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rant in Emin

Jun 29 2011 | 6:20 pm

I would have posted on your page Brendan but I didn’t have (or know of) a suitable profile to post with so couldn’t…

I am less concerned with this stuff than I once was, but I still think about it now and then, so…

There’s no doubt there is a "bandwagon" effect – these days amplified and accellerated by "social media" where throngs go apeshit over the newest (and latest) toys and often lose interest almost as quickly. The Kinect and the numerous projects it has spawned is a perfect example, and lets not even talk about multitouch interfaces.

Whether or not these can be viable front ends for instruments though is a more interesting question that poses the question of "what is an instrument". There is a distinct disadvantage for the non-tactile approach where strict repeatability is a pre-requisite for the classification of instrument – ie in the tactile world of physical musical instruments, but does this exclude such an approach form being defined as a instrument on that basis alone, or is it the lack of expressive result or "lack of complexity" (that requires long periods of practise in instrument mastery) that may be the real issue. Or…

Novelty aside, (and by my reckoning, that excludes quite a lot of contenders) If these innovations, well used and thoughtfully implemented, do provide the means for new(er) ways to organize sounds or other media, or even new forms of expression, then what should they be called?

Just some thoughts…

Jun 29 2011 | 9:55 pm

Hi spectro

thanks for joining (starting!) the dialogue.

One point I neglected to mention is that the more robust and sophisticated examples of truly engaging DMIs (IMO) use fairly ‘standard’ sensor technologies, such as FSRs, flex sensors and accelerometers,

for example.

Such sensors are tactile and therefore lend themselves to application in a creative interaction environment.

I completely agree with your statement regarding learnability and repeatability: keys, handles, buttons etc allow a degree of ‘moderation’ of fine motor control gestures, which can be learned and accurately repeated.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to post your comments above, onto my blog so that others may benefit from/disagree with.

Thanks again

Jun 29 2011 | 10:58 pm

Let me venture to say that no one would disagree that the theremin is a legitimate musical instrument– it is distinct from (non-tactile) video sensing in that its response is immediate, so while tactility is important, so is ‘concreteness’ and immediacy of response (also the simple mapping of proximity to pitch & volume would help).

It is an extremely difficult instrument to master– but so is the violin, one of the most haptically-oriented instruments ever invented….

all things being equal, aside from a tactile interface being attractive and approachable, perhaps it’s the immediacy of response inherent in tactile interfaces that provides the handles and buttons, just as much as the haptic experience, and that immediacy of response is illustrated in what drives the expressivity of the theremin

hope that makes sense


Jun 30 2011 | 8:55 am

Hi Terry,
very glad to have your contribution to this timely debate. You raise a number of valid points:

the theremin is often cited as a paradigm of early non-conventional instrument design, for the very reasons you mention – immediacy, learnability and relatively transparent mapping. I would suggest that there isn’t a more substantial body of work for the instrument because it eschews tactility; Léon’s design intentions are clear though. And also relevant is your reference to the violin – an instrument that also caused much debate and controversy when it first appeared.

I am tempted to call devices such as the Lemur, iPad, Monome, reacTable, Kinect etc ‘controllers’, and the two examples I linked to (amongst others) ‘instruments’. Perhaps. like spectro, I should stop obsessing about such labels.


Jun 30 2011 | 10:02 am

"the theremin is often cited as a paradigm of early non-conventional instrument design, for the very reasons you mention – immediacy, learnability and relatively transparent mapping. I would suggest that there isn’t a more substantial body of work for the instrument because it eschews tactility"

… i disagree. the reason there is not a greater body of work for the theremin is because after all those painstaking hours of practise the thing still sounds like shite. for similar reasons i have always been dumbfounded as to how the hell the bassoon ever made it as an instrument.

Jun 30 2011 | 12:08 pm

While I understand your frustration my only advice is to get over it as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

There’s no avoiding it, it doesn’t happen with every technology but when it applies to your field serious research is in danger of being overshadowed by the glitz and glam. But there’s not much you can do about it. Even serious researchers will go through an infatuation with particular flavors of the month but the trick is whether they have anything that contributes to the filed when they are done.

Be skeptical, not paranoid, if you start to be too close minded or reactionary you’ll miss out on what the real benefits are to your own projects. I’ve seen it time and again with researchers, quick to dismiss my colleagues work as "digital nonsense" and they go off about how they can’t see the benefit and "while I’m at it, society is going to hell because everyone has a cellphone".

They start to sound like lunatics and being generally dismissive of a colleagues work without constructive critical feedback is a good way to become pidgeonholed yourself.

Remember Marshall McLuhan: "I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button."

BTW: pid, attended a concert in Prague of two expert Solo Bassoonists. It was spectacular.

Jun 30 2011 | 1:04 pm


music performance practice at the beginning of the last century dictated that any note held longer than a demisemiquaver had to have a wide vibrato! So the theremin probably didn’t sound as shite then. And don’t get me started on beginner violinists.

The bassoons in Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians sound fantastic.

thanks for your illuminating insights.

Jun 30 2011 | 4:27 pm

"I am tempted to call devices such as the Lemur, iPad, Monome, reacTable, Kinect etc ‘controllers’, and the two examples I linked to (amongst others) ‘instruments’. Perhaps. like spectro, I should stop obsessing about such labels."

I would suggest the fundamental difference between instruments and controllers is that instruments are used to create art while controllers are not. So it really has nothing to do with the design of the instrument/controller but rather the way it is used. Some lend themselves more to one or the other, but the difference is not inherent.

Far too often the emphasis becomes on research rather than art. Researchers create controllers. Artists create instruments. Artists often take the controllers that researchers have made and shape them into instruments. Unfortunately, controllers are often accepted as instruments because one can use them to make "faux art" – pretty colors and glitchy sounds that lack artistic content.

I would attribute this phenomenon to academia’s need to judge (read: grade). We all know this story, but I’ll lay it out quickly as groundwork for my argument. Artists often have to take careers in academia because of the difficulty making a consistent living from nothing but their art. And to make it in academia, they have to conform to the academic standard of grading. To grade fairly, there must be objective principles of judgement. Art defies judgement, while research lends itself to judgement. It becomes easy to slip into research even when one’s original intention was to create art. Plus it pays better.

Jul 01 2011 | 1:09 pm

I was thinking about your question and I think it is more fundamental than it seems. I think the underlying question is an old one. "Is a computer a musical instrument or a compositional tool?" I do not see how it is possible to limit the question to a particular type of computer – ie. one with a touch surface. If you answer yes to a computer being a musical instrument then you have to answer yes to a computer with a tactile interface being a better musical instrument.

If it makes sound and people use it as a musical instrument then it is a musical instrument – walks like duck, talks like a duck kind of thing. Use determines classification… or John Cage Fluxus if you prefer.

Also a musical instrument is a strange thing in that music has two modalities. One as a passive activity involving listening and one active involving creation or destruction. As a listening activity wind chimes can be a musical instrument. These are less satisfying for most people who want to create music but it would not stop somebody who heard the output qualifying it as music. So who it right – listener or musician – who has greater ownership of music?

Electronic music instrumentation is uniquely different to other musical instruments in that it has always being a mix of prepared (tape), technologically collaborative (sequencers/probabilities) and real (acoustic). I am saying that gross rather than fine control has always been a factor in electronic instrumentation. The last 50 years have seen great strides being made in folding all of these methodologies into a seamless real-time whole. Rather than moving completely away from gross control towards fine realtime control it has been accepted that gross control has performance/creative benefits and is desirable.

I personally am convinced of the importance of interface. Touch screens are great. They are not the end of the story but a very important step I think. I think your FSR is great but if they make an iPad with a pressure sensitive screen then I can have an infinite number of FSR like controls on a portable handheld device.


Jul 01 2011 | 3:52 pm

Fantastic thread, very interesting…

I think labeling controllers as one thing and instruments as another, based on what they produce or can produce, isn’t a good way to go. Usage can certainly give weight as to what they should be called, and like everything in the "art world", there’s really not many limits, because people can claim all sorts of productions/objects as "art". I think one can argue in both ways for pretty much anything, but it seems to come down to whether others agree (or in some cases, if they disagree, then you’ve made the opposite point, and that might be your goal). Bottom line, you can claim anything is art, and you can also claim anything isn’t. The discussion that follows, hopefully open and based on past practice and aesthetics, is what’s interesting. "Art" defies most definitions, especially given how far it’s been stretched recently.

I totally agree that there is something to be said for someone having practiced certain skills, being able to "express" something through those skills and their own imagination, etc., and possibly this should be given more credence than someone who makes something that looks/sounds good by using an off-the-shelf technique/tool which is designed to easily produce things that look/sound good. But it’s really tricky to draw any kind of distinction there, and maybe not necessary. I fear sometimes that people who have invested countless hours into developing skills are simply threatened by the new tools which allow new users the ability to sound like they’ve also practiced a lot when they haven’t. This is totally understandable, but doesn’t create a very good overall vibe for creativity and collaboration. What’s discussed about all these issues is what’s important—that is, the aesthetic and philosophical things underlying the art and its practice. Ideally, this opens up new ideas as to what’s worthy to pursue, and in some cases, when to not bother spending all that time, and simply using something which makes creation/expression more intuitive or simpler. Easy-to-use controllers or instruments may well be capable of complex, highly-skilled interaction, regardless of how easy they are to get started on.

About artists "having to go into academia", that may be true in one respect, but most of those jobs are ridiculously competitive. Sign me up if there is one, but it’s far from a "fallback" kind of career where you’re guaranteed something simply if you can’t make it in the art world (whatever that may mean). Those positions are highly coveted, and without pretty substantial background and experience in the art world already, for most positions one doesn’t stand a chance. And yes, the grading issue in art is incredibly tricky! Luckily it seems like there’s a shift in education, especially at the college level, which changes teacher roles to facilitator and coach rather than judge. Hopefully that shift will continue, and grades will be much less an issue than one’s portfolio and ability to communicate about their ideas.

Plenty more can be said, of course, and hopefully will! Love the thread.

Jul 01 2011 | 8:13 pm

Wow; talk about an unexpected response. I hope this will run and run. There are so many important points here that I’d like to respond to just a few, in chrono order if I may.

@Zachrkn – some instruments don’t sound great, some controllers do, depending on context and application, so the use of the term ‘art’ can obfuscate the discussion as it introduces another variable, namely taste or style. You’re quite right about the emphasis on research, but that’s because this technology is relatively new, and as a group (‘pracademics’) we prefer to understand something first before we play with it. You employ a concise and convenient distinction between art and research.

@grizzle – it should be obvious to me, but I failed to consider the performer/audience roles and realtionship. And I love the wind-chime analogy. Referring to gross/fine motor control mirrors my original comments regarding the birth of new performance modalities and new musics BUT also relevant as I am designing a instrument, sorry, interface, no I mean controller aaaaaah fuck it, a thing, for performers with cerebral palsy, so I will be considering gross motor control for practical rather than aesthetic reasons, but still a very salient point.

@seejay. Welcome to the crucible! We need to ask Oscar Wilde or Plato or Chomsky what ‘art’ is, so I can leave that one well alone; but, for the purposes of my thesis I may need a defensible taxonomy of controllers, or definitions thereof, as I intend to expressly define my interface as an instrument – for reasons that I won’t go into here. Here, I think I will rely on Marcelo Wanderley et al for support. This thread is bringing me ever closer to a working set of criteria for distinguishing between a controller and an instrument, and here, learnability is key. If there is NO or minimal learning curve, then it’s a controller, no matter how aesthetically valid the application (which is itself subjective anyway!). An oft-cited example is the piano – it presents itself as an intuitive device, the keys demand to be pressed. But compare Glenn Gould to my 2yr old son…clearly it’s an instrument.

Yes yes yes; increasingly, successful academicians are expected to be successful practitioners (= pracademics) too.

Damn this thread is hot.

Brendan :¬)

Jul 02 2011 | 9:32 am

Great thread, Brendan.

While I feel much the same way as what you described on your blog, I think this statement is purely subjective: "if you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it and more importantly, it can’t feel you." (and with good cause! what can be more subjective than touch and feel :)

What is ‘instrument’ and what is not is coupled with arguments of what is ‘virtuosity’ and what is ‘music’ or ‘art’, and is always limited to a subjective and therefore ever-changing definition; defined dynamically by both performers and audiences through their constant interaction(unfortunately, the aspiring ‘instrument’ has had no or very little(AI) say up to this point ;] ).

Consider the future: someday, scientists propose that it could be possible to transport antimatter using an electromagnetic field in order to elicit energetic reactions with normal matter, most of all, as yet another greed-feeding energy source. Hundreds, thousands, millions of years from now(who cares how long, it’ll happen eventually), human existence is likely to persist along with evolution, and some of this technology will be available to the common inhabitants of Earth. Sure enough, art will exist along with artists, and they, too, will look beyond the mere material gains of this technology towards a possible outlet for their creativity. Perhaps they will use antimatter to create energetic reactions at center supermassive Kerr/Kerr-Newman(rotating) singularities of galaxies, causing the entire galaxy to rotate around the black hole with different controllable frequencies. And perhaps, too, they will read the movement of matter spinning in these galaxies using a wide-reaching dispersed photon beam, mapping this data to control various artistic functions over various forms of media. A veritable ‘Galactic Jockey’ might drop his laser space-needle on celestial turntables with anti-matter pitch control, there will be no direct touch, but people might still feel it. And so too, people might call it an ‘instrument’. But what would the actual instrument be? The electromagnetic field used to suspend antimatter until the appropriate moment? The laser reading the data? The computers that process the data? The delivery mechanisms for the media this information is creatively expressed in? Or perhaps the stars, planets, and other galactic bodies themselves? (And what a glorious age that might be when calling a celebrity a ‘star’ will just be plain silly. :D ) Lastly but most curiously, will it still be considered an ‘instrument’ if only one human being conveys a commonly perceived ‘virtuosity’ about this ‘instrument’ while all the others who try it sound like shit? And what about if everyone who tries it sounds like shit? Perhaps it is still an instrument, waiting to be mastered.

In the end, defining what is and is not is up to the continual interaction between those who create and those who witness this creativity. We do not hear by the physical mechanisms of the ear alone, critical to the function of the human ear is a choice, or better yet, a ‘willingness’ to listen.

Naaa, Gotcha! I’m just bullshitting as I always do.
I just saw the word, "rant", and jumped at the chance! :D
Very satisfying, thank you :)

Jul 02 2011 | 3:57 pm

@seejayjames – Regarding your point that the openness of the definition of art means that it is a bad method to differentiate between instruments/controllers, I feel that it does exactly the opposite. I suggest that the difference between instruments/controllers is entirely semantic and not at all concrete. It is actually exactly the same slippery argument as art vs non-art. If one believes that there is a solid line between art and non-art, then there is a solid difference between instruments and controllers, and if one believes that there is no difference at all, then the words "instruments" and "controllers" are completely synonymous.

Given that the words are merely abstractions to represent mutually accepted concepts, we could very well choose to define those words somehow else (and perhaps culturally and in this thread we are in the process of doing so! Exciting!), but I tend to think on most days that the general acceptance for those terms is how I have described it. When people think of instruments they think of music/art. When they think of controllers, they think of model airplanes and videogames. If one sees model airplanes and videogames as art (however my experience tells me that most people do not, although I have nothing to back that up), then controllers slide back into the realm of instruments. If one sees everyday movement as dance, then our bodies are instruments.

I believe we could have two full discussions on this: (1) what we think the common definition differences are between instruments and controllers, and (2) what we think they should be.

In the interests of not derailing this thread off its extremely useful trajectory, I’m going to exercise my self-control this morning and refrain from detailing my views on the differentiation or lack there-of between art and non/art. Please be proud of me :-)

Jul 02 2011 | 4:06 pm

@raja; I was hoping you would surface, even if merely to throw a spanner in the works! LOL (is it still de’rigueur to use LOL?)

We are moving ever forward, thanks particularly to your suggestion that we should define the differences (physical, mechanical, aesthetic?) between what each of us feels is a controller and what is an instrument.

But that may not be a fruitful exercise:

"If one believes that there is a solid line between art and non-art, then there is a solid difference between instruments and controllers, and if one believes that there is no difference at all, then the words "instruments" and "controllers" are completely synonymous".

Nicely stated. And yes, let’s not take this thread into the philosophical/aesthetic realm. I need concretes!!!!!


Jul 03 2011 | 8:05 am

dear all,

It seems this rant has developed in a rather fruitful discussion!

My two cents (working on embodied controllers for musical expression and interactivity within arts).

I feel that attributing a device with either instrument or controller is something with a double standard. If you feel that the haptic response or tactile response is a necessity, together with a learning curve, to call something an instruments than consider this:

A controller often, when used intensively, asks for a way longer curve, since affordances (both norman’s and gibson’s) are detached from the actual music creation, therefor tactile interfaces -whether or not they are ‘musical instruments’- come always with a slow learning curve when you need to master them. As such you cold argue that artistry on a controller makes you a far better musician than mastering a traditional instrument.
If you’ve read Marc Leman’s book on embodied cognition for musical expression, you could see how musical intentionality is supposed to be mediated form artist/performer to audienc, the efficiency of this mediation is depending on the use of common language, something that, in traditional instruments, has been evolving for many centuries. With controllers this is not the case and we artist/academia try to wrap our heads around this.

In the end I too feel that there is not that much of new controllers that can level up to traditional instruments, and that many musicians (me too) use them to add a little extra in an otherwise un-performable (old ‘live’ sens) creation of music. I am on the other hand certain that in time, things will fade and gain refocus (I’m writing my PhD with just that in mind) and enable people to master communicating musical intentionality with a controller in the same way that people are able to do so with a (traditional) instrument.

On a sidenote, when typing ‘traditional’ I just realized that this well be the a way of differentiating between controllers and instruments, where a tradition in both time (many iterations) and space (HCI or music) are important aspects to consider.

Best Regards,


For academia purposes shouldn’t we make a paper out of this discussion, with a hundred authors. :-D

Jul 03 2011 | 9:12 am

Hi Pieter

Can you get in touch with me regarding some of the finer details of your contribution; I’d like to ask you and any other interested parties to contribute to a collaborative paper, for publication towards the end of the Summer or Winter 2011


Jul 03 2011 | 2:25 pm

I think it was a talk by Pieter I attended that got me thinking about this (if you aren’t the "correct" Pieter or if you disagree with what I say I apologize) but when I have to start encouraging this in class with my students, I had to take a hard line approach. After all I had to somehow determine a criteria for a "successful" project if they were to make a musical instrument. I basically had to describe it in a way they could understand. They were being graded on Potential and Proficiency. There were the only things tangible enough to explain the difference to them between a controller, a sound toy, and an instrument. If they understood what defined a controller ie. Rockband then they could understand how the buttons were detached from generation the music. They are one step removed from even being a percussion toy because there is no technique (subtle variations in pitch/tone based on how the musician chooses to play) involved and little memorization. A sound toy is something that uses a one to one connection between the sound and the state of the controller but is limited by the number of sounds it can produce, variants of those sounds and the quality of music it can generate. Obviously these categories exist on a triangular continuum rather than a neat little matrix but then it becomes easier to see that a controller and instrument can be more closely related than they are to a sound toy (where I’d tend to put the monome). The monome provides an intelligibility and flexibility that goes beyond a simple mapping, the sheer complexity lends itself to the possibilty of proficiency. So of course to be proficient with an instrument the complexity of a grammar need attending to. What are the scales, how do you play a traditional song (if possible) and then what new sounds and compositions can it afford you? The matter of proficiency is generally about answering "how does one master this new instrument".

Then the students understand why it’s not appropriate to hand in a controller mapped with midi notes.

I think there is also something to be said about performance which is overlooked (once again I’m not trying to take credit for saying this, it’s more about reiterating what I’ve heard). But I think an instrument can be performed.

Anyways, I don’t know what inspired me to jump back on this thread pre-coffee… Hope it’s moderately intelligible.

Jul 03 2011 | 6:34 pm


I’d be grateful if you had the time/energy/interest to contribute to a collaborative paper; if interested please email me at the address above to discuss your points in detail


Jul 03 2011 | 9:17 pm

If anyone wishes to be considered as a contributor to an academic paper, covering the core topic of this thread and aimed at the DMI community, then please do get in touch with me; I’ll try to get an abstract together first to give a direction and context.


Jul 05 2011 | 1:44 am

I saw this and I thought it was relevant to the topic. Tim Thompson uses a Kinect and a custom frame to make music. This is a quote from an interview.

"I consider Space Palette (Kinect Instrument) to be in the class of a "casual instrument", analagous to "casual games" that are simple and easy to learn, yet still deep enough to be satisfying for a long time. Using the label "casual instrument" is also an attempt to distinguish this from more conventional instruments that allow more fine-grained control (e.g. the ability to reliably play arbitrary melodies). There’s actually nothing preventing the Kinect and the Space Palette from being used to create a more conventional instrument, it’s just not the focus of my current efforts, which are centered around creating installations for people (both musicians and non-musicians) to enjoy at various events." – rest of the interview

It’s a interesting way to look at it. I can instantly list off examples of casual instruments.

Jul 05 2011 | 9:27 am

This is very relevant grizzle, and a good example of someone thinking about the impact of their work in the context of instrument/controller design. It was this article, amongst others, that caused my initial rant.

By disengaging myself from the idea of ‘new modalities’, and because I am designing for musician-performers with physical disabilities, I am keen to emphasise the importance of tactility. Tim Thompson’s term ‘casual instrument’ is a convenient way to preempt and defend his contribution to the instrument v. controller debate. In much the same way I will have to defend my use of the term ‘instrument’ in my thesis defense.

Part of the paper I/we intend to prepare shortly will consist of a classification continuum, grading recent high profile examples of such devices as either an inclusive multi-dimensional instrument at one end (Ruud van der Wal’s MagicFlute, for example) and an exclusive one-dimensional controller at the other end (eg, iPhone?). The most vital criteria will be physical design, how the mapping strategy reflects that design, and ease of use v. learnability (immersion).

Ultimately, I couldn’t give a toss what term is used, but my external examiner will…….


Jul 05 2011 | 7:42 pm

I understand (to a degree) and appreciate the technology and design ethos behind multitouch technology; I also understand the concept of tangibility in interaction design. The reacTable still amazes me. But can someone with greater understanding than me explain how touching/rotating a colourful dial, or sliding fingers across a multitouch screen is IN ANY WAY different to using a mouse and a keyboard? I just don’t get it. I really don’t.


there’s a very good demo of multitouch tangible interaction here

Jul 06 2011 | 5:41 am

This is all very interesting. Indeed, a very good thread. I have no contribution to make due to my diminutive experience with artistic controllers at present. I am more of a pedagogical Max/MSP user.

But I just wanted to ask: what does the title of this thread mean?
"rant in Emin"?
what is this word, ‘Emin’?

*Never fear, Noob4Life was never here!*

Jul 06 2011 | 6:47 am

The obvious – and I’m guessing intended – meaning, given the focus of the discussion – is "E minor" that it refers to a key (scale formation) or chord, based on the tone E which would include G and B. With that said, I have no idea why E except to assume that it is as good or bad a choice (depending on the instrument you play) as any other key and secondary to the point.

Jul 06 2011 | 7:45 am

Oh! I see now. I am not musically trained. Apologies. (My signature works perfectly in this case!)

*Never fear, Noob4Life was never here!*

Jul 06 2011 | 9:55 am


all contributions, from all sections of the MaxMSPJitter community are welcomed. I wish to hear everyones thoughts on what makes a creative interaction environment more or less immersive, tangible, expressive?

rant in E minor, a reference to one of my heroes Bill Hicks

Jul 06 2011 | 12:18 pm

And there was me thinking you were taking about Tracey Emin – as good a candidate for the ‘what is art’ discussion as I can think of ;-)

Perhaps controllers become instruments when they have their virtuosos? So a Theremin is an instrument because of your Clara Rockmores & Lydia Kavinas, wheres we’re still waiting to be absolutely wowed by anyone playing an iPhone?
There seem to be an awful lot of new controllers being made these days, but it begs the question, who is actually spending enough time with any one of them to explore what they can really do? (Insert ‘barely scratching the surface’ pun here) .
According to Ericsson’s ‘10,000 hour rule’ it takes that much practice to become really good at something – an instrument, a sport, a language etc. How does anyone manage to do that these days, with so many shiny new things appearing every day to distract them?!
No doubt there are some pretty good Monome/Eigenharp/iPad players around, but virtuosos?
Every time I hear about a new controller/instrument coming out, I can’t help thinking "I’d love to hear that played by someone who could really play it" – but then, I’d have to wait at least 10,000 hours after it’s release, by which time it would have been replaced by the next new thing…
So the interface itself is important, but developing the motor skills to make it do something amazing is surely more so.
People get good with a Jew’s Harp or Blues Harp because a) it fits in your pocket, and b) there are fewer variables, hence skills to learn, which means you can more easily get your 10,000 hours in.
Perhaps then the trick is to build interfaces that inspire people to play them so much that they can achieve some level of mastery of it.
I think too many controllers are just used as a way to spice up the appearance of a guy with a laptop; I’m sure Bill Hicks would’ve had something to say about that,

Jul 06 2011 | 1:02 pm

Hi Roger
this thread is beginning to attract the ‘big guns’. Cool.

You raise a number of vaild points; the Emin/art pun is nice too.

"Fewer variables" relates at once to the physical design AND the mapping strategy – I think I have said before (after Ross Kirk, Andy Hunt and Marcelo Wanderley of course) that this is of paramount importance. The challenge for me is how to quantify "learnability" though; it’s a tricky one, and will require more navel-gazing no doubt.

I really do hate ‘dissing’ monome users – it’s a wonderful piece of kit. But for me the degree of virtuousity is inextricably linked with how the user assigns the physical buttons’ behaviours, and less dependent on how the interface is actally played. And this is good – the disconnect between interface and sound engine is what is driving all this design experimentation forward. I don’t believe that the Monome will reveal itself as an ‘instrument’ however.

I urge you to check out Ruud van der Wel’s (et al) MagicFlute for an example of a mature and robust DMI that offers ‘performability’ (yuck!) to a wide range of abilities and skill-levels.

Best wishes and
please continue to keep this debate alive


Jul 06 2011 | 10:35 pm

Brendan, you are a master of psychological manipulation(in a good way!), you mention the word, "monome" and i’m right back here again to discuss…. perhaps even more seriously this time. Your wish is my command, my Master.

only thing that might not be ‘de’rigueur’ is perhaps using the term, ‘de’rigueur’ >:D

and no need for this qualifying/disclaimer statement:
"I really do hate ‘dissing’ monome users"
You never have(and if you intended to, you should really try harder because your methods of ‘dissing’ seem soft and cuddly). No worries.

"But for me the degree of virtuousity is inextricably linked with how the user assigns the physical buttons’ behaviours, and less dependent on how the interface is actually played."
This is partly true, but once those behaviors are assigned, then after that it also becomes dependent on how the interface is actually played(each interface is built to be played, so you can’t really have one without the other). But, having said that, trying to define the monome in general as a ‘musical’ or ‘artistic’ ‘instrument’ is the wrong way to go, too… i’ll write more on this below.

Let’s take some examples. I will consider the music I love to have discovered the most recently(within the past 5 years) but please do not take it as the entire spectrum of my musical tastes(I realize this is a large artistic community largely centralized around academic institutions or their legacies, I personally went to CalArts taking classes with the likes of James Tenney, Mort Subotnik, Mark Trayle, Tom Erbe, Lucky Mosko, and many others who further cultivated my already growing tastes for all different kinds of art, so I do not mean to disenfranchise anyone here by simply listing this musical subset, it is just an example).

Here we have Edison:

I hesitate to say this, but Edison is the only monomer i’ve ever seen(including myself) who definitely makes it feel(to most audiences if not everyone) like he’s playing a musical instrument, that instrument being the monome. If you’re a band-based musician, you can tell he thinks like a drummer(and the ensuing history of MPC masters).

Here we have Daedelus:
I love the music there, but I am a bit hungup on how clear and present it is that everything is quantized to consider it a ‘virtuosic’ performance and I believe future generations who become more and more informed about how the music is made and played ‘might’ see it similarly. In Edison’s case, quantization is also evident but not so clear and present because I believe, just my personal opinion, that Edison is more virtuosic and therefore he plays the monome in a way(fast, agile, and most meticulous) where it seems, at least by my slow moving eye, that he could still play just as well without the quantization("so why does he use quantization at all?" you might ask… i’d guess that it still frees him up for other considerations such as longer-term compositional structures and his very mature, confident, witty, and comfortable stage-presence).

Edison uses Ableton to set his monome up like an MPC-style drum kit, Daedelus uses MLR, an app built in Max/MSP by Brian Crabtree, creator of the monome, which is the most widely used app of all monomers. Edison’s setup, in my opinion, is more customized(Daedelus probably customizes a little but for the most part, uses someone else’s app). Edison’s setup is more conducive to visualizing his virtuosity on the monome as a ‘musical instrument’ reminiscent of a drumkit. The app, MLR, on the other hand is designed in a way to wrap a person’s thinking around an 8×8(or similar) grid(it was the first app created for the monome, to highlight what the monome can do musically and its aesthetic of the power of simplicity). MLR makes it all too clear how easy it is, with quantization, to cut 4/4 music into nicely quantized parts and to see how those quantized parts move(sure, people break out of this paradigm by doing things like customizing MLR for swing or turning quantization off or simply using some other sequence length that isn’t divisible by 8, but it is still a dominating paradigm even with a great artist like Daedelus because that is how the interface is setup visually). If you close your ears and watch, it would not be so apparent that Edison is playing in 4/4 time, perhaps not always but still more apparent that Daedelus is playing 4/4 AND that the blinking of the lights(because of the predictable speed and direction of movement through the row) is quantized, even more predictably so: looped.
(Let me just clarify, I consider playing in 4/4 neither a good thing nor a bad thing, we can all be much more(or even less) inventive rhythmically and musically according to many musicians and styles of music out there… the discussion of 4/4 time here is more to do with how predictable the ‘visual’ portion of the interface makes the ensuing performance seem.)
So there we have just a simple basic consideration of one of the aspects of defining what could be an ‘instrument’: virtuosity and how clearly it is discerned through the mechanisms of interface. From these examples, it seems perhaps just to me, that you cannot separate considerations of ‘instruments’ from considerations of ‘virtuosity’ and ‘interface’. So if you say that "the degree of virtuousity is inextricably linked with how the user assigns the physical buttons’ behaviours" you are basically showing me that you, personally, see the monome as an ‘interface composing instrument'(and I would somewhat agree but then take it to the next step and say, i would never have gotten into monomes if I ONLY wanted to CREATE interfaces, PLAYING those interfaces is key and the real goal). In other words, you’ve convinced me that it is still an instrument, but the more important question is ‘what kind of instrument’.

We should be careful to define something more specific than the word ‘instrument’, perhaps you are wondering if the monome is considered a ‘musical instrument’ or an ‘artistic instrument’? If I push one single button on my monome to play an everlasting loop of Britney Spears at deafening volumes to an audience from the Cycling74 forums locked in the room with me, it is, in fact, still an instrument, but now it becomes merely an ‘instrument of torture’ and i think everyone in that audience would easily agree.

Similarly(no wait, not similarly at all), Edison uses his Monome like a ‘drum-kit emulating musical instrument’. Daedelus uses his Monome, in my opinion, more as a ‘musical-visualization, sequence-conducting, and stage-presence amplifying instrument'(Daedelus has very GREAT stage-presence, another intertwined and important aspect of performance and any consideration thereof but it is not to be confused with virtuosity, something which i believe is equally important in any consideration of an actual ‘live’ performance on an ‘instrument’).

I can comfortably assure you that even Brian Crabtree would not want the monome limited to the definition of a ‘musical instrument’. He did not build it for musicians alone, nor video-artists alone, nor installation-artists, nor the kind of dude who simply wants to press buttons to control the disco-lights on his ceiling. He built it, first and foremost, open-ended, for everyone to dream up their own use. If it is an ‘instrument’ it is simply a ‘data-flow control instrument’ from my perspective.

And this brings me to my most important point: are ‘musical instruments’ even that relevant to music these days? With this anti-definition of the monome as an ‘open-ended data-flow control instrument’ it is more evident to me how much music and art is changing. Perhaps we don’t need to be hung up on the idea that music must come from or be performed on some kind of ‘instrument’. Perhaps in the emerging multidisciplinary artistic world, thinking in terms of a single instrument can be just as limiting as trying to specialize in one single discipline.

Just throwing these thoughts out there, it’s not necessarily what I think or believe(that defining instruments are irrelevant), and then again sometimes it is, but more importantly, I like to constantly humble myself with the thought, "in an ever brightening future, there is always a bigger fish to consider".

Jul 06 2011 | 11:31 pm


I really appreciate you taking the time and effort to make such a comprehensive and detailed response; it is deserving of comprehensive and detailed consideration, so I will get back to you soon (-ish);

thanks again
ps, would you consider participating in a collaborative paper in the near future?

Jul 07 2011 | 10:03 pm

sorry, Brendan, aside from ranting here, can’t spare the time and energy on a paper(also, to be honest, i’m at a point where i feel i did my time writing papers(during school) and would now like to learn new skills which i couldn’t learn there like making my artistic inquiries and creativity manifest in a practical way for the subsistence of that art).
BUT if you’re just talking about quoting from here, feel free to use any words you like of mine, maybe if you keep this thread going, people will contribute enough, that will be their collaboration, and you can be the master writer/editor who strings it all together?

tldr: I feel bad for not jumping at the chance to help a sage Maxer such as yourself with a very beneficial and interesting project, but I hope you understand.

Jul 07 2011 | 10:51 pm

Absolutely not a problem at all raja – I knew I may have been pushing my luck. As a PhD research-practitioner, I have the enviable position (as someone recently remarked) of spending most of my working day slaving over Max/Arduino, a soldering iron, and then writing about it. Every day :) Sometimes i forget that not everyone is so lucky….

I certainly would like to quote/paraphrase your input to this debate, and I feel priveleged that you have contributed.

Best wishes

Jul 11 2011 | 4:40 pm

For me there is a distinction between instrument and controller out of the perspective of a musician/performer with her instrument.
This is something I was always fascinated with musicians, their special relationship with an instrument. Singers and dancers use their own bodies as sole instruments, others use their bodies in conjunction with an instrument.
All to express themself by means of organized sound…
As an audience, if you get connected to the magic, they play an instrument.
Or in other words, if they are able to play on something which normally sounds like shit (Theremin, Basson…;-) and make the sun shine, like in the movie "Orfeo Negro", then there is no doubt…

I have been creating my own instrument for decades now. It is on the one hand changing all the time, but the basic principle remains the same. Also the way to control it – mostly one or more fader boxes and a traditional keyboard…
I would call a fader box a controller, but combined with my patch it turns into an instrument for me, something I do play for a long time, somthing I practiced for a long time…
The first incarnations had been a bunch of delays and pitch shifters controlled by a Midi-only Max patch and an analog Mixer.
But its hard to describe, its not likely played by anybody else than me…
Still faders let me do the magic, but its only the surface…

There are also different versions of guitars or keyboards. No one would hesitate to call an electric guitar an instrument, as we know enough musicians who play it. But a specific guitarist, specialized on acoustic guitars might reject an electric guitar as an instrument for himself.

Maybe with all these individually created instruments we just do not see enough musicians which play the same instrument, maybe its just a lack of possibilities to compare…

I would say the monome is just a controller, but in combination with a specific setup and its corresponding musician, it might turn into a crucial part of an instrument. When I watch the video with Edison, I wonder why this controller attracts so many musicians, as there seems to be a lack of dynamic in general…
A button without velocity delivers much less control than a traditional keyboard, and I believe no musical instrument needs visual feedback. (There are pedagogical keyboards with light in the keys though…)
That said, for the music showed in that video, a traditional keyboard or a drum pad might be a better controller for a similar instrument.
I also do not understand how one would prefer a fader on a lemur or an iPad over a real fader with tactile feedback. But all these controllers do have possible uses which cannot be done differently. Again it only turns into a viable instrument, in combination with the sound creation/manipulation they control and a musician who is playing it…

Without performance, there is no instrument!

P.S. great thread…

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