Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Traditional Instruments meet the Future

I wonder how many people in the world play what I'd call a traditional instrument? - violin, trumpet, drums, guitar, flute, etc. What I mean by traditional instruments is pretty much any musical instrument that requires time and training to master or even not master, but to learn to play at some level, and it is an instrument that has an original sound that can be identified with it. I know this places keyboard synthesizers in a gray area, so maybe we include them under "keyboards."

I bring this up because having spent years learning to play a variety of "traditional" instruments, I've now encountered modern, ergonomic, synthetic musical devices that can reproduce most any existing, or even non-existing, instrument. They have a short learning curve, require no calluses, and can even play by themselves, or accompany you. Actually, these machines can even play other electronic instruments.

Two examples of these devices are the MPC1000 and MASCHINE. In a few minutes, a person with some musical skills, and quite a bit of technological savvy, "play" one of these new instruments. I've included some YouTube links for samples.

This brings me to the argument I've heard. Some people state that traditional instruments are better because they do require mastery, and "just anyone" can't play them. The other side of this argument is that new-tech instruments are more democratic, and take the emphasis away from fine-tuning the body to play an instrument, allowing more time for the mind to create music. And of course, a single person can replace an orchestra.

Naturally, being a person who straddled the age of classical instruments into electronic instruments, I enjoy the originality and flexibility of both. But I wonder if "traditional instruments" have seen their day come and pass? Yes, for the present, they are required for most electronic devices to use as sample sources. But can they can they compete with the new age of musical instruments?


MPC 1000 DEMO (YouTube)

Both videos have lengthy introductions, but it is worthy watching them for the actual demonstrations.


Steve Buchheit said...

I remember a cultural program about a lake in Africa which had an indigenous population of fishers based around it. This tribe used skiffs and the fisherman stood on the prow with a spear to catch his fish.

The government relocated and settled a nomadic tribe on this lake's shore and taught them how to fish using powerboats and nets.

The story combined the anthropological aspects of how the indigenous tribe had developed their way of fishing over thousands of years and it had become a skill one had to master to be accepted into manhood. That line also talked about how skill bases tended to evolve to require greater skills from the basic practitioner.

Then the show talked about how the relocated tribe was more prosperous because they could catch more fish that they could then sell.

And the show finished up with what the relocation meant to the local habitat and how the half of the lake reserved for the relocated tribe was quickly becoming depleted and if it weren't for the other tribes side of the lake's ability to spawn new fish, the relocated tribe would be starving by now.

I think the electronic machines producing music are along the lines of the relocated tribe.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't know, I'm still traditional enough to find it kind of chilling that anyone can do anything artistically now without hardly any effort at all.

Rhys-Lain-Austurias said...

Mr. Jones, I have been learning how to play piano and guitar and I can tell you that learning how to correctly and emotionally play an instrument is leagues beyond programming an electronic.

The difference in analogical to the difference between a writer and an editor. As a traditional musician, you are constantly in the spotlight(even if you aren't) and are always worrying about making too many mistakes. Programming an electronic such as a synthesizer does not necessarily always mean that you understand music less, it just takes the heat off.

After a while, you become comfortable with the instrument and it is no longer an issue. However, those first few months are a killer and will test your endurance and ability to comprehend musical figures on the fly. Additionally, once you learn one instrument, all others are accessible as you already have the rudimentary ground work to operate instruments and create music.

Once you reach that point, you are accustomed to the amount of effort that goes into learning an instrument and it becomes a second instinct.

I hope this helps you and does not sound too unkind.
-Brandon Rhys Parker

Akasha Savage said...

I agree with Charles Gramlich. It will be a sorry day when we say goodbye to traditional instruments. I have always wanted to play the drums, I would just love a drum kit. I once had a boyfriend who could play the guitar, nothing beats the ambience of a glass of wine, a candle lit room and someone serenading you on an acoustic guitar.

Rick said...

I spent seven years studying classical guitar until I abandoned it for martial arts (the fingers don't always hold up well in martial arts), and I remember it well as a spiritual experience requiring self-discipline and commitment to produce beautiful music. Although classical music is for the time being still practiced and loved by some, I believe its day is passing. The human element is being drained from the arts.

I've heard the claim that these will augment our appreciation of the final product by increasing the scope and capabilities that earlier musicians were able to achieve with their classical instruments. There may be something to that, but I doubt sincerely it will ever replace the love and commitment of a devoted artist that is intertwined with the practice and mastery of classical instruments. So it is, I think a loss more for the musicians than for the audience.

William Jones said...

Steve - That is a very interesting analogy. What I take from that is that non-traditional instruments will quickly overrun, and perhaps water-down "music" as a whole. Maybe important factors of music are rarity and tradition?

Charles - Given the amount of time I've put into learning instruments, I can understand your feelings. But I wonder what Mozart could have done with one of these devices?

Brandon - Your remarks do not sound unkind. What do you mean the difference between a writer and editor? :) (Just a joke)

I think you hit the mark about the emotion. As a youngster, I played in a number of bands with a score of members coming and going (two puns in once sentence!). What I learned is that some understood the mechanics, and others understood the mechanics and played with emotion. It was the emotion that made for good musicians. Mastery of skills allowed for reproduction of songs, but there was a hollowness to them.

Of course, this was an argument used against the electric guitar for a while - it didn't allow the musician to bring forth emotion as an acoustic guitar did.

Now to play the other side, is it possible to play one of these devices, or some new instrument with emotion and skill?

Akasha - Being a person who does play the drums, and guitar, and piano, violin, and the radio, I share the same feeling. I enjoy playing, and enjoy watching musicians play. Music does sound very different in person - live. And I wonder if sythentic sounds will ever have that "live" feel?

Rick - Very insightful. I wonder the same: is the art as important as the music. Does the admiration of the skill and technique bring more to the music than the score itself.

Steve Buchheit said...

"is it possible to play one of these devices, or some new instrument with emotion and skill? "

I'd say yes. After all, it's an instrument. I followed a few techno bands back in the day, there are a few groups whose only instrument is the computer, and while the "sound" they reproduce isn't a musical imitation, the total of the experience is music.

I think this also tracks to the writing argument of "do you write on the computer or do you write longhand?" There are some people who would argue one or the other way is superior (and Teh Only Way True Authors Write). Surely as we progressed from quill pen, to pencil, to fountain pen, to (practical) typewriters, to electric typewriters, to word processing typewriters, to computer keyboards the number of people who are producing "written works" have increased because of the barrier to produce them has been lowered. And certainly there's much noise in the signal, but, really, there always was. It's just with time the noise drops out.