High notes go high tech
Self-tuning pianos? Squeaky toy orchestras? Music technology isn't just for pop anymore.
Don't expect to hear your local symphony play a suite for daxophone anytime soon.Skip to next paragraph
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Oh, the daxophone is a real musical instrument all right, one of hundreds invented in the last century. German Hans Reichel created it out of a long, thin piece of wood mounted in a clamp. The player bows it and uses another piece of wood to control the pitch.
"It sounds like a fantastic elf or gnome," says David Vayo, a professor of music at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.
Most people are aware that in recent decades computers and electronic synthesizers have revolutionized popular music. But acoustical innovations are also continuing - without much fanfare.
A quarter-note flute that can play twice as many notes as a conventional model has gained some popularity. And earlier this year, inventor Geoff Smith announced he had created a device to give the piano "fluid tuning," meaning it would no longer be confined to the 88 tones created by its keys. That way, the piano could be tuned to play music from other parts of the world not based on the 12-tone Western system.
This year also marks 20 years since electronic music really took off and created a gap with conventional symphonic music that has yet to be closed.
"A whole industry of electronic instruments that started out being pretty wacky have become commercial," says Tod Machover, head of the Hyperinstruments/ Opera of the Future group at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. "You can't buy a CD these days that hasn't somehow been produced using a computer."
But while the popular music revolution is complete, the modern symphony orchestra looks essentially as it did 150 years ago. The reason, observers say, is simple economics. Traditional pieces, which make up the bulk of most orchestras' performance schedules, call for traditional instrumentation. Composers generally are given commissions to write for orchestras, and in turn, their works tend to fit the existing instrumentation. Meanwhile, orchestras struggling to fill seats are reluctant to challenge their remaining audience too often with the unfamiliar, including new instrumentation.
"Composers must write truly unforgettable music for any new instrument before it will be accepted and made popular," points out Jeff Snyder, a music professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "The bottom line is commercial: Would people pay to watch someone play a new instrument? [Comic musician] Spike Jones became popular playing oddball instruments, but who else has?"
Conventional orchestral instruments have continued to be refined, of course. Early brass players used "natural horns" that required extraordinary skill to master until key-operated valves made hitting the right notes easier. And though violinists or cellists sometimes play instruments that are hundreds of years old, their strings, pegs, and other parts wear out and are replaced, usually with modern materials.
With such improvements as metal strings and stronger bows, today's orchestras have a more powerful sound than their predecessors. "It's like putting a new engine in an old car," says Mark Katz, a musicologist at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The 17th-century Baroque orchestra was chiefly made up of stringed instruments. Basically, the 18th century added woodwinds and the 19th century brass. In the 20th century, the array of instruments played by percussionists greatly broadened. At each step, the orchestral sound became bigger and more powerful.
Then in 1983, three crucial innovations hit the music world, sparking a digital revolution. PC and Macintosh computers became widely available; Yamaha brought out a keyboard-based music synthesizer called the DX7 that could make an unprecedented number of new sounds; and computer and music companies established MIDI, a computer language that allowed digital instruments and computers to talk to each other.
Today, Professor Machover's group is trying to discover ways to better integrate conventional acoustical instruments with electronic enhancements. It has developed what it calls a Hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma and a Hyperviolin for Joshua Bell that use digital enhancements to expand what the musician can do with his instrument.