roles of composer, instrumentalist and conductor are merging here) and more complicated for the audience. But the point is, it’s more complicated for the audience because digital technology is more complicated for the average person, it’s not something inherent to electronic music. Mechanical/acoustic instruments, despite being products of very advanced technology in some cases, are still quite easy to grasp. An object hits another object and makes a nice “ding”. In case of a computer driven instrument that is composed of three parts and works with a lot of abstraction and virtual things going on it’s a lot more complicated.

    We can see this as a limitation or as an exciting challenge.

  • Robert Chambers

    I would encourage everyone to read Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It isn’t exactly about this, but it’s relevant to any discussion of art/author/authenticity we might have regarding electronic music.

  • Prehab

    This might help connect the visual to aural: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=P9uheL7ryxM

  • http://twitter.com/ben_carey Benjamin Carey

    Great article, Peter! Really enjoying reading the discussion here in the comments also. I’ve always found the ‘continuum’ from controllable instrument to ‘influenced’ performance partner such a fascinating area to discuss. The ‘blurred’ distinction between composer and instrumentalist that you mention is so indicative of where we are now with technology, and also includes blurring distinctions between instrument and composition, creative tool and virtual collaborator.

    We’ve been having related discussions lately over at a colleague’s blog. Here are a couple of posts that people may find interesting:

    Marcus Reuter: ‘Making the Computer Vibrate’ – http://tobiasreber.tumblr.com/post/44530644144/making-the-computer-vibrate-guest-post-by-markus

    Myself: ‘_derivations’ – http://tobiasreber.tumblr.com/post/44530644144/making-the-computer-vibrate-guest-post-by-markus

  • Robert D

    This article is similar to a recent string I was in over at kvraudio. The best statement made was that analog/digital instruments as an analogy: the instrument (or controller) is to the music is as the steering wheel is to a car.
    I raised the concept of: where does the instrument stop, and the actually music begin?
    Answer that and these two topics can meet in the middle.