I’ve returned from Cornwall with some fab memories and a ton of photos. We didn’t see much of the county; we were only there for five days after all. But I think our itinerary was well planned – the Eden Project, the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Carnglaze Caverns, and Paignton Zoo (which I’m aware is actually in Devon). Next time we visit, I shall insist on visiting Jamaica Inn – I’m a big Daphne du Maurier fan.
I can’t say which part I enjoyed most, although the Eden Project was particularly fascinating and gave me the idea for this month’s blog post. But, what’s the link between plants and electronics? – it’s the transformative power of technology.
Today, the Eden Project is a vibrant, green habitat, but it started as a barren-looking china-clay pit. When it fell into disuse, Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, decided to give the site a new lease of life. What followed was years of construction work to create the place you see today. And it is the technology used to develop and maintain the Project that sparked my thoughts.
The biomes may just look like giant soap bubble-shaped greenhouses, but there’s more going on than meets the eye. Firstly, each one of those hexagonal panels isn’t made of a single sheet of glass, but three layers of ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene foil with air between each layer. The amount of air between each sheet is adjustable to maintain the optimum temperature. More air is pumped in between each sheet on a colder day to increase insulation; on a warmer day, some air is released to allow for more cooling. The result is a transformation from a desolate clay pit to the world’s largest indoor rainforest and a spectacular Mediterranean biome.
There’s a link, I think, between the transformation of a clay pit into a sustainable habitat and the development of electronic musical instruments. Electronics are transforming the way we interact with music and have enabled the development of accessible instruments for people otherwise unable to play. It has quite literally changed lives; it’s led to new music genres (electronica), new sounds and a massive variety of new instruments.
The electric guitar is an interesting example. One of the earliest uses of electricity in a traditional instrument, it is now a staple in most rock bands… but, it’s not one-handed. Fast forward a few years, and we have the Chapman Stick, another electronic version of the guitar, which can be played with only one hand. Notes are generated by tapping the strings on the fretboard (no plucking required).
There are other people out there working to create more high-quality, accessible digital musical instruments. I’ve spoken to two of them – Dr Jacob Harrison, Director of the OHMI Research Partnership, and Dr Andrew McPherson, Reader in Digital Media at Queen Mary University of London and OHMI’s newest trustee.
Many of my more musical friends have something of a prejudice against electronic instruments – they don’t consider them as good as their acoustic counterparts. Thus, my first question to Jacob and Andrew was why this is so.
On an engineering level, it all comes down to sampling and the intricacies of the human ear. The same note played on an acoustic instrument is minutely different every time. This is not the case for most electronic instruments, though some come very close to emulating this. Most though will play the same note in precisely the same way each time since they are merely relaying a recording of an acoustic instrument playing the note. Thus, they lack the subtlety of an acoustic instrument, and the human ear is so sensitive that it picks up on this.
Jacob said: “If you play a G on a digital violin, for example, it’s going to play the exact same sound over and over again, and it’s always going sound the same. But, on the other hand, if you play the same note on an acoustic violin, there’s going to be really subtle variations. Humans are very good at picking up on this, and they can really tell the difference between one note and another, even if they’re really similar.”
But Andrew also pointed out that there’s a cultural element in play, too, which has left electronic musical instruments somewhat by the wayside. He said: “There is no way for any electronic instrument to supplant this original [instrument] design because it is the reference against which everything is measured. So, you can try to emulate it more and more and more closely. But at some point, you just ask: ‘Well, why not just play the [acoustic instrument] rather than some digital tool?’”
Are they any easier to learn then if they are merely playing a recorded sound? The short answer: yes and no.
It seems there is no shortcut when it comes down to it – the brain just takes a long time to learn and fine-tune (pun not intended) the motor skills required to play an instrument, electronic or not. But what electronics can do is make the learning process more motivating.
“I think what you can do with digital instruments is make the learning process more motivating by making people, for instance, sound better earlier on or make it easier to play an interesting repertoire,” said Andrew.
Computers, phones, tablets, and many other electronic devices often cost well into the hundreds, so how expensive is it to buy an electronic instrument? Comparatively, not any more costly than top-end musical instruments – professional musicians can spend thousands on an acoustic instrument. However, I admit it’s not very sensible to buy thousands of pounds worth of equipment for a beginner musician.
It is possible to create your own for actually relatively little money, but…and you’ve probably guessed it…you need quite a bit of technical knowledge.
Jacob explained: “There’s a lot of interest in making musical instruments. You can buy what’s called an Arduino board, which is just a tiny little computer and build your own electronic instrument. And the really cool thing about that is that you can build it to your own specifications. If you can’t just buy something off the shelf that meets [your] access needs perfectly, then it’s possible that either you or somebody else who has the expertise can make something from scratch that’s perfectly suited to you. It’s often very, very cheap. There are all sorts of ways of making things, for example, using recycled materials or 3d printing.”
And for the interested schoolchildren, parents and teachers, how difficult is it to use an electronic instrument in a classroom setting? The answer: it’s entirely possible but quite challenging. Most electronic instruments are experimental and are used in research labs that have the funding to buy the appropriate equipment, the time to set it all up and the techies on hand to resolve any issues. Unfortunately, this is not always possible in a school.
"I think it doesn’t have to be a challenge…The problems that you encounter are that a lot of new electronic instruments are made in a kind of research context by people who are more or less assume that they’re always going to be around to fix things. So, to make something that’s really deployable is a whole extra set of steps and a whole extra set of skills beyond what it takes to make an instrument that works really well in the research lab,” said Andrew.
But technology is always progressing, and electronic instruments are becoming smaller and simpler to use. However, we may not see them as a staple addition to a classical orchestra any time soon. There are already fully functioning, accessible instruments on the market, e.g., the LinnStrument, but many need extra equipment (e.g., power sockets, loudspeakers), which isn’t always viable in an orchestra pit or concert hall. Having said this, what we may start seeing is electronic extensions to traditional instruments.
Andrew said: “I think what you do see is these kinds of traditional instruments with digital extensions in slightly more progressive or modern contexts. I think you’re going see them in the pit of a West End musical before you’re going to see it on stage at the Barbican, for instance…So yes, I do think digital technology has a place in the classical world, but I think you’re going to see it arise by way of other musical practices that draw partly on the tradition but partly on other more popular ones or more experimental ones.”
And Jacob thinks we may start seeing more and more people creating their own.
I think I can see the do-it-yourself approach becoming easier and easier to get into for laypeople and more and more powerful as a tool for meeting the requirements of professionalisation. So, yeah, I can see it coming in,” he said.
For me, this is encouraging news. Electronic instruments are still mostly confined to a lab (though more and more are becoming accessible to the general public) and require a bit of technological knowledge. But, if what Andrew and Jacob say is true, electronics continue to influence modern music-making, and it may not be long before we start seeing them in more mainstream settings.