5. Computer music

Computer and acoustic instruments contrasted

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

There’s a survey that has been completed and published at NIME07 about musicians’ opinions on acoustic and computer instruments. You can read it in pdf form. I participated in the survey and found the results interesting. I’m not going to summarize the results here, but I will share my experiences with acoustic and computer instruments.

Before I talk about it, I’ll describe my musical background. I started out playing the trumpet. I started playing the guitar when I was 15 years old. Some friends and I tried starting a band and we played publicly a few times. I had a serious repetitive strain injury in 1994 that would not get better until I stopped playing altogether. I sold my guitar and amplifiers. It took about 7 years for the repetitive strain injury to heal.

I entered UVic with an interest in computer music, wondering whether I could get into it as a substitute for the guitar. I took a year long course in which I had fun playing with computer music. It was interesting and fun but I didn’t produce anything that I could imagine non-academics enjoying. Around the same time, I was building an electric guitar:

Guitar under construction - playable but unfinished

I find computer music interesting. I like to understand how music is constructed and I like learning how to manipulate sounds in a way that produces new possibilities. I love investigating the connection between a physical system and the acoustic waves that we hear by modeling that on a computer. I have developed a computer model of the acoustic guitar and my research manipulates the perception of breathiness in the singing voice based on physiological knowledge of the voice.

That said, I remember driving home one day after the computer music seminar and hearing on the radio a simple guitar line. The feeling in the bending string moved me more than all the work I had done in computer music. After my guitar was playable, I experienced that directly through my hands.

It is hard to create the feeling of working with a physical vibrating system on a computer. I think that I have too much history with the guitar for me to achieve something that feels equivalent on a computer without undergoing years of work. I love the sound and feeling of working with strings, touching them with my fingers to change their tonality in subtle ways. I love the sound of a small tube amp turned up loud, the feedback and compression sustaining the notes with a rich warmth. It’s an electric-acoustic system that feels powerful and expressive to me.

On a computer, I find it difficult to achieve the subtle control and the physical feeling of an acoustic instrument. I’m all for using computers to play with sound and music but I’m not sure that I will ever match my experiences with the guitar.

Monster Guitar Feedback

Saturday, April 17th, 2004

This piece is an experiment in feedback composed music. A loudspeaker was installed inside an acoustic guitar. Two sensors detect the vibrations of the strings. The computer reads this information, generates musical notes and sends them to the speaker inside the guitar. The speaker vibrates the guitar and the strings thereby causing more notes to be generated. The result is that playing a single note will spawn a myriad of notes. Notes can also be spawned by playing sound clips into the speaker inside the guitar.

Plunderphonics

Thursday, December 11th, 2003

I have plundered one of John Lee Hooker’s songs called “Boom Boom”. In plunderphonics, a recording is modified to create a different composition. In this piece, everything on the plundered recording was created from the musical content of Hooker’s song; I used comb filters and other manipulations to mould new musical tones from the original blues recording. The song contains themes of deconstruction, growing beauty and merging identity.