I hold a degree in Fundamental physics, but I do not consider myself a scientist. I did not study for many years at the conservatory, but I have been making music and inventing my own instruments, long before I knew what the C Scale was, back in the days in which computers were those cupboards full of light bulbs that I had only seen in movies, crudely spilling grocery bills. In September 1978, I started studying Physics and playing the saxophone. Although none of these activities are totally related with my present professional situation, both were in fact quite determinant for my current activities as a digital luthier. With the saxophone, my teen idols where not David Sanborn or Grover Washington Jr., not even Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter reincarnation (we are talking about late 1970s), but instead Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler and especially, the latest John Coltrane: the cathartic drums-tenor duets of Interstellar Space were setting my future course. I began playing free jazz, which turned practicing the scales into a quite boring and dissatisfying activity.
Four years later, two apparently unrelated incidents were significant in determining my career. I will start with the second one, which was seeing a snapshot of a Synclavier’s spectrogram on the back cover of Laurie Anderson’s Mr. Heartbreak, her second album from 1984. I had already studied the Fourier transform in a general and abstract way (no one ever talked about sound during my five years of physics), so I could intuitively understand what the image of the spectrogram was all about: sound (and therefore music) could be ‘understood’ by computers. The prior accidental milestone (which curiously also involves Mr. Fourier) had occurred only several months before, after our first and only university class of computer (BASIC) programming: “this is an IF and that is a WHILE. Go now to the third floor and start programming the Fourier transform for the next week”. I do not remember what computer it was, except that it had floppies bigger that vinyl LPs, and that we were the first fortunate class that had started typing into a keyboard, without having to punch cards! The important thing is that I discovered I loved to program. Linking both experiences, I soon clearly imagined that computers could be used for making music; even free jazz, I thought. And firmly believing that computers were far better suited than me to repetitive and unexciting tasks (they learn anything at the first take, and they can repeat it for ever without a glitch, I thought), I finally dropped practicing the scales on the saxophone and started programming, hoping that, in a not too distant future, I would be able to improvise ‘my’ own music with those machines. This is what, to some extent and with different degrees of success, I have been doing for the last fifteen years. Although I will not deny that I sometimes miss the saxophone a bit, I will conclude saying that I am very happy with the choice I made, even if perhaps because most of the work is yet to be done….
MUSICAL SHARPNESS AND INERTIA I do share the opinion with many composers who consider that academic computer music and contemporary laptop electronica improvisation even more tend to praise slow evolutions (of timbre, pitch, amplitude…) over fast changes. Many engineering research and design and programming efforts are usually taken in order to manage and guarantee continuity for all kinds of transitions, but much less seems to be focused in the opposite pole (e.g. ‘controlled discontinuities’). A Spanish proverb states that ‘el saber no ocupa lugar’, which could be translated as ‘there is not such a thing as too much knowledge, because knowledge does not occupy any place’ 1. From my own experience, I know however that the more knowledge is embedded into an interactive music system, the more inertia that system tends to possess. The problem could be defined as ‘the truck driver vs. the moped driver syndrome’: power should not increase at the cost of maneuverability. I often like my music sharp2 and believe any instrument should allow playing both smooth and sharp music at the performer’s will, and the more this sharpness is attained by ‘natural’ methods, integrated into the instrument’s personality, and less by mere preset or program change switches, the better. What the last assertion really means, is that if we agree to consider the performer-instrument relation as a true dialog, this reconduction should not be accomplished without an effort and a negotiation. Negotiations take time, but in the current case, the faster the instrument understands and becomes convinced of what we intend, the better3 . This period of time I will term ‘the musical inertia’ of the instrument. It gives a measure of the amount of time it takes, in a given instrument, to reconduct a musical situation. In traditional acoustic instruments this inertia is often related to the tessitura or pitch range, being especially obvious in the case of wind instruments. Lower range instruments, such as the tuba or the bass saxophone, have more inertia. They are bigger; they need more
energy – more air and this takes longer to travel. In sophisticated ‘intelligent’ digital instruments, for obviously different reasons, this inertia tends to be much bigger. A short inertia, which would allow huge, natural music changes and contrasts in the shortest time: this is what our final temporal layer is about. This is not to say that everyone should perform music like Carl Stalling’s or John Zorn’s, but I personally appreciate the attainment of fast musical accelerations, I would say in no more than 250-1000 msec. I estimate this range to be a maximum when playing computer-based instruments, together with drummers, saxophonists, guitarists etc. equal to equal, without being confined to the textural or rhythmic background role. (http://www.iua.upf.es/~sergi)
FMOL FMOL is a digital instrument which I started developing in 1998. Apart from being a simple and ‘old-fashioned’ mouse-based instrument, FMOL has several characteristics that make it unique: it has been used by hundreds of net-performers, its music has been employed in several high-profile shows; it is still also my own favorite instrument. FMOL started when the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus proposed to me the conception and development of an Internet-based music composition system that could allow cybercomposers to participate in the creation of the music for La Fura’s next show, F@ust 3.0, freely inspired by Goethe’s work. There were also several ideas I wanted to experiment with. The first was collaborative music on the net. The second was the conception of a realtime composition system that would work directly with sound more than with macro-structural parameters or, put the other way, a synthesizer that could deal directly with form. In addition, I wanted this tool to be simple and complex all at once, so that it would not dishearten hobbyist musicians, but that it would still be able to produce completely diverse music, allowing a rich and intricate control and offering various stages of training and different learning curves. There was also the proselytist intention to introduce newcomers, possibly non-musicians, to more experimental and ‘noisy’ music and to do it the direct way: by letting them produce it. From January 18th to April 16th of 1998, the FMOL first Internet-database received more than 1,100 brief pieces by around 100 composers. One of our main goals (i.e. to conceive a musical system that could be attractive to both trained and untrained electronic musicians) was fully attained. We know now that several of the participants had no prior contact with experimental electronic music and a few were even composing or playing for the first time. All of them took it, however, as a rather serious game, and the final quality level of the contributions was impressive. It takes about half-hour to start having fun with the instrument, and several hours to acquire some confidence for producing controllable results. However, after six years of playing it, I am still learning it and often discover hidden features. FMOL, which was originally designed as a cheap and freely available system for remote collaborative composition and “experimental electronic music proselytism”, also turned, to my own surprise, to be my favorite instrument for live concerts. For the last five years, I have been improvising with FMOL in many different contexts.
Extracts from: Jordà, S. (2005), Digital Lutherie: Crafting musical computers for new musics’ performance and improvisation, Ph.D Thesis, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain.
1 The ‘inventors’ of this proverb did not obviously know about Shannon’s information theory, and did not have to buy hard drives, RAM memory cards or other storing devices!
2 Sharp as a knife, not as C#!
3 If chess and Quake were two playing paradigms we are obviously getting closer to the latter!