This essay is something of a personal odyssey, a search for the musical interface through particular and idiosyncratic instances of music technology. Explication of the musical interface has taken place through actual work connected with specific creative undertakings, in order to show connections with real problems in music composition and performance. For the composer/performer the musical interface symbolizes an endless search for compositional identity within an evolving technological context, and research should take into account the individuality of those undertaking creative endeavors.
The question of musical identity arises because the contemporary composer now engages a wider field of musical functions. Being a composer is thus complicated by the additional roles of instrument builder, scientist, audio and general technician, and performer. These musical functions, although still discrete throughout the musical world, are increasingly part of the computer music composer's concern on a regular basis. Coordinating these task in the pursuit of composition is an entirely new experience and there is little precedent for the composer to draw upon.
The MetaAction project draws together the idea of historical performance practice, the technical potential of contemporary technology and the composer. It opens discussion on the past, the present and the future of the musical interface and is a timely reminder of the gulf which exists between the physical and virtual instrumental worlds. Even more importantly it suggests that we are unable to escape entirely our physical dependencies but that we tend to seek ways to minimize their limitations in the creative process. The MetaAction recognizes the traditional musical instrument as cultural icon and that the singularity of the musical instrument is not easily displaced by a proliferation of auxiliary technologies like recording and broadcast media.
Control is a central technical issue of the MetaAction project, as it is to all musical interfaces, and is critical to sophisticated performer/machine operations. Two levels of control are apparent in this type of musical performance: control between the human and the computer and control between the computer and the MetaAction (sound production equipment). Successful control further depends on the quantization of parameters and the delay time in the communication of information between the sending and receiving systems. This technology provides a conceptual framework for the discussion of performer/machine interaction.
Integration of new technologies into the performance scenario can affect a performer's technique, ranging from mild interference to redundancy, as in the case of the MetaAction where the piano no longer needs to be played through a keyboard. A non-keyboard performer would need to negotiate new aspects of the piano's complex acoustic. Appreciating the operation of the action is a logical first step in determining the approach that would offer the most fulfilling performance and musical experiences. In this way, one would work from the sound production mechanism to the performer interface. This is possible, in this case, where the physical conditions of sound production are easily understood.
The consideration of the violin, piano and theremin illuminate the musical interface at a time when its evolution and importance were quite different. Retrospectively, the musical interface might be interpreted on an instrument-by-instrument basis and described using terms that relate specifically and idiosyncratically to each instrument. Physical characteristics and properties of musical instruments continually suggest differences rather than parallels of operational behavior, thus making it difficult to arrive at a general understanding of performer/instrument interaction. This interaction would be difficult to conceptualize without some intermediary scheme. Music notation reveals the interface characteristics that occur during performance. There is no doubt that on many occasions the character of an instrument is evident in the organization and structuring of the notation. However, notation is predominantly representative of sound characteristics (pitch, rhythm, dynamics) rather than the explicit interaction between performer and instrument. The notation needs considerable interpretation to construct a profile of the musical interface. Interesting interactive properties may only be evident to those who understand the intricacies of the instrument. Consideration of what constitutes the instrumental experience is the domain of the instrumentalist, who is not necessarily in an objective position to comment on the musical interface.
The musical instrument is a specialized device solely for the production of music. Its form, support materials and history identify its cultural function. The traditional musical instrument is itself an interface to a culture. It is used as a vehicle for the dissemination of cultural values. Initiated by the intimate performer/instrument relation, instruments have a complex role culturally embracing the listener. This experience deepens as music and instruments accrue historical perspective.
The augmentation of traditional instruments with contemporary technology tends to have two principle effects. The first is where the conjunction of past and present technologies create a new instrument. This instrument will either inspire the development of a sustaining repertoire or will decline in popularity and status. The second is that such augmentation stimulates a desire for experimentation on the part of the composer. This means that the music produced from hybrid-instruments (digitally enhanced mechanical systems) will have less in common with music of the foundation instrument's immediate technological past.
Assessment of technologically enhanced instruments relates more to the current musical output than the historical repertoire. The two works, Duo for One Pianist and Wildlife, have been discussed by their authors, and from their words a profile of the interface can be constructed. In both cases the musical systems are quite idiosyncratic and technically complicated; they require some kind of preliminary explanation to inform the musical experience. The necessity of explaining the musical scenario can also be found in the music, which is self-referential and explicates the performer/instrument interaction. In each work it is evident that the performer controls the extent to which technology influences his performance technique.
A characteristic of these works is that the changes to the instruments generally avoid extensive disruption of a performer's established technique and instead seek to inspire some kind of reappraisal of the performance experience. The Zeta violin, Yamaha Disklavier and the Mathews/Boie Radio Drum adhere closely to traditional modes of performance practice but strongly suggest that there are new and important musical experiences to be discovered. The performer/instrument relation is dependent on communication and networking systems, which expand the performance experience beyond the simple one-to-one performer/instrument relation. The codification and communication of generalized performance information has facilitated this and become an inherent and crucial part of sophisticated computer music systems. Recognized as such, the concepts of communication and control have gained a cultural significance and become externalized and generalized to any human/machine interaction.
A logical progression in the computerization of traditional instruments would be the construction of environments that provide conditions for configuring and exploiting these instruments. This was evident in the discussion of the composition Duo for One Pianist, which required a pre-configured or pre-composed part for the real-time system contribution. In Wildlife, the system needed to be configured prior to each movement. This type of preliminary configuration remains localized and subordinate to the process of instrumental performance. In it is presupposed the order of events that lead to the presentation of the music.
I have suggested in the ordering of this essay that the virtual or self-contained computer music systems are the consequence of the computerization of traditional instruments. In fact, computer music pre-dates the digital enhancement of traditional instruments. Prior to commercial digital systems it was only possible to construct instruments in software. However, the purpose of having this essay interpret the evolution of the musical interface this way was to accommodate and emphasize the transit of instruments from the historical paradigm to the virtual world. Consideration of the interface must concede that the general progress of technology has played a significant role, but that the interface's maturation is a multi-faceted experience which draws upon sources outside technology. The development of virtual instrument might at first appear to be about dispensing with the traditional instrument, but at this time traditional instruments have become one among a panoply of sound sources that virtual instruments may use.
When the instrument becomes virtual, and possibly represented in myriad forms, the composer's task is necessarily expanded. Since virtual instruments typically exist in a non-real-time environment, or one in which the composer needs to learn to configure the parameters of instruments and their operational conditions over a period of time, the context for compositional decision-making takes place earlier than the contemplation of the work itself. Beyond the direct manifestation of a compositional idea the composer faces the creation of the context for the evolution of her ideas.
This musical context begins with re-thinking and re-interpreting aspects of traditional instruments and music and from there it takes into account how the composer might wish to consider and represent such information. Thus the musical interface evolves beyond the traditional perception of the instrumental composition and its historical conditions to something radically different. The musical interface can represent mental compositional constructs.
The progress of musical style is far from the primary concern of most composers who today strive for the means to develop self-identity and facilitate creative interaction within the technological context. The construction of the musical interface can be interpreted as creative act if the composer is concurrently involved in the production of sound. The interface need not be permanent or complex, but in representation must fulfill the composer's objectives on a moment-by-moment basis. Thus the interface can be dynamically constructed between a composer's creative thoughts and the final musical realization. The musical interface can be composition.