Envious of the silly money that silly musicians like David Guetta, The Chainsmokers, Aviici et all are making for hitting a couple of buttons and tweaking a few knobs?
Despite what those three might lead you to believe, making great music is easier than ever (and you can try it for yourself - rent the gear here) and even though music making has shifted from studios to laptops, there are more fascinating new instruments than ever - the hard part is getting people to play them...
If you’ve ever endured the dubious pleasures of the Pub Quiz, you may have faced the following question:
What is the most recent widely-adopted musical instrument?
Pay attention all you real-ale-drinking bearded pedants, because the answer is the turntable, which was first scratched to make music in the mid-70s by none other than - yes - Grand Wizzard Theodore. So it’s him you can thank for RUN-DMC, DJ Shadow, and, erm, Limp Bizkit’s signature sound.
New instruments have generally sparked new musical revolutions: the Beatles needed the electric guitar, hip-hop needed the drum machine, and Prog Rock needed endless banks of synthesisers to accurately bore its audience to death while performing songs about Lord of the Rings.
We’re in an age of constant technical innovation that’s happening at a faster rate than ever before - so where are all the new instruments? Why am I still plucking unsuccessfully at this guitar when I could be tooting unsuccessfully into my Holophonor?
In fact, there’s a litany of exciting new instruments out there - it’s just that they’re almost all ignored by the music-making populous. It’s one of the more curious group decisions of our time: as people, we love making music, and we love trying new things - so why don’t we want these new instruments so much?
This is all the more peculiar when you consider that the few decades before the turntable’s emergence as a scratchy sound-maker saw a rush of brand new instruments that were quickly adopted and used to make our most popular of pop music: “the solid-body electric guitar, the pedal-steel guitar, the steel drum, the electric bass, the synthesizer, and the drum machine” have all at one time formed the backbone of almost every song you’ve drunkenly danced to at a wedding.
So what does the future hold? Are we condemned to a lifetime of limp guitar-based music? Or have we just been looking in the wrong place for innovation?
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Marque
There are orchestras-full of new instruments invented all the time. Behold, the weird delight of the Eigenharp, a weird hybrid of guitar, sampler/sequencer and, erm, oboe, complete with enough flashing lights to keep a slot-machine addict entranced for a week.
It sounds fantastic, because of course it is: you can play any sound on it, in any way you like. But its appeal is as niche as Yamaha’s equally hypnotic Tenori-on - another cool machine full of lights and buttons that allow you to create electronic music simply.
Like the Eigenharp, it’s a synth/sequencer/sampler hybrid - albeit with fewer buttons and a bit more accessible - with which you can easily make music that sounds familiar and yet weirdly new. Four Tet - widely regarded as one of the pioneering electronic musicians of his generation - loves the Tenori-On, so it’s automatically elevated to Jimi-Hendrix-Stratocaster-level importance in the eyes of this entirely biased writer.
At the other end of the usability scale is the gloriously impractical Wintergaten, built from 3D-printed and laser-cut parts in order to very accurately and incredibly spews ball-bearings all over the shop to create music.
They’re all amazing. But they’re not popular, or practical. Are they just too complicated? How simple can an instrument be to be popular?
Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Eno-ugh
Wait, we get it - there are loads of new instruments. So have we just reached a point where we have invented all the instruments that people actually want? Well, a bit like that nagging feeling that maybe we’ve written all the brand new-sounding guitar-rock music by now it is possible that we’ve exhausted the possibilities of simple, traditional, physical instruments.
The Yaybahaar, for instance, allows you to makes loud, weird, lovely sounds… but do you really want to devote a room of your house to it?
Good news: there’s a really simple solution.
Brian Eno’s generative music app, Reflection, retails at a whopping $30.99. It’s an album-beyond-the-album that promises to re-write itself every time you play it. At that price, it needs to be good at what it does. It also needs to be better than the (very good) stand-alone LP of the same name that subtly updates itself every few months on Spotify.
Reflection is brilliant, and the quibble over the price is slightly unfair: it’s not an album, it’s art, by a famous artist. How much would you pay to have a uniquely-recreating picture by Chris Ofili on your wall? More than thirty dollars, I’d bet.
Trippy generative visuals, peaceful, beautiful sounds: “Reflection” is great for falling asleep to. And in a way, that’s a perfectly fine approach to this music. Brian Eno wants it to not be a “piece” of music, but something that flows through your life:
“My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time - ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing."
But is Reflection an instrument? Who is the artist? Who is the performer? Does Brian Eno have anything to do with the music? If Reflection is about the initiation of the code, does the purchaser of the app actually have more of a creative role than anyone else?
you could argue that Reflection is essentially a one-button instrument: where you, the “musician,” simply presses “Play” or “Stop”. No, you don’t control the exact sounds, but no-one does: and you already know the textures, noises and narrative arc of the music you’ll get.
For those of you scoffing at the back, this “single-button playing” mechanic has antecedents: Super Mario Run is a game that famously has one control option: jump. The processor takes care of the rest: the movement, the action, the scenario. Is that still a game? (Yes, it is.)
Yet people still want to play in a more involved way. And as the legitimately burgeoning career of Bhad Bhabie demonstrates, people also love novelty that challenges the status quo.
So what’s going to happen next?
A Better Tomorrow
Most music you’ve heard recently almost certainly never existed in the real world until its producer hit play on the final mix and the speakers vibrated the sounds into existence.
Most modern hardware “instruments” are essentially physical controllers for the software that makes it. But why would tomorrow’s instruments be physical at all?
MONTAG has embarrasingly freaked out over the possibilities afforded by VR in unlocking new ways of creating drawings and paintings. VR could have exactly the same impact on the creation of music: freed from staves and notation, and without the physical restraints of the pesky real world, VR instruments like Lyra VR re-imagine music-making.
Now, you can make music with shapes, or colours, or by using time and space as your starting point, as opposed to sound and rhythm. Absorption in music means something completely different when the entire virtual world around you is music, and you just have to clump parts of it together to make it sound nice.
VR glockenspiels, single-button synths, wildly complex oboes: it all sounds as overwhelming as it sounds exciting. And yet, this dichotomy is probably the exact reason that physical instruments are starting to feel a bit... passé.
While I, for one, welcome our new virtual musical overlords, maybe there’s something to be said for the idea that an electrified plank of wood with strings on it is enough.
Exhibit A: St. Vincent is a brilliant songwriter and performer who mainly sticks to doing amazing things with the guitar and seems to be doing just fine, thanks very much.
Though I’m sure she’d shred equally well on an Eigenharp, of course. Now there's an album I'd pay 30 dollars for.
Header image includes elements from a photo by EJ Posselius from Boulder, USA - Crunch.Moog. Uploaded by clusternote, CC BY-SA 2.0