Friday, May 7, 2010

Hyper-Idiomatic Expression in Controllers

I came across this term today in a radio show on ImprovFriday. It was coined by one of the performers, Richard Bailey when describing his work which is wonderful. I encourage you to follow the link below.

Link is here:

Basic gist goes like so: Lots of music controllers are very good at certain distinct styles of performance, or at least impart the characteristics of the controller itself onto the music. While I'm not one to throw around academic and frankly obtuse terms for musical performance. It did get me thinking.

from Merriam-Webster

1. "of, relating to, or conforming to idiom"
2. "peculiar to a particular group, individual, or style"

"a style or form of artistic expression that is characteristic of an individual, a period or movement, or a medium or instrument"

Now the "hyper" part is debatable depending on the controller. Hyper being accentuated or extremely active.

If you look at classical musical instruments, their physical layout and properties whether, string, hammers on strings, wind, woodwind, percussion all play a vital role in how they are performed and also have influenced the styles of music that they are associated with.

There isn't a music controller in existence that leaves no trace of it's physical, mechanical and technical characteristics on the music it produces. Some have suggested the keyboard is so adaptable and can make any sound whether sampled or generated that it is such a device.

Yes, keyboards use the black and white keys of a piano which have a certain structure and pitch layout modelled after the western notion of tones and half tones. The act of striking the key does not have the same effect as breath or strumming or the physical properties of strings. It definitely is ideomatic of certain styles. There may be many styles but the instrument itself did play a part and does impart a footprint of it characteristics on the music itself.

Eigenharp is similar, it has the ability to sound like almost any instrument, it has the addition of breath controller and strip controllers for things like bowing a cello or violin. Yet even it has properties that will leave a distinct footprint over time. The fingering of the keys, their percussive nature, similar to a keyboard but different with multiple control axis. The fact that you can glide across the keys, make large movements in pitch and octave within a hands reach. Adapt the fingerboard to different scales and tunings. Yet even this adaptability can't play guitar like a guitar. I will influence the music and become idiomatic of some styles that are peculiar to itself.

Monome: The blank slate controller. The methods of interaction and the model of such exist in software. It can be a sample slicer, looper, keyboard, video controller, robot controller, whatever. Yes it makes music. It's even good at it. It does impart its idioms on the performance. Certain styles are dominant, the keys are strictly on/off so key velocity doesn't really work which forms the basis and bounds of the performance.

This Brings Me to Vagueness

Vagueness being the degree of predicability of interacting with the instrument and knowing the exact sound that will come out, based on having heard the instrument but not knowing how it is setup when walking up to it.

Ok, so on the vague'O'meter, we have the piano being slanted towards the non-vague side. I walk up to a piano, I hit a key and I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to get.

Keyboard, middle of the road. I may have an idea of the pitch, basic velocity of a hit, etc...but I am unsure of what patch is loaded. Once I know the loaded sound, I can probably play a known chord pretty easily unless someone has done a strange key mapping.

Eigenharp, same as keyboard. Slightly more vague, the fingerboard may be mapped to any scale even microtonal.

Monome: Way vague. Not only do I not know what sound will come out. I might not even get a sound, cause maybe the key I press changes a setting or maybe it's not even controlling sound. There may be some pattern of multiple presses I need to unlock to do something like reslice a loop. Maybe I just raised the curtains on stage.

Now the reason for taking the vague'0'meter test is to make a point.

Here it is:

"The younger you are, the more likely you are to be comfortable with or exposed to vagueness and accepting of such as constituting a performance"

Ok, a lot of older people totally grock vague controllers. But in general, if someone has not been exposed to these concepts they can be very difficult to grasp. Since these concepts are now more prevalent, we have more exposure and acceptance. Just try explaining a monome to an 80 year old that is used to going to the symphony. The 1:1 connection between the instrument and the idiom is not as strong. Likewise the concept of a performance also is spread on a vague'0'meter. For example, the connection of a piano to a musical performance is not vague. It's very linear and 1:1. The concept of a performance by scratching a turntable, playing a prerecorded record is more vague. There are certain prejudices and barriers involved in connecting a vague controller to a performance.

One last thought here and this is regarding the monome. Even though the monome is at the high end of the vagueness scale, there is a 1:1 connection between seeing a performer hitting a simple button and that button affecting a sound or performance. Even though our brains can handle abstract complex vague controllers, we still want to see the physical connection of human to controller to cause and effect. And the pretty lights don't hurt.


  1. Excellent post. Over the past few years, when I've been writing music purely in Cubase, I've found that I've become a lot less tolerent of vagueness or unpredictability in the stuff I do. I think this makes the music sound less natural, makes it sound more 'forced' and programmatic. I'm very much enjoying the vagueness of the Pico and I'm starting to learn how to take advantage of that again.

  2. Great write-up, comrade.
    Vagueness isn't really vague at all though, in my mind. A piano doesn't have any unequivocal way of sounding - we know how it sounds because we've come across it before. hence vagueness == departure from the norm. The eigenharp kinda sorta makes sense, because it is layed out like an instrument that we may have come across before, in a lot of ways. And that shapes the way you play it, and it sets up boundaries for what will and can be done on it.
    The monome is a deliberate departure from the preconceived, and I really like that about it. No Rosetta stone, no normative layout. It's its own. I think if the eigen people had dared to leave off the breath controller, then the approach would have been a lot different.

  3. Thx for the comments guys.

    Not surprisingly my definition of vagueness may have been a bit vague. Somehow though it does inspire a little thought process about how we interact with our instruments which is interesting to me.