Canadian Musician - March-April 2022 - Page 45

My Path to the Strange World of Noise
I know that for a lot of people experimental music just isn ’ t their cup of tea . I ’ ll be the first to admit that , for a lot of experimental music , you really need to be in the right mood to listen to it . Experimental music is texturefocused music and often isn ’ t tonally pleasing or soothing like the music that we grew up with . Personally , I only got into experimental music in the past three or four years . I grew up playing guitar and , in many ways , the guitar is still my main instrument and the centre of my musical world . From the guitar greats of classic rock , post-rock , and indie music , the sound of those lush electric guitar tones captivated me completely . This intense passion for guitar tone quickly led me down a rabbit hole of obsessing over guitar gear , specifically effect pedals . I ’ m sure this slippery slope of gear obsession is something that many of you are familiar with . I started shifting my thinking from , “ how do I play that lick ?” to , “ how can I get my guitar to sound like that ?” How do Queens of the Stone Age get their guitars to drive like that ? How do I get that angelic reverb that Jeff Buckley has on “ Hallelujah ”? I will always think about what I ’ m playing harmonically on the guitar , but I ’ ve started to think more and more about the textures that I can create with my guitar .
I have since taken this texture-driven guitar playing to my academic endeavours . During my undergrad degree , I took all of the typical classes : music history , jazz guitar , classical theory , jazz theory , you name it . Near the end of my undergrad , however , I started taking courses like one on electro-acoustic orchestra , and private studies that focused on experimental instrument design . I am currently doing my masters at Toronto ’ s York University in ethnomusicology where I ’ m focusing on new instrument design and world music . I also work as a research assistant at the DisPerSion Lab at York , which focuses on research-creation projects in experimental music . Needless to say , I ’ m pretty deep down this rabbit hole and I love it .
Modifying Instruments Throughout History
When I started diving deep into experimental music at school , there was one thing that really stood out to me : the vast majority of the composers that I studied and the talented musicians they play with have all designed their own instruments . To be an experimental composer is to be an instrument designer . This idea of composers making new instruments or making slight modifications and updating their instruments in order to get different timbres or sonic ranges is not unique to experimental music ; in fact , it was once
common practice in western music .
Up until essentially the 18 th century , composers would work hand-in-hand with instrument builders to create or update instruments , allowing them to use instruments with a higher register , or a darker , more mellow tone . The guitar is a perfect example of this evolution . Before the six-string version that we ’ re all familiar with , composers used instruments like the lute and the oud . The oud is a fretless stringed instrument that is popular throughout the middle east and southern Spain . This instrument has seen thousands of modifications . The famous oud player Ziryab , known for his contributions to the Andalusian court , added an extra drone string to play lower and with a different tuning . Iraqi musician Munir Bashir reinforced the face of the instrument to support the tension of a higher , more flashy tuning . Changes were made to the instrument constantly and on an almost musician-to-musician basis . The same can be said about the lute , a descendant of the oud and predecessor of the guitar . There are many different iterations of the lute throughout history . If you wanted to compose a piece in a lower register , you added a new string . If you wanted to play with louder instruments , you added another sound hole . The modifications of these instruments were made to accommodate the musical endeavours of the composers that used them .
When the 18 th century classical guitar was invented , we more or less stopped updating the instrument , at least at the rate in which we were modifying the oud and the lute . The clear counter-argument here would be the difference between acoustic and electric guitars . I would argue , however , that
electric guitars , as a complete instrument , include amps and sometimes pedals . That ’ s the main reason that they sound different . Even with that difference in mind , both guitars have the same tuning , same number of strings , similar playing techniques , and their general construction is mostly the same . You could , in theory , go back in time to 18 th century Spain , pick up a guitar , and play “ Thunderstruck ” by AC / DC on it . Conversely , if Fernando Sor time-travelled from the beginning of the 19 th century to present day and you handed him a Stratocaster and plugged into a cranked Marshall , he could play it ( and I ’ ll bet it would sound awesome ). In many ways , the guitar , piano , violin , and other instruments that were invented in the 18 th century still dominate western music today .
Stagnation of Conventional Instruments
But what does this mean to us as musicians ? Well , there are two ways in which this “ stagnation ” of instruments affects us . One is that it has afforded a huge amount of virtuosity . If the instrument keeps on changing slightly , we need to relearn how to play it and how these variations change the instrument ’ s sonic affordances . When Ziryab added that extra string to the oud , it fundamentally changed the way that he played the instrument . Because the instruments that we use today haven ’ t seen any major changes in such a long time , we have been able to really explore the limits of these instruments more deeply . If we look at the violin , for example , we can see clearly how different composers throughout history have composed for this instrument , exploring all of the different possibilities that it affords . From Bach ’ s beautiful