Saturday, July 24, 2010

Building an instrument

An approach to electro-acoustic music that fascinates me is to create an instrument from scratch to generate new sounds. I see this as continuation of the exploration into sound that motivated Varèse to compose for percussion ensembles and that lead John Cage to compose for prepared piano. Through the works of these composers, music becomes less about the pleasing presentation of notes and more about the aesthetics possibilities of sound itself.

Diego Stocco

Diego Stocco is a more current inspiration for my adventure into instrument building. His bassoforte (video below) is a particularly effective demonstration of the possibilities available to the composer who creates his own instrument. Through careful design, Stocco is able to produce a myriad of sounds that retain a similar character and give the composition a sense of unity, in part because they all come from the same instrument.
Of course, this is a hybrid instrument. Stocco has placed several microphones of different types around and on his instrument. The signals from these microphones are mixed and processed by his nearby laptop to produce the actual sounds of the instrument. Combining different microphone types and placement with different processing gives him plenty of options to choose from to design his sounds. His approach is perhaps better understood by watching his music from a tree performance.

Instrument #1

My first attempt at instrument building is rather modest in comparison, but that reflects not so much my means as my aims. Unlike Stocco, I don’t intend to record a song by performing all its parts one after the other. Rather, I’ll record several sessions where I coax out as many varied sounds as possible from my instrument. These recordings will become the sound source for musique concrète manipulations and other processing to produce an electro-acoustic composition.
The design is fairly simple. I made a resonator box from scrap wood and inserted some nails at each end. I wrapped two types of metal wires around those nails to create strings. A movable bridge adjusts the pitch of the strings. I’ve installed a homemade contact microphone to the soundboard to capture the various sounds of this instrument.


Sounds can be made by hitting any wooden surface, the strings or the nails. I can strum or rub the strings with my fingers or with objects. I can also use a piece of wood to “bow” the open end of the box to produce a complex (and aggressive) sound. I can also buzz my lips into a small hole at the other end of the instrument (as a jug player would do) to produce a sound that has a certain brass instrument quality to it.
Here are some examples of these sounds:
Bowing wood
Lips buzzing
Strumming with moving bridge
Strumming bend
Hammering strings and movng bridge
Hitting things
Hitting again

Next steps

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be recording more sounds and editing and processing them into a composition.