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A Space for Music: Music’s New Instruments

1. Musical Inventors

The artistic possibilities of technology have excited Tufts’ director of music technology, Paul D. Lehrman, since his teens, when he tinkered with amplifiers and electronic instruments. A composer and author, he’s now teaching others to tinker, as he transforms music-loving students into music technologists.

In a corner of a cinder-block laboratory, the first violinist in the Tufts Symphony Orchestra plays a harp without strings, the red beams from a bank of lasers bouncing off her fingers as she “plucks” Heart and Soul. In another corner, a pony-tailed engineering student holds a globe made out of a pair of salad bowls, moving his fingers over the surface to trigger odd, disconnected sounds that bend and groan when he tilts the contraption from side to side. In the middle of the floor, three students place their arms inside a giant plywood box, generating melodies and rhythms together as sensors inside the box detect the motiosn of their hands and fingers. In this lab, new technologies and new music are giving birth to each other.

Of all the fine arts, music has had the closest relationship with technology. From ancient wooden whistles, log drums, and gut-strung lyres, to modern vibraphones, electric guitars, and grand pianos, musical styles have changed in step with advances in technology. In recent decades, electronics has defined much of the evolution of music, as engineers and musicians have sought new sounds and developed new means of expression.

One fascinating result of the digital-music era has been a movement to revolutionize the way music is performed. As computers and digital signal processors have become more affordable and user-friendly, the relationship between what a musical instrument looks and feels like and what it sounds like is being severed. Something that looks like a flute or a violin or a drum need no longer sound like one. A keyboard can do a perfect emulation of the Basie band’s horn section; guitars can produce the sound of massed choirs, and woodwinds can sound like African talking drums. Entirely new types of physical gestures can be used to produce musical sounds: you can wave a pair of sticks in the air and bring forth a string orchestra, an ocean wave, or an approaching horde of killer bees.

Research in this field is going on at universities and laboratories around the world, bringing together people from a wide variety of disciplines who traditionally have little to do with each other. Here at Tufts, we are exploring this new world of sound in our Musical Instrument Engineering program, overseen by Chris Rogers, a professor of mechanical engineering, and myself. In our Electronic Musical Instrument Design course (taught in the aforementioned cinder-block lab), we team up students from many different fields—liberal arts, fine arts, science, and engineering—who share a love of music. Together they create projects that push the boundaries of sound and performance.

Students learn about sound synthesis, MIDI, sensor technology, analog-to-digital conversion, object-oriented computer programming, and the history of “alternative” musical instruments. Small groups made up of students with complementary skills learn from each other as much as from their instructors. By the end of the semester, each group will design and build a new instrument, devise the sounds the instrument will make, and put on a performance. And in the process, they will broaden their own horizons and gain respect for each others’ chosen fields.

As technology becomes a greater force in our lives, we need to ensure that art is not left behind. One way to interest young people in art is to mate it with technology that excites them. There is no better way to do this than with music—not by supplying them with personalized 24/7 sonic wallpaper, but by showing them how technology can free them to express themselves.

2. Do Albums Have a Future?

Rounder Records, one of the country’s top independent labels, embraced digital downloading early on. Now, cofounder Bill Nowlin, A66, G80, wonders what will happen to the concept of the album.

For a few generations now, people have marked their lives with favorite record albums that evoke a meaningful time and place. But albums are a transitory medium that owe their existence to the economics of selling music on pieces of plastic: it was more efficient for a disc to hold 45 minutes of music than to hold just 3. Now it’s the age of the iPod. People can download music in almost any quantity they like. As recorded music becomes liberated from the delivery medium, the concept of the “album” may no longer be the driving force behind what people listen to. The musical landscape will shift for music producers and listeners alike.

In its earliest days, the recording industry produced singles in the form of either wax cylinders or one-sided discs. Just before the Second World War came the true “record album”—four to eight 78 rpm records, each encased in its own sleeve inside a bound album. Musicians could construct more comprehensive, thoughtfully sequenced works, as Woody Guthrie did in his Dust Bowl Ballads (1940). The arrival of LPs—12-inch vinyl long-playing records—in the late 1940s allowed an album’s worth of music to be recorded on a single platter. The Beatles and The Who were among those who later created albums that hung together as musical works, not just collections of 12 disparate tracks. Compact discs followed the same general format, but you didn’t have to flip the record halfway through.

Today there aren’t a lot of people under age 16 buying records; most of them download music. After a few thousand lawsuits against illegal downloads, the ready availability of high-quality, modestly priced legal downloads has created a viable industry that rewards songwriters, musicians, and producers. And Rounder Records is all for it. We were among the first labels to sign up with iTunes, as we had been with its predecessors. Downloading—of both singles and albums—has been very good for us, though we don’t know how many illegal downloads still occur.

Inescapably, digital delivery has both costs and benefits. On the one hand, creativity has been freed from time constraints imposed by the delivery medium. The “album” is not necessarily the 10 to 12 songs of the old days, and there was, let’s face it, a downside to that structure. Many albums had too much in the way of “filler.” The benefits of letting a group create, say, a five-track “album” are obvious. On the other hand, there is something to be said for the concept of artistic boundaries. Writing or performing music to fit preconceived structures, such as the three-minute song, can be a real stimulus to creativity. Will artists invent new constraints? It’s anybody’s guess.

Something important may be lost when people rely on digital delivery for their music. Most are content to download a track they’ve heard and want to have, or take a chance on a track they’ve heard others talking about, but this eliminates the serendipity of discovering a song you love on the “B” side. A while back, you might have gone into a good indie record store to buy an Alison Krauss album and come out carrying a Heartbeat reggae album, too. Much of our listening pleasure came from such accidental finds.

How much serendipity will there be in the digital age? Maybe now that music is cheaper than ever, listeners will experiment more. One assumes there will be new and creative ways to entice people to find more of the kinds of music they like: “If you buy one track and like it, try six more at half-price.” And one thing’s for sure: listeners will have more choices. Even the best record store could stock only about 10,000 different titles, whereas there is no limit to the number of selections you can find online.

The future of the recording industry remains, as always, uncertain. Let’s hope that talented musicians—whether they hew to the album form or not—will continue to find outlets for their creative work.

Dan Blake

3. How to Make It on the Internet

Dan Blake, A04, a jazz saxophonist and composer with a joint degree from the New England Conservatory, has drive and talent—he recently won both a grand prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and ASCAP’s Young Composer Award. What he doesn’t have is the backing of a record label. Like many independent musicians these days, he’s building a career online.

Over the 10 years in which I have been part of the creative music scene in Boston and New York, I have observed the Internet’s revolutionary impact on the production and dissemination of non-mainstream music. Large record labels have abandoned all but a small population of creative artists, forcing musicians to seek other paths to promoting and distributing their work. Now that most record companies belong to big conglomerates, the emphasis is on short-term financial gain. Unless you focus on producing “hits,” the industry pays little attention to you.

This consolidation of power within the music business has not silenced the production of non-marketplace music (it took me more than six months to get a review in Cadence Magazine, thanks to their backlist of new and unknown recordings to review). Rather, the past decade has seen a growing movement of independently released—not to be confused with corporatized “indie”— creative music that is made possible by ever-improving Internet technology.

For musicians like me, who view the business of music as only a small part of a career as a creative artist, this new environment presents great opportunities. I see increased self-sufficiency and versatility in exploring the many facets of the Internet, and of digital media in general.

Internet technology empowers artists to develop their own musical communities. The most popular are MySpace and iTunes, which represent both a grassroots and corporate recognition of the growing autonomy of the online consumer. But there are also some lesser-known sites dedicated to the dissemination of creative music. JazzBoston! is reawakening a vital jazz scene by creating an online community of local and national artists and listeners who call Boston home. Artistshare, among the first true alternatives to a record label, is an online interface where audiences can interact with their favorite artists—such as Danilo Perez, Trey Anastasio, and Maria Schneider—throughout the creative process. Listeners can actually help fund new projects and thus have a direct impact on the development of new music.

The common thread among all Internet-based musical efforts is the increased control artists have over their creative output and the immediacy with which consumers have access to the music they love. In place of the traditional two-dimensional approach to producing and listening to music, where a third party decides how music should be packaged, musicians can now present work in whatever way best represents their artistic intentions. For instance, a MySpace page can be set up for free in 10 minutes, and includes sound clips, photos and videos, a calendar, bio, and a blog where reactions, questions, and links can be posted. This body of information would have taken many hours and dollars to compile into a press kit, which would have been useful only as a promotional tool, not for public consumption.

Although my efforts compete for attention with those of thousands of other musicians, music fans benefit from the many choices available to them, as well as the unprecedented ease and efficiency with which they can explore different offerings.

There are new efficiencies for musicians, too. When I entered the John Lennon Songwriting Contest last year, it took me all of 30 seconds to apply—by securely paying an entry fee and uploading my mp3 file through the competition’s website. I was able to link my profile on the site to my own website (danielblake.net), and to MySpace (www.myspace.com/the danblakeparty), where I am connected to many other like-minded musicians.

The new musical environment has changed my idea of a successful musical career. It is becoming increasingly simple to communicate my art with others, which to me remains the greatest privilege of a life in music. While it remains to be seen how this new power will generate more income, many musicians are rejecting the struggle to impress record companies and are joining artists working both separately and together to create new platforms for showcasing their talents.

Ultimately, this expanding network could provide a significant counterweight to the commercial hit machine. The future may well belong to music that record companies today deem unmarketable.

Illustration by Darren Hopes

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