Friday, September 3, 2010

The Grid and The String in Music

[Image of the Tenorions from]
Yamaha has a pretty looking device, Tenori-On for fans of MIDI-triggering LED grids. I have been a fan of portable LED grids since I discovered Maywa-denki's Bitman in Tokyo. Tenori-On is a 16x16 grid... four times more little LEDs than Bitman ;-) OK, seriously now... The Tenori-On's LEDs act as push buttons, much like the buttons on the old Novation Nova synths, another favourite of mine. Incidentally, Novation have their own LaunchPad controller which also plays on the pixel grid idea. This has been a common theme in this area over the last few years. In the Yamaha product, the grid is used to control a sequencer in various ways. In some modes the hardware acts like a step-sequencer, in others more unusual metaphors are employed to trigger music events, for instance a bouncing ball metaphor is employed to trigger an event when the ball (a lit LED that moves across the grid) hits an edge for instance. The user then controls the distance the ball moves between bounces to shorten or lengthen the delay between triggers... in discrete steps.

And this is the thing about "the grid": Whilst beat-based, typically 4/4 music is so seductive, popular, easy to make and therefore marketable to teenagers with home studios and greying electronic music buffs alike, it would be nice if these new tools enabled the subtlety of a string on a fretboard when it came to placing notes in time. For experts maybe a fretless fingerboard is better... no need for the guidelines, place the notes in time by feel. But no, even after all these years of computer-hardware and software based music production the "new" instruments by the big manufacturers return us to our neatly discretised rhythms (and pitches). They can't afford to venture into the territory that brings us an instrument like a violin or the shakuhachi because these are just too hard to master. Even a recorder which, despite its regular finger holes offers the player a chance to over-blow, stutter, tongue, tremolo and shriek their way through a piece, merging notes, individuating notes with staccato punctuation, placing notes wherever and whenever they darn well like, is more subtle.

A drum-machine? Well, I absolutely love the new rhythms that have been moving into electronic music since Kraftwerk, through 80s synth-pop, jungle, drum'n bass, techno... right through the 90s and 00s up to the stuff so popular even on mainstream radio today. It has really transformed the way I think about rhythm. Most of it I could never have hoped to play live on a drum kit (even when I practiced). But a lot of it is just sampled old drum loops. I know this is a little tired. We have heard all this before. But every new instrument that comes out is a chance to revitalise electronic music. Every new instrument based on the grid is a chance lost. All the complexity of which music is capable is being missed by a generation of music makers.

The Tenori-On looks like fun to play. And don't get me wrong, I love a range of electronica based around the grid. But really Yamaha's sequencer/instrument is just another toy with a pretty pixel grid. Funny then that there is a pop-group (well, it is surely OK nowadays to call a group of 3 sexy girls who make music and dance around a bit on stage a pop-group right?) called the Tenerions. From what I have heard of their music it sounds pretty much like the product demos on the Yamaha website. Not particularly exciting.

Although I haven't played with my poor dusty synths for years, sometimes I am tempted to look longingly into my cupboard, dust off their cool metal surfaces and twiddle the knobs... analogue knobs. Knobs that spin smoothly and continuously. And then I remember that I waved goodbye to my last truly analogue synth well over a decade ago. Even the boxes I have with knobs are analogue emulations. The knobs might spin, but the values they represent are discrete. And so it goes. In the name of suplesse (a cycling term... grace? suppleness? elegance... on a bike) I have given up many things. Music-making was an early casualty. Who am I to complain about grids? Maybe count me as a concerned music-citizen who would like to hear the newcomers make something different, sometimes. I guess the best of them do and I should just listen harder and more widely. No disrepespect to the Tenerions. The fact that I have even heard of you means you must be doing something right!

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