Alex McLean

Making music with text

Sonic boom

by Alex on September 18, 2011

Jew's Harp

I’ve been peeved by this FT article, and failing to express my annoyance over on twitter, so time for a post.

The central question is that “New technology is leading to some innovative instruments – but will musicians embrace them?” To start with this is the wrong way round, musicians have been inventing their own instruments for millennia and willingly embracing them.  For example one of the oldest pieces of music technology is the Jew’s Harp, a highly expressive timbral instrument, augmenting the human body. I think all new instruments should be judged against it.

So on the whole technology is not some abstract machine churning out devices for musicians to scratch their heads over.  As the antithesis of this point the article introduces Ken Moore, paraphrased and quoted as laying into the ReacTable as a fad, which is not often used for real music.  He says a better way forward is to use motion-sensing equipment, in particular his own use of Wii controllers to create theramins.  Now I like theramins very much, but Moore profoundly misunderstands the ReacTable, which actually includes motion-sensing technology at its heart.  Indeed Moore’s videos could easily show him using a ReacTable in the air, but without visual feedback and with only two pucks.

The genius of the ReacTable, which in my view shows the way forward for music tech as a whole, is in combining visual, continuous gestures in a space of relative distance and rotation, defined by and integrated with the abstract, discrete symbols of language.  This is what the Jew’s Harp had already done beautifully, thanks to human categorical vowel perception and continuous, multidimensional range of embodied expression in vowel space.  The ReacTable pushes this further however, by bringing dataflow and to an extent computation into the visuospatial realm.  This is a very human direction to take things, humans being creatures who fundamentally express ourselves both with language, and with prosody and movement, engaging with the striated and smooth simultaneously and intertwined.

I could rant about those crass arguments around ‘real music’ too. People dance to the ReacTable in large numbers, and I don’t see how you can get any more real than that.  Still if the ReacTable is starting to get bad press then that’s potentially a good sign, that it’s forcing people into an uncomfortable position, towards changing their minds about where musician-led technology could really drag us…  Towards new embodied languages.

          

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