I’ve just finished an Orientation workshop at STEIM, along with Emmanuelle Gibello, Duncan Chapman, Cormac Crawley, and Ludwig Giersch. I went without any real agenda, just with a jumble of ideas that have been sitting at the back of my mind that, given my lack of skill and patience with MAX and Supercollider, I had more or less given up on. STEIM’s history of working with improvisers had me hoping that the programs they’ve developed would make sense to me. And, thankfully and perhaps unsurprisingly, both LiSa and junXion feel intuitive to me. It is really not something that can be described, or that warrants description, even. They simply feel natural. Now I feel like a number of projects, including the development of a live interactive object to augment solo trumpet performance, are actually possible. Thanks, STEIM!
What was a surprise to me, and shouldn’t have been, was the constant discussion floating around STEIM about the role of electronics as instruments. As somebody who plays an instrument for which there is no controversy – a trumpet is unquestioned as a musical instrument, as far as I can tell – these discussions are fascinating. What makes an instrument? How is virtuosity defined? How can electronics become embodied? Who cares? In most cases it seems that the idea is to justify using a “machine” – a laptop, collection of circuits, whatever – as an “instrument.” But justify to whom and against what?
It has been enormously helpful to me, for instance, to think in reverse: to consider the trumpet a machine, an elaborate piece of metal designed for a specific purpose. There is a lot of nonsense in the trumpet world about the instrument having a personality of a sort, generally a nsty one that is hell-bent on ruining your performance, day, life. While this attitude does allow for a facile deflection of culpability for a poor performance, it does not help – or at least it is no help to me – in facilitating development as an instrumentalist. It is much more helpful for me to regard the trumpet as what it, literally, is: a machine for filtering air, spit, song via a series of tubes and pistons into a specific sound. The instrument – the machine – has neither soul nor intent. These lie within the performer; the instrument is merely a filter.
The trumpet consists of four slides, three pistons, and a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece can be detached from the leadpipe, which renders the mouthpiece the terminus or the leadpipe the entry point for sound; the pistons can be depressed vertically within a certain range, spun 360 degrees, or lifted out of their casings, altering the amount of air that allowed to pass through the instrument; and all slides can be moved within a limited range or detached, altering either the total length of the instrument or the amount of terminus points for sound. Most sounds on the trumpet area function of spit, produced by an embouchure and aperture that can be manipulated within a limited range, depending on how worried one is about damaging one’s lips; and the vast majority of sounds that the trumpet produces are controlled by airflow, which is in turn controlled by the diaphragm and oral cavity. Within the oral cavity, there is the tongue, a fabulous muscle capable of a wide range of motion, which directs or limits the amount of air flowing through the aperture; and the cheeks and jaw, which expand and contract the total volume and velocity of air passing over and around the tongue. The amount of spit that has collected within the instrument in the process of playing it, which is more or less out of the user’s control, can also be manipulated/performed by blocking the flow of air through the instrument (for instance, by turning the one of the pistons so that air no longer flows freely through it), and can have drastic effects on the sound produced. The trumpet is a machine for producing sound, and as such is nearly limitless.
Therefore, the argument that electronic instruments somehow are illegitimate because they present “limitless possibilities” is ridiculous because traditional instruments, viewed through a certain perspective, also have nearly limitless possibilities. There is a question of tradition, as always, but like most questions of tradition, it is baseless and exposes the reactionary nature of the whole argument. Electronic instruments have existed since the mid-20th century, and were put into use almost immediately; the modern trumpet did not develop a repertoire until the early 20th century. The difference is minute. There is a wealth of historical material for electronics that can be – and is – referenced and manipulated in contemporary performance, just as there is a wealth of historical material for trumpet that can be referenced and manipulated.
So then, what is an instrument? The top two definitions that the internet returns for “instrument” are helpful: “a device that requires skill for proper use” and “the means by which some act is accomplished.” For me, I think, it is an interface between intent and sound. In any case, the role of the instrument – what it is, what it does, what it means – is a fascinating line of thought and a useful discussion in general. It is vital that organizations like STEIM are engaged in this dialog(ue), and it was very exciting to be momentarily dropped in the middle of it.