Music Technology and Lifemusic

The workshops I run and many workshops I attend use a whole range of instruments which I tend to call "instant access" instruments, drums, rattles, shakers, xylophones, gongs and so on a wide selection of which can be bought through Sound Travels. It is interesting to trace the way in which these musical tools have entered our musical spaces, particularly since many if not most of them are non european in origin.
Earlier in the last century, it was Karl Orff, or to be precise, his colleague Hans Bergese, who designed instruments (based on rersearch and travel in the far east) which would be suitable for use in schools and which could be played instantly without the necessary long period of (often painful) training involved in learning the standard instruments of the European tradition such as viloins, flutes and french horns. These "Orff" instruments, as they are still known in some places, are indeed user friendly and a lot of teaching methodolgy developed around them. One anomoly, which still exists, is the practice of tuning these instruments, (box xylophones, glockenspiels, mettalophones) to the standard diatonic scale, as if their main purpose would be in recreating tonal music of the European tradition. This seemed to me to be not only pointless but counterproductive since the far more useable pentatonic scale is much more useful for the kind of improvisatory work for which these instruments are ideally suited. Tuning them to diatonic scales not only creates issues around what material to play (and most of the so-called "Orff Schulwerk" felt quaint and dated as soon as it appeared) but it also places them in the domain of specialist teachers with the result that most classroom teachers leave them to collect dust in forgotten cupboards.
More recently, these instruments have found a home in music therapy and also in community music workshops and have been added to by a wide range of "ethnic" instruments imported from all over the world, often mixed up together to represent a multi cultural canvas of sound which is often colourful, productive and fruitful. Whilst some workshop leaders will attempt to use these instruments authentically (for example, those djembe workshops which try to reproduce faithfully African traditional drumming) I prefer to encourage and initiate free improvising so that participants are not restricted in any way by notions of what is right or wrong. If it sounds good it is good.
So where does this leave music technology? In a recent training workshop (part of the Lifemusic programme running in Bognor Regis) participants were introduced to some of the latest digital equipment including soundbeam and ipod applications, synthesised sound as well as effects units which create a whole range of delays, repetitions, resonances, echo boxes and the possibility for amplification. There is no doubt that some of these are invaluable tools when working with people with physical impairments but the training day generated considerable discussion about the quality and nature of digital sound and its overall value.
Apart from the ever-present threat of ear damaging feedback (which makes us all nervous) there is the issue of the sounds themeselves and how the clinical "purity" of synthesised sound coming through speaker cones, blends with the natural quality of the sounds coming from sources which are being struck, shaken or stroked. It is not only the quality of sound but the kind of effort and the physical involvment and gestures involved in its creation which feeds into the musical meanings. How does a finger on a button or a touch sensitive screen equate with the whole body energy it takes to play the balafon, shake a maraca or even strike a triangle let alone to open the throat, fill the  lungs and sing.
Or are the products of music technology in fact no different to any other musical instruments? As our trainer pointed out, it is only the mind of the musician employing the instrument which determines the quality of what comes out and this is as true for a tambour as it is for a Technics 23D.
My own feelings are ambiguous though most of the time I try to avoid anything amplified, digitalised or involving knobs. What do other workshop leaders feel about this question?

Posted: 31 Oct 2010 By: Laura Cousins

I feel like I'm on some kind of cusp.

Digital instruments are enabling for some, undoubtedly, as well as being attractive for younger people to work with. But they can also be a double-edged sword; imbuing in me the instant response of - “Oh, I don't know how to work with that / I'd have to learn an entire new skill-set / I'm bound to make it all go wrong.” This can lead to a deflation in my precious balloon of self-confidence. And my confidence in my own abilities is perhaps the most important tool I possess.

This kind of equipment, in uncertain hands, can lead to the feedback loops, breakdowns and delays. Precisely what I fear. In the hands of an expert it can look like the trappings of some kind of received religion, with the instruments of worship being used and handled only by the elite minority.

But music (and any other) technology will only stay that way to me – remote, unreliable - if I allow it to. Younger practitioners of and participants in the Life Music method are far less likely to have this aversion to technology. I am, after all, old enough to remember a world without digital technology of any kind whatsoever, and as such I seem to come pre-programmed (hah!) with a strong feeling of not being able to master it, which is twaddle; I just have to apply myself to these things with a slightly greater degree of effort than, say, my thirteen-year-old daughter. There's a burgeoning body of research that indicates that brain plasticity and therefore the ability to learn new things is nothing like as age-dependent as I used to think it was.

I'm reading a book called “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” by the acclaimed educationalist Sir Ken Robinson. In it there's a chapter entitled 'Is It Too Late?' Robinson sums things up neatly by saying,

“There is strong evidence to suggest that the creative functions of our brain stay strong deep into our lives: we can recover latent aptitudes by deliberately exercising them. Just as physical exercise can revitalise our muscles, mental exercise can revitalise our creative capabilities.”

So I've no excuse to not just knuckle down and get on with it. Better still, I can get my daughter to show me how to do things, which undoubtedly improves the relationship between us and gives her own self-esteem a welcome boost. She gets her ego massaged and I get knowledge of an extremely handy little iPhone app called “Beatwave”, which I have used to great success recently. Plus, it is great fun just to play with in odd moments.

Life Music for me is centred on play. You play music, not work it, and I believe the word 'play' is no accident; in order to master new skills and equipment, it is basically essential for me to try and become more like a child again, and just play with the stuff.

Is there any thing to say that a session based on the Life Music method cannot use only digital sounds? I couldn't answer that question without trying it – playing with the idea, essentially. For example, how about trying to make a piece of improvised music using the keypad tones of mobile phones. (Did you know we've had touch-tone telephones in this country since 1971? I didn't.) Yes, it may be tempting to dismiss this idea as nothing more than a gimmick, a bit of fun, or a funky little ice-breaker, or just 'not real', but if it engages people and relaxes them and makes them smile, might it not be a good thing? As Rod said: “If it sounds good it is good.”

Less physical connection to the music-making doesn't have to mean that I'm less physically connected to the music itself. Indeed, it is a great deal easier to leave my iPhone on my chair and get up and dance, something that is much harder to achieve when I am squatting in front of a balafon or a metallophone. In fact, the dancing might even be more healthy for me than squatting in front of a balaphon or a metallophone! I don't think my mental and spiritual connection with the music is altered by digital technology, at least not once I get the hang of using it. It is still me doing it.

For others, playing on a digital instrument, because of its relative lack of bodily exertion, might allow them a larger degree of participation as well as a longer time doing it before they get tired. This too is a good thing, because I often find that it can take people a good twenty to forty minutes or so to really get into whatever it is they are doing, music-wise. It is often after that magic twenty-minute mark that I find the greatest advances being made. Conversely, I have come away from gigs and drumming weekends in some considerable discomfort before now, from playing intensively for just an hour or so at a time, and I like to think that I am used to it! So how must it be for those who are not?

Learning to use digital music technology is something that I fear 'having' to do, perhaps because it reminds me of how I struggled to learn to use a computerised lighting control board when I was at drama school training to be a stage manager. I was under a lot of pressure. I got there in the end, though.

So what's next? I could continue being very comfortable right here where I am, thank you, using hand-made acoustic instruments. But what would happen if I applied that attitude to the rest of my life as well? I'd certainly not be here typing this on my MacBook. Supposing I'd never learned to use a microwave, or a video recorder, or a digital camera, or a mobile phone. Where would I be, exactly?

I've just spent twelve minutes tinkering with my mobile phone and cannot get it to play anything except the theme music to “In Treatment”, which doesn't help my argument any. Time to call in the services of my own personal Wonder Teen … maybe I should enlist her to help me run Life Music sessions ... Laura x

Posted: 22 Nov 2010 By: Stefan Cartwright Stefan Cartwright

When we hear an acoustic instrument we are moved by both the material it is made from and the intention of the player. An incredibly detailed mass of information is communicated to our ear and body simultaneously. Take the simple conch shell for example, a few notes played on this archaic instrument can resonate deep within. In a few seconds it is possible to experience a mix of raw and primordial feelings and sense the wild animal kingdom from where the instrument came. And then there is the detail of the players breath, their attitude in making the sound, the resulting musical overtones.

By contrast digital instruments are capable of producing nice, pleasing sounds. They are practical and fun. They allow musicians to travel light and reach large audiences. However the sound they make does not live and breathe. It does not carry anywhere near the level of detailed information that a simple acoustic sound can carry. While there has been a mass exodus in schools and elsewhere to embrace and use digital technology, it is still a technology in its infancy and it may well go out of vogue as quickly as it came in.

I am not saying this as a luddite. For over two decades I played and composed music using electronic instruments, turntables, keyboards, samplers. I was an early adopter of digital technology and created an instrument which enabled people to mix colour and sound and improvise on the fly. Yet having done all this I let it all go to return to acoustic instruments and I haven't looked back, nor have I missed digital instruments in any way.

Stefan Cartwright
School of Creative Music Making

Posted: 22 Nov 2010 By: Tobias Kaye Tobias Kaye

I feel really pleased that Rod has raised this question so simply and clearly, pointing out his own ambiguous uncertainty as well as the workshop leader’s simple dismissal of the difference.
I think there is a real difference between sounds generated by real wood or metal and such frequencies being carefully repeated by a cardboard cone or other speaker. It may not be a surprise that when analysed on an oscilloscope the difference is not to be seen: should one expect a machine to be able to distinguish between machine sounds and those driven by human involvement first hand? I think not. I think there is a responsive movement to the quality of a sound within the soul or heart that a sensitive or trained individual can feel, that a machine can not. Wonderful though machines are, subtle, powerful and ubiquitous, they have made life less deep and rich than it used to be in the bad old days.
Sometimes one can draw conclusions from effects things have in the long term even if one can not agree on a distinction in the short. To this end I would like to draw a comparison with flavours. In the 1970’s food additives that were synthesized to a chemical structure exactly like real fruit extract were passed to be described as ‘natural flavouring’ by law. The effect on food has been that the extra intensity of synthetic flavouring is now expected of nearly all food. Manufacturers of organic yoghurts and the like have found that using real fruit only is not enough to sell their products. People expect the hit the tongue gets from ‘natural flavour’ additives.
My suspicion is that the nature of the electronic instrument will, if allowed slowly take over from ‘real’ musical sounds.
I think Rod Paton makes an important point when he distinguishes between the nature of the sound and the nature of the movement that produces it. When larger bodily movement, and noticeable exertion of the muscles is required to produce a sound two things at least are engaged, the flow of effort within the body and the developing control to make that effort harmonize in rhythm or tone with a hoped for result. Both these things are important in helping people to become more present to themselves and to any issues they may have brought to the sessions.
One might argue that this step is in the same direction that Orff took us by introducing "instant access" instruments, in that a barrier such as skills learning is bypassed. I would argue that a step towards electronic instruments is a step in the opposite direction in that the process of learning an instrument or of not knowing (yet) how to make the sounds one would like to make leads to a nervousness in performing. a nervousness that Orff really wanted us to move away from. Electronic instruments are also associated with such a nervousness, not least, as Rod points out in the potential for soul-searing howls of feedback. Electronic instruments may be deceptively easy to play at one moment and suddenly require expert attention the next. This does not allow people to relax into a warm feeling of creativity like they can with "instant access" instruments.
Healing through Sound is, to my mind associated with the inner warmth of joy and confidence that e-instruments can only synthesise.

Tobias Kaye

Posted: 22 Nov 2010 By: Sheila Whittaker Sheila Whittaker

The debate between using traditional old musical instruments as opposed to modern digital technology is an interesting one, & has advantages on both sides. Digital music, once one has mastered the process of the technology, can provide a myriad of interesting pleasant sounds which can be combined & used to great effect. I do feel, however, that when we use authentic ethnic musical instruments, some of whose origins go back many thousands of years, that we are drawing energy from the wealth of ancestral usage of those instruments through the ages. Their esoteric use has not survived for so long for no reason. They worked for the good in ancient times, & they work now! I believe the healing energies that were created during the playing of the gong, the singing bowl, the conch shell, the native American flute, to name a few, are passed on to us in a subtle energy form through the sound when we use those instruments in the same way as in ancient times - for healing & transformation.

When you enter a consecrated building – e.g. an old church or cathedral, or an ashram - the peace & stillness of the place is palpable from years of worship; you can feel the sacredness, the devotional energy, in the very walls & atmosphere. Most people intuitively lower their voices & speak in a respectful whisper in response to this. Likewise, when we play an instrument which has been in use for thousands of years for esoteric purposes, I believe we draw on ancestral memory which channels through the instrument & empowers our own healing ability. If you are at all sensitive & aware, you can feel the presence of the instrument even before you start to play it, due to the very nature of its’ healing energy. Gongs create their own sacred space, & their presence is very noticeable, even before playing. This is an instrument which has been used esoterically & in ceremony for well over 5000 years in linear time. Its’ healing power can be felt very strongly through the density & complex range of overtonal harmony which comes out when it is played well & with due respect. The sounds that are needed are brought forth for the benefit of all who are present.

Primitive musical instruments have been used within communities since ancient times for ceremony, celebration, initiation, & all manner of tribal rites. Now in these modern times we are rediscovering their esoteric use for Sound Healing, & I feel that we are linked in to that ancient wisdom when we utilise them for our healing work. Other Sound Healers in aeons before us have used them in similar ways – we are the modern pioneers of an ancient tradition which, in the west, until fairly recently, has been largely lost in the mists of time. Not any more though, as we re-member our natural healing abilities & creative empowerment through these ancient healing ways & instruments. Digital music undoubtedly has its’ place; but for me, nothing can compare with the healing instruments of the ancient mystic traditions.
Sheila Whittaker, Healing Sound

Posted: 24 Nov 2010 By: Mike Briggs

The main reason for the usefullness of Digital Technology is that recording and reproduction of music is freed from some of the problems of the analogue world. Things like Wow and Flutter of record players and tape machines, vinyl clicks, electrical artifacts etc. It is also a very accurate way of recording instruments and voices. My first digital system I described as a 'digital mirror'.

These articles on digital sound talk about the 'type' or 'quality' of sound rather than the impact of digital technology ( with a side reference to 'feedback' which is of course, firmly rooted in the analogue area of music production using PA).

The most fundamental influence of digital technology is the way that sound is recorded and reproduced now. Any sound to be recorded is sampled at rates up to 96 thousand times a second (sometimes more) then a digital circuit measures the analogue level of the sound at that point in time and translates that into a binary number which is recorded in digital memory. This number is of varying bit depth - typically 32 bits inside computer equipment and mixing desks down to 16bits on CDs (The CD standard is 44.1 Khz sampling rate at 16 bits depth). The higher the sampling rate and bit depth, the more accurate is the analysis and later synthesis of the sound. The accuracy of the analogue to digital converters (AtoD) and the digital to analogue converters (D to A) which perform this function are the key elements in the perceived quality of the recording.

So the sound you hear from the speakers at a concert from a CD has been analysed, boken down into tiny time slices, measured, saved in computer memory, digitally mixed, imprinted on a disc, read by a laser, synthesised or re-assembled, smoothed to remove digital artifacts and then the resulting analogue signal is amplified and drives the speakers.

And the music goes round and round and it comes out here!

It is a little twee to talk about the purity of an instruments sound if it has gone through a modern recording process......

Having said all that, the technology has been refined over decades now and in blind tests, the clarity and accuracy of digital sound is nearly indistinguishable from the sound of the original instruments to most peoples ears.

(There is still a vestige of the '70s/80's arguments about CD versus Vinyl recording quality but that is another story.)

Digital instruments are a whole other dimention of course. When a 'real' acoustic instrument is recorded it has all the nuances and variations of pitch and tone translated into digital signals in an attempt to faithfully re-produce the original. A digital instrument (usually referred to as a software or hardware synthesizer) can use adjustable in-built digital signals to produce just about any sound you can think of - and many you wish you hadn't- within the dedicated device or computer. A large number of digital instruments use sampled or synthesised real life instruments but there is the possibility to produce sounds that have never, and probably could never, be created by physical instruments. To ignore the possibilities of digital instruments would be a retrograde step I would suggest.

There are many ways to control these instruments and to give expression to your music. Yes you can have simple buttons - like a melodian or a shruti box. You can also have piano type keyboards, touch sensitive keyboards, aftertouch keyboards, breath controllers etc. Built - in enhancements such as reverberation can synthesise the sound of a cathedral and other spaces - the possibilities are endless.....

I Make no comment on the 'quality' of the sounds or their 'usefullness'. It is all in the ears of the hearer.

Posted: 24 Jan 2011 By: Tobias Kaye Tobias Kaye

It seems to me that Rod's original point was about machine made music as opposed to music made by human action with acoustic instrument.
This is the point that interests me.
Through meditation with acoustic sounds I find that the sound itself carries something of the source of it's nature within and connects a fine part of the human 'Being', nature or structure with that which created it. Like acoustic instruments we are made of natural materials in a form that is inherently paradoxical.
By contrast machines are made by human thinking in which paradox has been ironed out and logic given to rule.
It is my experience that sounds from electronic instruments (anything relying on a speaker to make sound and anything using an electrically powered amplifier), while frequently pleasing, entertaining, delightful even, do not connect our finer, less conscious aspects of 'Being' with creative sources in the way that acoustic instruments do.
I came to feel years ago that in dis-ease of soul and then of body arise when we lose some aspect of our sense of deep direction or meaning in life. And that in order to heal one has, in one way or another, consciously or not to come to some sense of ones origins and goals as a spirit/soul entity ‘doing’ a human life.
Following my deeper experiences, meditative and otherwise with acoustic and with speaker-reliant sound/music sources I suspect that acoustic instruments put us in touch, on a deep level with our individual sources, our natural heritage and the striving of our species whereas electronic instruments lead the soul back to the thinking.
On a deep level things made by thinking connect us to thinking whereas things made of nature and with feeling connect us to that which lives in nature as the corollary of our feeling/doing self.
There are two levels of machine music:
1. Recorded music in the making of which feeling and non-logical human activity was enfolded.
2. Machine (computer) generated music into which no human artistry beyond (often immensely clever) conceptual activity has flowed.

Personally I feel that real healing, that which can re-connect our deep selves (usually unconscious) to our goals and origins is not much helped by either, but I can see how the first can be involved.
The second level, that of machine generated and machine produced music seems of very low value in healing to me.
Comments welcomed.

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