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

Friday, 14 November 2014

Four years ago today...

Tallinn, November 2010

Four years ago today I stepped onto, and subsequently off, an aircraft which took me to the beginning point of my epic voyage across the world; Estonia.  It’s rather difficult express the feelings flooding through me on that day.  It was a mixture of nervousness and excitement.  I was excited that I was finally jumping off that ledge I’d wanted to jump off for a while, excited about all the places I was going to see and all the people I was going to meet and nervous because I had no idea where I was going, who I was going to meet and whether I’d land safely on my feet.  I had no way of knowing over the following eight months I was going to travel 24,000km from Tallinn to Singapore using only buses, trains, cars, bikes and ferries, travel through fourteen countries, meet some most fascinating and fantastic people and see places that you wouldn’t believe.  
Elephant sanctuary, Thailand

I won’t lie to you, although the idea of travelling solo has always been appealing to me, I was worried that I wouldn’t meet anybody and I would end up a lonely soul traipsing around the globe.  My good friend Matt began the journey with me.  He flew with me to Tallinn and spent the first few days with me until I got on that first of many bus journeys which took me into Russia and began truly travelling by myself.  Out of the first eight months, I only spent a maximum of one week alone.  There is always someone to talk to, someone to travel with and plenty of people to drink with.  The freedom of travelling solo is unparalleled.  You can choose your path you desire, choose the people you want to travel with.  I honestly met so many brilliant people along the way who became friends.
New Norfolk, Tasmania

Even though travelling from Estonia to Singapore overland was the most adventurous and challenging part of my trip, it only marked the first of three separate parts.  The second part was the completely unplanned Australian adventure.  I thought I’d only be in Perth for three months, enough time to meet the Australian part of my family and replenish my bank account for the onward trip.  It turned out to be a year and a half.  

I’ll sum up the Australian part in some bullet points.  I should catch up on these missing blog posts.

  • Arrived
  • Met family
  • Worked for Health Corporate Network in Perth
  • Travelled
  • Worked on an apple orchard in Tasmania
  • Travelled
  • Worked on a dairy farm in Victoria
  • Travelled
  • Worked for Health Corporate Network in Perth
  • Travelled
  • Left
    Me, Mike and Tanwyn in Tasmania

The third part of my journey was homeward bound and took me one of the most interesting countries I’ve been to; Burma.  Again I should publish my memories of this trip too.

It was two years, one month and one week before I returned to British soil.  I find it difficult to formulate a response when people ask me about the trip as it cannot be summed up into a simple paragraph.  There were many ups and inevitably a few downs but every second was worth it. 

As it's coming up to Christmas, I'll share this one - Making of the Christmas video
The journey, the people I met, the things I saw, the experiences I had are too numerous and some I fear cannot simply be transferred by language.  I tend to keep quiet too as I don’t want to be that person who starts any conversation with ‘That reminds me of the time when I was in such and such place…’ 
Here are some rough distances.

Part I:    Andy’s Epic Voyage: Tallinn to Singapore            = 24,000km
Part II:   Awesome Australian Adventure                          = 12,400km
Part III: Myanmar                                                            = 1, 500km
Total of overland journeys                                                = 37,900km (23,500 miles)
Total distance in the air                                                     = 30,500km
Total distance covered                                                     = 68,400km (42,500 miles)

I’ll leave you with this.  The world is a wonderful planet filled with kind-hearted people to meet and spectacular places to see.  If you want to see it, go for it!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Awesome Australian Adventure - Days 8-9, Eucla to Mt Remarkable National Park, Across the Nullarbor

Distance covered:  3,180km (1,976miles) 

Location:  Mt Remarkable National Park, South Australia

Date: 6 February 2012

Days: 8 - 9  

Places Stayed: Margaret River, Karridale, Walpole, Cape Riche, Esperance (Cape Le Grand). Fraser’s Range, Madura, Nundoo, Mount Remarkable