High notes go high tech

Self-tuning pianos? Squeaky toy orchestras? Music technology isn't just for pop anymore.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Don't expect to hear your local symphony play a suite for daxophone anytime soon.

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.

Recommended: The 25 best musicians of the Rock era

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?"

Like a new engine in an old car

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.

The sound of science

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.

At the other extreme, the group has created digital musical toys for children, a kind of "training wheels" for budding musicians ready to express musical ideas but who haven't yet developed the skills to play an instrument.

Musical Shapers, the size of a grapefruit, are covered with a patented thread containing sensors that react to the way the child handles them. The child manipulates a preprogrammed "little seed" of music and helps it "grow" by the way he or she shapes it. A percussion toy, Beat Bugs, can be networked so several children can play them together, allowing rhythms and melodies to jump between the bugs.

The aim of the toys is to help children fall in love with the creative part of musicmaking before they have to "learn all the details" of playing a conventional instrument, Machover says.

Those inventing new musical instruments today are trying either to find new timbres (distinctive new sounds) or intonations (new intervals beyond the traditional 12-tone scale), says Mark Applebaum, a composer and professor of music at Stanford University.

He's invented "sound sculptures" - instruments he plays and for which he composes works. They're created out of everyday materials like threaded rods, nails, wire strings, plastic combs, doorstops, shoehorns, and mousetraps. Meant also to be visual works of art, he admits they have a "postmodern humorous quality about them."

For many years, jug-band players have blown into bottles and scratched washboards, showing that anything can become a musical instrument if it is put to use in that fashion, Professor Applebaum explains.

What were once strange, exotic instruments often become conventional over time. Marimbas, for example, once conjured up thoughts of exotic South America. Now students major in the marimba at respected American conservatories. When Mozart used the triangle in one of his 18th-century operas, the audience saw it as representing far-off Asia Minor. Today, the all-American triangle is one of the first instruments children play.

"Just as all formal religions begin as cults, similarly all musical instruments at one point are newcomers to the game," Applebaum says.

Duck call? Bring in the percussionist

The chief way in which today's orchestras have subtly but radically changed, observers agree, is in the percussion section. Beethoven might have called for one percussion player using a timpani.

"Now you have orchestral pieces with half-a-dozen percussionists playing a huge battery of instruments of all sorts of ethnic origins," some of which aren't really percussion instruments at all, Applebaum says. "If a piece calls for a duck call, it's the percussionist" who makes the sound.

Where electronic music has crept most pervasively into the orchestra is through imitating conventional orchestral sounds, observers say.

On Broadway right now, the musicians' union is battling producers over the size of the orchestras for musical shows. Producers want to save money by cutting the number of live musicians in the pit and substituting synthesizers. If the musicians strike, the producers say they'll substitute "virtual orchestras" without any live players. They believe audiences won't be able to tell the difference.

The future of innovation in music seems almost surely to be in digitally created music whose origin is either purely electronic or in imitation of acoustical sounds, "rather than string instruments growing extra strings or things like that," Applebaum says.

Machover envisions a time in the near future when consumers will buy a digital recording of a Beethoven symphony with three different performances: perhaps a Leonard Bernstein version, a Joseph Levine version, and a version by a hot young conductor.

They'll put it on the next generation of a Playstation game console and use the joystick to navigate all three, bouncing between them and then mixing them into their own interpretation.

• For information about hyperinstruments and musical toys at www.media.mit.edu/hyperins/projects.html. For more on sound sculptures, visit www.markapple baum.com. To learn about experimental acoustical musical instruments, go to www.woodwind.com/emi.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...