PHOTO : JOE MABEL / FLICKR
AN ARTIST AT THE 2019 OLYMPIA EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC FESTIVAL
contrapuntal violin concertos to Schoenberg ’ s atonal sporadic violin concertos , from the upbeat Celtic fiddle to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra ’ s prog rock-driven songs , the depth of this instrument has been explored by composers and players for over half a millennium .
The other way that this stagnation of instrumentation affects us as musicians goes hand-in-hand with the virtuosity . The virtuosity comes from exploring the limitations of these instruments , but those limitations are just that : sonic limitations . As different as Bach ’ s violin concerto sounds to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or a Celtic fiddle , the composers are still limited to the range and timbre of the violin , which , in the grand scheme of all sound , isn ’ t very big . Going back to Cage ’ s quote from earlier , we can now compose for a quartet of explosive motor , wind , heartbeat , and landslide . With the use of technology , the timbres and textures
46 CANADIAN MUSICIAN
MICHEL WAISWISZ WITH HIS FAMED EXPERIMENTAL INSTRUMENT , “ HANDS ”
that are available to us to use as composers are essentially infinite , so why then would we rely solely on instruments like the violin — instruments that have already been so deeply explored and exploited , sonically ?
Sonic Limitation Through Musical Interface
This concept of analyzing the limitations of instruments was outlined in a recent book called Sonic Writing by Thor Magnusson . In that book , he explains that these limitations are dictated by the interface of an instrument .
This is a lot easier to understand if we think of modern electronic instruments like digital synths and MIDI controllers . Like any digital instrument , the sonic possibilities are infinite , so you can design the instrument to sound like an elephant , a piano , a falling bookcase , or really whatever you want . The limitation comes from how you physically control that instrument . If you have a standard 49-key MIDI keyboard , you can only trigger 49 sounds . Things like aftertouch , key velocity , and knobs can expand the range of an instrument , but only to a certain degree . While the instrument may be able to create an infinite amount of sounds , the designer has only allowed a certain set of sounds to be created with the use of the MIDI controller or interface . Whereas a MIDI controller sends signals to the instrument that tell it what to play , the interfaces of more conventional instruments are tied to the sound generation .
That is to say , the interface of a piano is the keyboard : when you move the key physically , it moves the hammer , which strikes the string to produce sound . If we look closer at a piano as an example , the strings of the piano are able to produce many sounds . If you scratch them , bow them , hit them , break them , you can get a lot of different sounds out of those strings . But because the interface for a piano is a keyboard , you ’ re vastly limited to what those keys and the three foot pedals afford you as a composer and performer .
Reimagining Conventional Instruments
One of the easiest ways to create an instrument that explores new timbres and sounds is to take conventional instruments and use unconventional playing techniques . In the case of the piano , it may be as simple as jumping in your piano and brushing the strings , plucking them , or hitting them in ways that produce sound that conventional piano playing can ’ t make . Reimagining conventional instruments is a huge category of experimental instruments . An example of this is “ prepared piano ,” which John Cage innovated in 1940 . To create this , he took a conventional piano and added bolts and screws and nuts to the strings to create a more percussive sound ( for a deeper dive into the history and contemporary use of prepared piano , check out Kevin Young ’ s article in the September / October 2021 issue of Canadian Musician ). The inspiration for this instrument came out of necessity . Cage was commissioned to compose and perform a piece for a dance company . He really wanted to have a full percussion ensemble on stage but there wasn ’ t enough space for such instrumentation , so he took a piano and changed the timbres to allow for a more percussive sound .
This idea of preparing a conventional instrument exists with guitars , as well . Experimental guitarists like Fred Frith , Keith Rowe , and Hans Tammen all play what ’ s called “ the prepared guitar .” This entails putting your guitar flat on a table or your lap and playing the instrument by moving the strings in unconventional ways and sending that signal