What do we use when we use electronic instruments?

School of Creative Media,
City University of Hong Kong,

The instrument as a object of interest is explicitly acknowledged, in the discourse of historically informed performance practice (Butt 2002), discussions pertaining to the influence of recording technologies on musical styles (A. Bennett and Dawe 2001) and musical instrument design (Weium and Boon 2013), and analyzes of musical performance practices (Rink 1995). While these discussions focus on the position of the instrument in a network of influences I like to focus today on their status as objects. This might appear as a rather narrow point of view as it is obvious that a musical instrument has its specificity in its use in musical performance practice (Dawe in Clayton et al. 2012). But to describe their role in this practices it is helpful to look how their materiality introduce constrains, which are than conceptualized by the musician. The materiality of the instrument, which is obvious for traditional instruments as they are clearly defined objects, is rather ambiguous for electronic and digital instruments.

Because of this ambiguity it is a matter of discussion, if for example rather dynamic software sound synthesis environments like SuperCollider, should be described as musical instruments. While the underlying ideas of electronic and digital sound synthesis are well discussed (Puckette 2007) are electronic instruments primarily discussed in following the history of their development and the biography of the musicians using them (Holmes 2002; Manning 2004). The challenges electronic instrument introduce to the concept of musical instrument have been discussed from its beginning sometimes with the conclusion that the term seems to be inappropriate (Meyer-Eppler 1953).

There are two ways in which the musical instrument as a distinct object is ambiguous. First acoustic instruments can be described with material-acoustics; all their material appearance influences their sound. Electronic instruments are structured by the circuits, which allow them to be shaped in various ways. Digital instruments finally work upon the generalization of these electronic circuits in computers, which allows the same physical device to hold a vast variety of possible instruments. Second some instruments like organs, keyboards or flutes often have a rather clear defined shape and standardized interface. While other instrument are rather modular. The rock and jazz drum- set played with various sticks can be seen as such a middle case. The modular analog synthesizer is explicitly modular connecting clearly defined objects. On the opposite end to an organ we can see software sound synthesis environments, which can be conceptualized as a fluid, where arrays of samples function as its molecules. From the musicians point of few this differences are obvious, but also closely linked to their particular practice.

I do not aim to create a categorization of the materiality of musical instruments, but to look how the different conceptions musicians have of their instruments as objects can be reflected through the in discussions about the ontological status of objects in as their appeared under the label of new materialism (Latour 1999, 2005; Harman 2005, 2002; Bryant 2014, 2010; De Landa 2006; Barad 1998; Bogost 2012; J. Bennett 2010). These discussions have found big resonance in theories of art and culture and are now starting to be reflected in the field of musicology (Frasch; Wong 2012) and sound studies (Pinch 2008) and organology (Bates 2012; Roda 2014). In my presentation I do not aim to discuss the ontological status of electronic instruments as objects but how the previously mentioned discussions can inform the descriptions ob electronic instruments. I look how an instrument is constituted as an object of a particular consistency by the musicians practice and how this links to conceptions of the object.

adrian 2015-06-03