Canadian Musician - March-April 2022 - Page 47

through a series of processors , whether that ’ s pedals and an amp or plugging into a computer . Springs , rope , violin bows , Ebows , magnets , and more are used to move the strings and create different sounds that aren ’ t possible with conventional playing techniques .
One of my first experimental instruments that I made is similar to the prepared guitar just mentioned . I laid a guitar flat on my desk and used things like an Ebow to create drones , magnets for sharper quick sounds , and even an oven mitt to create a muted , dull sound . I then sent my guitar signal into a pedalboard that laid behind it , then into my computer where I affected the sound even further in my DAW .
Repurposing Non-Musical Objects in Musical Ways
Another way that experimental composers have created new soundscapes through instruments is by using non-musical objects as instruments . Again , Cage ’ s “ Imaginary Landscapes No . 4 ” uses those 12 portable radios as instruments . Another example would be David Tudor , who used household items like a sink and a barrel from a washing machine as instruments . In his most famous piece , “ Rainforest IV ,” Tudor hung these household objects in a studio space and attached tactile transducers to them . These transducers are similar to the ones in your speakers , as they shake the cone of your speaker in order to produce sound . Instead of shaking a cone , Tudor ’ s transducers are shaking these hung household items , effectively turning them into large speakers . With the use of a mixing board , he sent recordings of moving water to these items and let the audience members walk around and interact with this new instrument .
Using similar techniques to Tudor ’ s “ Rainforest IV ,” I created an instrument two years ago called Generations , where I sent audio recordings of people telling family stories in different languages to different family heirlooms that were hung in a space . These items included decorative plates , jewellery boxes , and picture frames . The audio passed through six different objects until it became incredibly distorted and unintelligible .
Starting from Scratch
Perhaps the most obvious way of creating a new instrument is to simply design something completely new . A very common example of this would be laptop music , where composers make their own instruments through coding software . This is something that I just got into over the past year and , let me tell you , if you ’ re just starting off , there is a lot to learn . One of the most common programs used is called Max / MSP , which uses little virtual modules that can be attached to each other to create different sounds .
Currently , I ’ m working on creating a granular synthesizer that is controlled by a MIDI controller and a computer mouse . This synth takes a WAV file and cuts it up into tiny little pieces , only a few milliseconds in length , then it plays back these pieces in random order to create this pleasing digital cluster or cloud of sound . Currently , I ’ m working with recordings that I made of a giant bell , a guitar , a glockenspiel , and an African hand drum , but really you could use any recording as the sound source . Because I ’ m still fairly new at using this software , many people who are more familiar with it would consider my instrument rather basic , and they ’ d probably be right .
One of the biggest conferences in the world for these types of instruments is called NIME ( New Interfaces for Musical Expression ). At this annual conference , composers , musicians , and instrument-makers show off their newest , most cutting-edge instruments . At the heart of many of these instruments is the same software that I ’ m learning to use , Max / MSP . Some of the instruments at this conference might be controlled with a computer mouse and a commercial MIDI controller like mine is , but there are instruments that are controlled with touch screens , motion sensors , some with gloves that can detect changes in hand movements , coloured flashlights shining onto light receptors , and even disrupting the flow of moving water , to name a few . I would highly recommend doing a quick YouTube search on NIME . Seeing some of those instruments in action really expanded my view of what a musical instrument can be .
Now obviously a new instrument doesn ’ t need to be completely digital . In fact , there are many new experimental instruments that are almost entirely acoustic . An example of such an instrument is The Apprehension Engine , which was created by Toronto-based guitar luthier Tony Duggan-Smith and commissioned by Canadian music composer Mark Korven . This instrument was created for the purpose of making eerie sound effects for horror movies . If you ’ ve ever seen the movie The Witch by Robert Eggers , then you ’ ve already heard this instrument in action . The instrument features several strings , a spring reverb unit , steel rulers , and bits of metal that are all attached to a wooden sound box . The performer uses an Ebow , a violin bow , and their hands to generate different sonic landscapes on this horror sound machine .
A New Approach to Instruments
As I mentioned earlier , I understand that experimental music is not everyone ’ s cup of tea and I get it . It took me a really long time to get into it and while I understand you ’ re likely not going to be picking up coding or fashioning a new instrument out of kitchen items , I do hope that you can look at your instrument from a different perspective . I ’ ve been experimenting prepared guitar techniques , synths , tactile transducers , and coding , but I still play guitar in a more conventional way all the time . I love playing in indie rock bands , reharmonizing jazz ballads , and jamming along to old Led Zeppelin records and I don ’ t think that will ever change , but I also understand the limitations of my instrument and how that affects the music that I can play on it .
When I ’ m writing a song , I find it ’ s important to not only think about the harmony and form , but think about the textures that I ’ m creating . Is a picked guitar the right timbre for this section , or should I try bowing the strings , or try to sing through the pickups ( this actually works and is really cool , try it !), or rubbing the strings with the side of my fingers ? Perhaps a pocket fan to pluck the strings really quickly ? Maybe the answer lies with adding different pedals and using volume swells to make my guitar sound like a synth pad or a roaring elephant . Looking at the limitations of your instrument , its interface and conventional playing techniques , and throwing that out the window allows you to push into new sonic spaces . Not only is experimenting with your instrument super fun , but I believe that ’ s how the best music is written .
If you ’ re interested in doing more research on this subject , I would highly recommend you start by reading John Cage ’ s The Future of Music : Credo , as well as Thor Magnusson ’ s Sonic Writing .
Omar Shabbar is a gigging musician based out of Toronto . He ’ s also an onsite guitar tech at The Root Down Studio ( bit . ly / rootdownstudio ) and a self-proclaimed gear head . In the rapidly changing industry of modern guitar gear , Omar attempts to discern innovation from distraction . Check out his YouTube channel , featuring dozens of gear reviews and performance clips , at YouTube . com / OmarGearReview .