Sunday, February 4, 2007

Is the laptop an instrument?



(Chris as DJ photo by Nicole Fournier) Is the laptop and instrument? For me…no. It isn’t. But it can be played musically. There is an incredibly wide range of reactions that a musician can have in a performance situation and translate into sound either as a soloist or in collaboration with one or more other musicians. When I say “reactions,” I am mostly thinking of speed (i.e. how quickly you can go from one nuance to another) and dynamic range (i.e. the range of volume between as nearly inaudible to skull crushingly loud). And it seems to me that the range of expressive reaction a great pianist or drummer or guitarist (amplified) has just can’t happen with the laptop computer due to its mechanical/technical limitations. There are definitely great controllers out there (new products seem to pop up every few months!) that a musician can use to “play” a computer allowing for physical discretion in the transmission of sound. Tools like M-Audio’s various controller keyboards for instance. For me, turning a knob is a lot more satisfying than clicking a mouse. But - and maybe I'm being picky here - turning a knob or pushing a slider isn't the same as breathing into a reed instrument; or plucking a string; or hitting a drum. As a composer, I need to be aware of any limits to the range of expression I can get from any instrument or performer. I’m not knocking laptops, software and/or controllers…not at all. I’m just trying to explain what is on my mind as a composer when I use these tools.

I believe the mixing board, is a very musical piece of equipment. The first time I mixed a track of music I immediately felt as if I were painting with sound. Another great musical interface the turntable and records. Some artists have an incredibly tactile yet sensuous touch with records as a means of aural expression. Watch Kid Koala perform his piece Drunk Trumpet (I love Kid Koala) and you can see and hear what I’m talking about.

Maybe the laptop is kind of in the infancy stage as an interface between a piece of machinery and musical sound. And at this moment in time, we musicians who use the recording studio, the mixing board, microphones and laptop computers and controllers as instruments of aural expression are only limited when we look at limitations as barriers to creating great music. Ironically, sometimes just knowing your limitations will lead you down a creative path that someone else might not be willing to explore.

You can click here to hear a sketch I created in Ableton Live for a piece I’ll be developing with Lynn Wright (guitar) and Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes (trumpet). These sounds were created while improvising freely with Lynn in a rehearsal on a completely different sounding set of musical beats and textures. At one point while we were playing, I pitch shifted a vocal loop I had down 24 half steps and slowed a groove I had down to half its original speed. We ended up with a slow John Lee Hooker sort of dirge that I immediately dug. This is a mix created from those materials we came upon now arranged into a sketch that we can continue to develop for the March residency and concert.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

My Dad actually directed me towards this writing as I am currently writing an essay for University questioning whether a laptop is an instrument or a tool. I found your views to be insightful, and I have to say I agree. I am also a classical cellist as well as also writing electronica music for my studies (and as a hobby). Comparing the two I would say that there is deffinatly a completely different sense of satisfaction which arrives from playing a beautiful piece on my cello, versus playing a beautiful piece with synthesizers via logic and on a keyboard.