Post-digital instrument building

Martin Rumori
Contribution to the workshop “Hyperkult XXV – Shutdown”, Leuphana University Lüneburg, 9-11 July 2015


The combinations of digital information technology and music are regularly discussed at Hyperkult. The developments and reflections of recent decades have extended the concept of music itself and, in particular, clarified its peripheries, which is why it is used here in the broadest possible sense. It embraces physically and psychologically motivated foundations of the acoustic and sonic, artistic forms of composition techniques, genres and work formats, social differentiation in auditive media cultures and the specifically techno-historical combination of aesthetic development with that of the participating devices: the audio technology, digital sound synthesis and spatial sound projection. The field described above can be called “instrument building” – old fashioned, yet appropriate.

The development of instruments by the Avant Garde movement initially focused exclusively on new things: new sounds, new repertoire, new impressions of musicians and musical tools. And that was necessary because direct, aesthetic, technical, innovative power doesn’t waste time on careful attempts at adapting the traditional. It also needs protected spaces to experiment free from unachievable demands and cumbersome inherited burdens. Exceptions such as Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos (1968), are actually not exceptions. They benefit primarily from their exoticism, but cannot really be included in this current discussion, despite their aesthetic charisma. They are simply too far ahead. There are no instrument technology bridges to what currently exists, and thus barely any interpretational bridges either.

This is changing since digital technology has become so all-pervasive that our era is now “post-digital”. With the established “instrument”, musical interface research has not only remembered the vocabulary, but has also recognised the potential for accessing body-intelligent skills developed over centuries. Following on more or less from Tod Machover’s Hyperstrings, from the start of the 1990s, electronically augmented instruments have been technically developed and refined to a high level. This has involved multi-dimensional sensor technology, as well as analysis methods and real-time audio processing.

If technical fantasies of omnipotence have lost their appeal, and if new ground-breaking innovative impetuses such as synthesizers or sampling seem out of the question at present, in musical terms they are far from impossible. Most of the musical world hasn’t even begun to explore the innovations that the Avant Garde have demonstrated. New instrumental music and live electronics seem even further removed from each other than ever. Whilst some electronic music artists regret this, instrumentalists are attempting a few enhanced playing techniques, scratching, breathing, multiphonics, left over from the once common utopia of unlimited soundscapes. The classical music business refuses to experiment with the new instrumentarium for its established repertoire, with an – unconditional and largely unthinking – demand for historical validity that has long since ceased to apply only to the Renaissance and the Baroque.

However it can only be a matter of time before the “newbies” cease to restrict themselves voluntarily and hastily to the new, and the “oldies” stop abjuring the new. The confrontation may seem striking, but while the boundaries and taboos themselves may shift constantly, the pattern persists: tuning the harpsichord in a Baroque ensemble in the historic Vallotti temperament with the aid of an electronic device does not break a taboo, whereas playing in a symphony orchestra with a carbon violin bow or a plastic clarinet reed – depending on the environment, most certainly does. The use of amplification is accepted only in specific genres, electronic augmentation or distortion only in “experimental” contexts — so in principle not at all.

There is one instrument which has a particularly clear network of social contingencies and individual artistic requirements, which has given rise to a conflict between innovative zest and restorative reshaping that has continued for centuries and in whose “community” recent developments have proved to be exceptionally effective: the organ.

In terms of both media science and the history of technology, the organ is a treasure trove. It can be generally regarded as a model for the development of the telharmonium, the trautonium and — if it is not one itself — for the synthesizer. Its console is an abstract communication interface, the operation of which demands combinatorial thinking and discrete decisions. Technical innovations were often quickly integrated: pneumatic and electromagnetic signal transmissions, complex control matrices in multiplex organs, digital storage facilities. The interplay between thousands of pipes with the spatial acoustics can be an object lesson in multi-channel sound projection.

With all this in mind, the organ seems less a static instrument than a media dispositive which could have united in itself a number of utopias from the past hundred years of music history. That it did not do so cannot be a coincidence, since there is also a strongly determined social dispositive “organ”, which is not identical with the media dispositive. It has allowed the organ to fossilize, to a certain extent, in its form and aesthetics, while its volatile components were elsewhere, celebrating resurrection.

Now digital information technology is striking back and having a go at the organ, which is to say at sound production with pipes. That’s not new, nor is it a redeclaration of war. What is new, however, is the sound quality that high-end contemporary e-organs now achieve, which is increasingly giving the lie to generalised defensive assertions. What is also new is that – for the first time – organists are interested in this, no longer as a workaround or practice aid, but as an instrument that can offer a fresh interpretation of the canonical organ repertoire. The suspicion that they may have witnessed the start of a development unsettles others. This becomes evident from the rhetorical terms, such as “analogue cheese and the digital organ”, “surrogate” and “product piracy”, with which they polemicize against the e-organ.

The renewal of the commercial e-organ is in no way mandatory. The sound and console are derived from the pipe organ and the limitations of the latter, such as the fixed relationship between the registers and manuals, are also transferred artificially. A revolutionary horizon of possibility does not open until one integrates in one’s thinking contemporary digital organs and the current state of interface technology, the digital audio processing and spatial sound projection. The key challenge of organ research when seen in this light is to identify and elucidate those connections which can interact with current advances in playing techniques and interpretation, and simultaneously to relocate the restrictions to where they can be fruitful as instrumental resistances.

As a naive copy, the e-organ currently embodies a number of adopted design decisions that have become degrees of freedom. These decisions could have been taken differently. For this, however, one would have to know what the “organ” is supposed to be – the media dispositive which prompted the development of other instruments would have to be reviewed. This may be the most disturbing or worrying aspect.