Book in Focus
Rethinking the Musical Instrument"/>

11th May 2022

Book in Focus
Rethinking the Musical Instrument

Edited by Mine Do─čantan-Dack

It is rather curious that Music Performance Studies—a young discipline that emerged during the twenty-first century—has not yet explored musical instruments systematically and rigorously in terms of their affordances for musical meanings, social relationships, and creative musical encounters. After all, instruments comprise the heart of the great majority of musical cultures, and they occupy a special and highly valued place in the lives of musicians. My scholarly interest in the topic of musical instruments is related to my artistic practice as a pianist: as an active performer, I have come to realize and appreciate over the years the enormous contribution each piano makes to the overall artistic quality of each performance I give. In my view, performing music on the piano is a thoroughly collaborative affair between the pianist and the piano. My growing desire, both as a scholar and an artist, to further understand the various kinds of mechanisms that enable the performer-instrument dyad to create marvels in sound, and to touch, move, inspire, and transform audiences, motivated me to organize a series of special sessions, from 2015 onwards, devoted to scholarly investigations of musical instruments as part of the annual international Music and Sonic Art: Practices and Theories conference. These sessions, which I named “Rethinking the Musical Instrument”, were received enthusiastically by the conference delegates. The presentations given during these special events expanded my understanding of the artistic affordances of musical instruments in ways that I could not have imagined as a pianist. They also opened important philosophical questions such as “What makes a musical instrument?”, “Why do humans seek to create new musical instruments in each historical era?”, and “Do digital musical instruments create musical identities that resemble those afforded by acoustical instruments?”, among many others. The research presentations given in the “Rethinking the Musical Instrument” conference sessions were wonderfully varied and of very high quality, and I started thinking that disseminating them more widely would broaden the scope of Music Performance Studies and present other researchers with scholarly literature upon which they could build. As such, the idea for the current book was born. Each of the authors featured in this volume worked with great patience and perseverance to prepare their contributions during what has become one of greatest global health crises in living memory, the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that our musical instruments, as our musical partners, made the extended lockdowns a bit more manageable. Writing about them for this book involved narrating personal artistic journeys. While enforced and prolonged physical isolation during the pandemic motivated performers to seek out technologically mediated ways of making music “together”, such as in online virtual settings, and asynchronously, creating musical experiences in unchartered artistic territories, there was one constant within these unfamiliar environments: our intimate relationships with musical instruments as artists, and our desire, as scholars, to understand their nature, as well as their cultural role. Some of the authors who contributed to this volume have reflected on their chapters as follows.

Scott McLaughlin, who authored Chapter 4, notes that he presents “an alternative model for composition with the clarinet that focusses on materiality, listening, and indeterminacy: this model was developed as part of the AHRC Leadership Fellowship The Garden of Forking Paths project. The key principle of this chapter is to think ‘through’ the instrument in terms of its acoustics, by taking fingerings as the basic unit of composition and treating pitch (and to some extent rhythm also) only as emergent properties of interaction between the fingering and embodied techniques (breath, embouchure, throat-tuning, etc.). Each of the ca. 350, 000 possible fingerings then becomes its own acoustic space to be explored, and the compositional act focuses on using listening to foreground emergent structures. The player responds to contingency of the instrument in performance by identifying tipping-points between stable and unstable sounds, primarily aiming for metastability—those points of stability that only emerge through the contingency of a highly specific path, making them very difficult to reproduce. The main conceptual threads in this model are Gilbert Simondon’s writings on ‘individuation’, Andrew Pickering’s ‘dance’ of human and material agencies, and Donna Haraway’s work on ‘ongoingness’ in ecologies.”

Andrew Blackburn, the author of Chapter 5, writes that the origin of his chapter “Rethinking the Pipe Organ” has several sources: “Initially a conference presentation based on earlier research that explored recent developments in musical practices beyond the church and liturgies, with which the pipe organ is commonly associated. This was a component of my Doctoral studies completed in 2011, and I have continued researching and performing in this area since then. In the last decade, there have been further developments in many organists’ musical practices, with some significant tertiary institutions where the pipe organ is taught now adapting their courses to better educate organ students in a performance practice that includes extended techniques, as well as the incorporation of various forms of technology. The upshot of this is that more composers and a wider range of musicians now perceive the pipe organ as an instrument that can express their musical needs and language. Organ builders are also responding to the changes and there are several instruments that have been built in recent years that, in some ways, fundamentally changed the ontology of the pipe organ. For example, touch-sensitive instruments—where performance parameters including timbre and amplitude are controlled by the keyboard touch of the player. Such organs are currently installed in tertiary institutions, and the theories behind their construction are emanating from conferences and practitioners commissioning such instruments. In this chapter, I provide an introductory survey to this activity, and further argue that, with the reduction of the influence of the church, it is mostly civic and educational institutions that are currently fuel the pipe organ’s musical development. In university contexts, further research-based approaches to organ building might reasonably be expected. Another impetus for this chapter has been an exploration of some recent music written for the acoustic pipe organ with the addition of DSP (digital signal processing). This development adds new sonic and spatial components to the creator’s palette, and fundamentally changes the organ itself—in terms of its ontology, and in terms of its relationship to the space in which it is situated. In exploring these various strands, I hope to stimulate further interest in scholarly research and in artistic creation on the pipe organ as a vehicle for contemporary musicking.”

Reflecting on his research, the author of Chapter 12, James Mooney writes: “I ask the question: How do new musical instruments come into existence? There is a tendency, perhaps, to take musical instruments for granted—their physical features, their sounds, and their conventional usages. The purpose of my chapter is to show that such things are the result of social interactions in the material and sonic world. I do this by focussing on the English experimental instrument-maker Hugh Davies (1943-2005), whose best-known instrument, the ‘Shozyg’, consisted of two fretsaw blades, a spring, and a furniture castor, mounted with contact microphones for amplification in the hardback cover of an encyclopaedia. Davies played the Shozyg by rubbing, plucking, or tapping these objects with fingers or with other found objects to produce ratcheting, clanking, whirring, scraping sounds that some listeners might find difficult to consider ‘musical.’ Listen, for example, to ‘Shozyg I & II’, a duet performed by Davies and Richard Orton on two Shozygs (available at: In my chapter, I explain that there is a method in the madness, by showing how the materials, sounds, and playing techniques of Davies’s instruments were all products of his interactions in the socio-material world of mid-1960s experimental music. I hope that my chapter might inspire readers to consider how other musical instruments came into existence, and how they came to possess their sonic and material characteristics.”

Marc Estibeiro and David Cotter, who co-authored Chapter 13, note that “In the world of the guitar, there is a long tradition of using electronic processing to change the sound of the instrument. Indeed, possibly because of its widespread use in popular music, the guitar may well be the instrument with the strongest history of electronic processing. The first electric guitars appeared in the 1930s, and have been evolving, along with a remarkable and widely available range of electronic processing devices. Many of our best-loved and most widely recognisable pieces of popular music depend on the sound of the processed electric guitar for their characteristics. The history of the classical guitar and electronic processing, however, is much less widely known, at least to a general audience. This is despite the fact that there have been many compositions for the classical guitar and electronics since at least the 1960s. Many of these works use electronics to frame the guitar in new contexts or to explore new ways in which the instrument, the performer, the composer, and even the audience can interact. This inevitably raises questions as to how we understand musical instruments and where the boundaries of those instruments lie. Perhaps the most significant difference between electronic and acoustic instruments is that, for an electronic instrument, there is no direct relationship between the actions of the performer and the resulting sound. In the world of electronics, the ways in which performance gestures can be mapped to resulting sounds are entirely arbitrary. This presents us with enormous possibilities. The composition at the heart of this chapter was an attempt to respond to some of these issues. In particular, we wanted to explore the ways in which the existing skillset of the guitarist could be used to control and react to electronic processing without the need for any interfaces beyond the guitar itself. Our solution was to use pitch-tracking algorithms to trigger cues in a bespoke computer environment. This would then process the sound of the guitar and present it back to the performer. After much experimentation, we settled on a model of controlled improvisation rather than a strictly notated score for our work. This gave us the flexibility and freedom to react to the electronic sounds, but to do so within carefully chosen constraints. Unfortunately, our work coincided with major restrictions in the UK brought about by the global COVID-19 epidemic. This forced us to collaborate remotely, which, in turn, added new levels of unanticipated complexity to our project, particularly in the form of the inevitable latency introduced to any online collaboration. We decided to embrace these limitations rather than fight against them. We removed any need for synchronous performance and named the composition Latent as a recognition of this. The resulting work not only explores the relationship between the performers and the electronics, as was the original intention, but also became an exercise in using the guitar with electronics to investigate the potential and limitations of remote collaboration.”

Finally, Ewan Stefani, the author of Chapter 15 explains his contribution as follows: “I discuss how the analogue synthesizer is, perhaps surprisingly, not given the attention it deserves in academic literature. I provide a critical review of how the synthesizer has been viewed by musicians, engineers, and academics since the late 1960s. My chapter argues that an improved understanding of the analogue synthesizer is needed now that these instruments have evolved and matured. I discuss different approaches to instrument classification, and compare the complex issues surrounding the definition of digital musical instruments with the problems of describing synthesizers accurately. I also evaluate the functionality of a range of affordable and commercially available analogue monophonic synthesizers to discover the effectiveness of classification techniques for creating a clear definition of the instruments. Capabilities of modern analogue synthesizers are compared with the functionality, design aspirations and musical potential of earlier generations of synthesizers such as those made by Moog, EMS, and Buchla, with reference to relevant academic and industry literature. I also considered it important in this chapter to highlight the continuing cultural and musical importance of the analogue synthesizer, as instruments become available to a broader spectrum of musicians and enthusiasts.”

About the Editor

Mine Do─čantan-Dack is a musicologist and a concert pianist. She studied at the Juilliard School and holds a PhD from Columbia University. Her books include Mathis Lussy: A Pioneer in Studies of Expressive Performance (2002), the edited volumes Recorded Music: Philosophical and Critical Reflections (2008) and Artistic Practice as Research in Music (2015), and a volume titled Music and Sonic Art: Theories and Practices (2018), which she co-edited with John Dack.

Rethinking the Musical Instrument is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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