*LOrk digression #1 — What is a musical instrument?

In his Traité des Objets Musicaux, first published in 1966, Pierre Schaeffer defined a musical instrument in the following way:

Tout dispositif qui permet d'obtenir une collection variée d'objets sonores—ou des objets sonores variés—toute en maintenant à l'esprit la permanence d'une cause, est un instrument de musique, au sens traditionnel d'une éxperience commune à toutes les civilisations.” (p. 51)

Free translation: Any device that allows us to obtain a varied collection of sound objects—or varied sound objects—while keeping at heart the permanence of a cause is a musical instrument, in the traditional sense of an experience common to all civilizations.

The core of Schaeffer's theoretical definition is the balance between permanence and variation. It is important to note that the focus is on the sound itself, not on how the sound is produced—which makes sense from a purely acousmatic point of view. Therefore, this definition should hold true in a situation of acousmatic listening. A collection of correlated sounds perceived as coming from one same source points us to the idea of an existing (if invisible) or imaginary musical instrument, a single plausible origin for those sounds.

What is it that creates a sense of permanence? What creates variation?

Michel Chion, in his book Guide des Objets Sonores, attempts to clarify and break down Schaeffer's definition (p. 53): permanence (or pseudo-permanence) is mainly sustained through timbre, a kind of abstraction resulting from the perception of all other charateristics of sound in association. Variation, on the other hand, can be either abstract (pitch, dynamics; usually the domain of traditional musical notation) or concrete (articulation, modes de jeu—for example, pizzicato vs. arco—, use of different mutes, percussion mallets, etc.). A simple example of abstract variation: the different notes one can obtain from the vibraphone, organized in a tempered scale. A simple example of concrete variation: the difference between using a hard mallet or a soft mallet on the vibraphone; or the difference between hitting it with a mallet or bowing it with a contrabass bow.

This last example brings us to interesting borderline cases. In an acousmatic listening situation (for example, listening to a recording of individual notes from various instruments), an untrained listener may be less likely to recognize a bowed vibraphone note as actually originating from a vibraphone. A note from a prepared piano may be more easily associated to other percussive instruments such as gongs. In short, concrete variations on traditional instruments already problematize any idealized “unity” of a musical instrument. It is not for purely sonic reasons that we are able to lump together under “violin” sounds as disparate as a pizzicato and a sustained bowed note produced on the same instrument.

Precisely for being strictly based on listening, Schaeffer's definition of musical instrument indirectly invites us to review how our common understanding of musical instrument, at least in the world of acoustic instruments, goes way beyond the perception of sound objects. We can think of at least three other important aspects that are not contemplated in Schaeffer's defintion: presence, movement, and history.

Presence involves the intrinsically visual and theatrical presentation of the instrument (on or off stage): its physical body, the way it looks and feels, its general appearance. The positioning of the body of the performer in relationship to the instrument is also important: in fact, the human body as shaped by a particular instrument is integral part of the full visual impression caused by such instrument.

Movement, for our narrow purposes here, is the realization in time of the potential seen in presence. Movement is the theater of human and instrument in motion, whereas presence is a snapshot of that motion. The gestures, the movements of the body that are required to play the instrument; movements that are by-products of required ones; and also movements that are traditionally seen as idiomatic or expressive, even if not strictly required to produce the desired sound. These movements, taken as a coherent whole, work together to consolidate our perception of what that instrument is, and more generally what an instrument is. Virtuosism, in part, comes a result of the estimation of the scope and difficulty of the performer's actions, even if you don't play the instrument. There is a shared sense of what is easy and what is hard to do with it. Finally, a fundamental paradigm of acoustic instruments is: when movement stops, sound stops (or will stop soon). Action equals sound, rest equals silence. This is particularly true for sustained sounds (e.g. winds, bowed strings), but the same principle is valid for attack-decay instruments (a cymbal continues to sound for a few seconds after I hit it; but if I don't do anything else, it will stop). The church organ is an extremely interesting (and early) counter-example of the otherwise ubiquitous “if action, then sound” principle: a note may be (unearthly?) sustained forever as long as the key is depressed, no further action required (never mind that audiences never see the organist anyway). [this idea from Robert Henke] Laptop performances today have obviously taken to the extreme the disconnect between action and sound. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something we need to consider when thinking about the concept of musical instrument in live electronic performances.

The history and the culture surrounding a musical instrument are a crucial component of our understanding of what that instrument is. The historical repertoire that follows the instrument and insrumentalist wherever they go; the conventions of playing; the social contexts in which the instrument is used; all kinds of cultural icons and associations attached to the instrument and its community or communities of users. It is because of the history of the violin, and our previous exposure to it, that we are able to “lump together sounds as disparate as a pizzicato and a sustained bowed note,” as I wrote earlier. A newly invented instrument has no history of its own, but often it ends up associated with other instruments by similarity of sound, gestures, appearance, etc.; quickly, then, other histories are attached to it and may even shape the way the new instrument is used and developed.

Finally, in the intersection of movement and history there is the possibility of mistake. A simple definition of mistake from the perspective of movement could be something like “failure to realize a gesture as initially intended.” But this would be insufficient without a history behind it to give it meaning. The notion of a making a mistake while playing, from both the player and the listener's perspective, requires a clear musical context. In some cases this context is provided by decades or centuries of evolution of a common language, such as tonality. In experimental music, when a clear common language is absent, this context has to be provided in real time by the composer(s) and performer(s). An electronic instrument may be designed to prevent the possibility of mistake; to me, this is a less interesting instrument. The capability of musical “mistakes,” however they may be defined, is, I would argue, one of the essential features of a musical instrument.

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So, what is a musical instrument in a laptop orchestra?

A laptop does not seem to fulfill most of these criteria in a satisfactory way. One can certainly generate sounds that appear to originate from a same virtual source, but any other unrelated sound can be generated at anytime, as anyone who used iTunes can tell. The movements involved in manipulating a laptop (typing, clicking) are trivial, narrow in scope and, most importantly, often perceptually disconnected from the sounds one can hear. A concert of electronic music may bring some history and certain expectations with it, but not much in the direction of elucidating the nature of the live “performance” of a laptop. The only consistent and predictable element left is presence: the familiar image of humans sitting and staring at their laptops. But even this image is generic, “multi-purpose”—this presence by itself is not enough to configure a musical instrument. It becomes, at best, enigmatic presence.

Is the laptop, then, not qualified to be a musical instrument? Is the laptop a “meta-instrument”? Or is this definition of musical instrument itself insufficient to account for the new possibilities of musical performance available today?


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