Saturday, 11 February 2017

Beyond the Keys: exposing the unheard

Beyond the keys

The invention of the keyboard has given music a greater creative freedom,  but it has also locked it up in a rigid system. The keyboard has indeed reduced the immense and multiform universe of sound to the twelve notes of the Western scale.

Innovations in the 20th century often break loose from this system so as to enlarge artistic expression.

On recent touch keyboards an unheard of variety of sound modulations can be conjured up by tapping, sliding, swiping, pressing and releasing. 

The museum of musical instruments, Brussels.

It has been my focus over the past six months to look into the repression of alternatives and adversarial voices within society and politics.  I have argued for the requirement of an agonistic environment within educational settings which allows for the expression, discussion, and examination of alternative values and ideals. As I wandered through the magnificent exhibition of keyboard instrument evolution in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels, I was struck by the above quote as it exposes the confining rigidity of the twelve note system which is the compositional foundation of the vast majority of western music.  As we've been surrounded by music composed using an 8 tone major or minor scale our ears have been automatically tuned to this consonance and anything which falls outside of the pattern sounds dissonant. You don't need to be a trained musician to know if something sounds off. But what does off mean? Why does one note sound wrong where others are fine? When those musicians created the 12 note chromatic scale was it out of universal convenience or because the pitches between the twelve notes were indeed offensive to the ear?

Quite rightly, the quote attributes the keyboard with enabling creative freedom for composers and musicians. It's provided a logical method of notation which allows a piece of music to be reproduced by musicians across the globe without even having to have listened to it before. However, it is the reduction and limitation of this system which grabbed my attention as it is something I had never contemplated.  As with social and democratic political structures, we've been brought up with a certain style and consider that to be, more or less, the correct system and seldom question or legitimise alternative notions. We are led to believe these structures are the result of evolution and the largely consider them to be the best we can achieve in the present moment.  In my opinion, music has also followed that pattern and gone largely unquestioned. Of course, musical styles have developed and people have certainly questioned the musical quality of genres. For example, I'm sure we've all heard somebody described some music they're not keen on as 'noise'. Even though different genres of music have vastly different sounds, they continue to follow those rigid black and white keys on the keyboard. 

The technical innovations over the past century have enabled musicians to push the boundaries of music composition, creating new instruments, developing digital interfaces for existing instruments allowing them to increase the versatility of the instrument and the sounds it is able to create. Pitch modulators have been around for some time on electric instruments allowing the musician to expose those frequencies in between the black and white keys, even on traditional instruments, such as a guitar, musicians can bend the strings to reach those nameless notes. With no fingerboard or keys, the trombone is extremely well placed to play all pitches, yet the trombonist needs to stick to the positions or they would produce an ear wrenching dissonance with their accompanying performers. Other instruments are able to bend the pitch through manipulation of the embouchure (how the player's mouth is applied to a mouthpiece of a woodwind or brass instrument), or sliding the fingers from the finger holes. It's clear to me that musicians have long manipulated their instruments past their intended purposes but have been required to adhere largely to those twelve defined pitches.

There were two instruments which especially impressed me at the museum; the Continuum Fingerboard produced by Haken and Seaboard Rise made by Roli. Both of this instruments have retained the familiar keyboard feeling including the differentiation between the white and black keys, however, the individual keys are not there and the musician plays both horizontally and vertically and is able to manipulate the pitch and tone of the note opening up all of those alternative notes which were ignored on the traditional keyboard design.  The Continuum is a fretless interface which allows the performer to slide seamlessly between pitches.  The videos below are examples of what both instruments can do. 

The Haken Continuum Fingerboard.

The Roli Seaboard Rise