The Wire

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In Writing

Bell Labs: Endangered Instruments

May 2014

Clive Bell wonders about the fate of the musician-instrument relationship in the age of the laptop.

Geeta Dayal’s interview with Ellen Fullman in The Wire 361 was moving, as Fullman talked openly and emotionally about her relationship with her invention, her long string instrument. Tricky to set up and transport, the LSI can be 30 metres long, even longer if outside: “It’s like climbing inside of a piano. It surrounds me and embraces me. I feel at home, going into it…it’s my friend.”

The feeling that your instrument is an extension of yourself is familiar to musicians. But the role of the instrument itself is increasingly called into question as music becomes ever more electronic. Electronics can feel like a rising tide, threatening to sweep away the musician fondly clutching her instrument, maybe even disposing of music itself. “The whole field of electronic music has long since reached a state of pure abstraction,” says Markus Popp of Oval, “ and music only survives as a metaphor in software. I usually don’t use the term music too much. I just say ‘audio.’”

Fullman’s music offers one example of how instruments are being recast. I was recently sent a hardback book (in Polish) packed with dozens of photos of new instruments, invented and built by Pawel Romanczuk, leader of the group Małe Instrumenty (Small Instruments), mentioned in this column a few months ago. The book’s spine is itself a flute.

However, although new instruments are constantly appearing, there’s anxiety, especially in the context of orchestras, about the future of traditional ones, and musicians to play them. According to the Dorset-based Wessex Youth Orchestra, their list of “Endangered Instruments” includes all the strings (violas suffering most), the bassoon and, surprisingly, the entire percussion department. The Youth Orchestra website strikes a desperate note: “Here’s a challenge for you. Next time you are watching TV, just take a look at the musicians. What instruments are providing live backing tracks for the likes of Robbie Williams or Susan Boyle or accompanying dancers on Strictly? Guaranteed, you will see string players working on TV several times a day, not to mention the number of times you will hear them on film and computer game soundtracks or advert jingles! It is cool to be a string player!”

Leaving aside the question of whether accompanying Susan Boyle is the ultimate aim of anyone seeking to play music, the issues here include the crisis within classical music (loss of status), access to instrumental tuition in schools (loss of funding), and the elbowing aside of instrumental skills in favour of ever more accessible music software (loss of cred). Ableton one, bassoons nil. Frank Zappa was a huge bassoon fan, but it’s a mature taste that may arrive, can we say, later in life. Whereas the Wessex Youth Orchestra needs you to start learning bassoon the minute your hands are large enough to reach the keys.

What might we be losing? Earlier this year I went to The Forge in Camden to hear The Riot Ensemble present a contemporary programme of homogenous groups. Five bass clarinets played together. Then four trombones (and a tenor voice). Best of all was a piece by US composer Amy Beth Kirsten for five bassoons: “World Under Glass No 1”. Heard up close, this texture was amazing, the whole room buzzing with bass reeds, like a kaleidoscope of wood panelling.

Back in the day, instruments ruled and the electronic was marginal. In the UK around 1970 there was Gentle Fire, Tim Souster’s Intermodulation and AMM (which included Cornelius Cardew and Lou Gare with their contact mics) - and pretty much everyone else on the scene played instruments. Experimental composers John White, Christopher Hobbs (also in AMM), Hugh Shrapnel and Alec Hill formed the Promenade Theatre Orchestra, and their publicity promised “Restful reed-organs, soothing psalteries, suave swanee whistles, jolly jews harps – NO noisy electronics.”

Likewise, early improvisation at the London Musicians Collective required few extension leads and little plugging in. Of course this picture has changed massively, and the ubiquity of electronics is surely a major factor driving change in instrumental improvising. The sheer lack of physical effort involved is a gauntlet thrown down – where’s the value in lung-busting, vein-throbbing blasts on an instrument when a languid twiddle of a knob can unleash a far more devastating racket?

Dance is the area where electronics has swept the board most comprehensively. People still dance to bagpipes and accordions at ceilidhs, but jazzy dancebands and Irish showbands seem long gone, supplanted by the DJ and his or her ever-evolving technology.

Even the tasteful arenas of world music do not guarantee an escape from the electric: a month ago I watched Malian superstar Salif Keita present an “acoustic tour” in London. Alongside the African ngoni and kora winked the lights of an onstage sequencer, playing loops of synth and bass. Mamadou Diabaté, a superb kora player, also hit buttons on the sequencer, which ironically then somewhat smothered his performance. From the group overall, a rich and massive sound filled the hall, but the downside of performing to a backdrop of constantly jabbering keyboard parts is that interaction between the musicians is diminished. There’s less space in the music, and a sequencer doesn’t know to drop back for sixteen bars.

In world music, the challenge has been to adapt what was often an acoustic, intimate format, played without formal time constraints, into a hard-hitting package machine-tooled to meet the expectations of western festival audiences. Take the kora, traditionally played in a room. For the small concert hall, you can place a mic in its vicinity and hope for the best. But to get to the next level – the world tour with audiences upwards of 2,000 – the kora is rebuilt, now reconfigured as an electrified instrument, with the punch and penetration of a guitar. Now you can layer pumped-up acoustic instruments across electronic sequencers (in Salif Keita’s case, both operated by the same player) to create music that works on a gargantuan scale, and the ambition of the singers need know no limits. The kora has leapt from delicate human to musclebound, airborne superhero. Critics may grumble, but the majority of the audience will still perceive the concert as acoustic, not concerned about where those keyboards and huge bass lines are coming from.

Ellen Fullman, with her majestically long strings and wooden resonator boxes, plus her avowedly emotional relationship to those strings, shows how instruments can still surprise. However, most of us are currently in a phase where our heads are spinning in a freshly digitised world. For audiences, electronic sound is inherently more seductive than a non-electrified instrument. Music makers have tasted the magic mushrooms of music software - we’re sky-high and in need of another nibble. Maybe in the future computers will offer musicians a neutral tool, but for now their screens hypnotise us. Their siren songs are all too audible to potential musicians, not only those teenagers who are failing to join the Wessex Youth Orchestra. Let’s hope that violas and bassoons are still there when our heads clear and we come back down to earth.


Why should we come back down to Earth? Why don't the violas and bassoons join us up here?

We'd be happy to have them.

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