First came the theremin.
In 1919, Leon Theremin, an electronics wizard who had migrated from the then Soviet Union, created one of the simplest musical instruments in existence, all of two metal rods protruding from a base. It did not have to be touched to elicit positively ethereal sounds.
Its sound—a cross between human voices and violins—is created by the musician’s hands’ disturbing electrical fields that surround the dual antennas—one for frequency, the other for volume. Because it is played with precise hand movements through the air, the theremin is notoriously difficult to master.
Nearly a hundred years later, theremins are still on the scene, with updated models and kits manufactured by established synthesizer outlets such as Moog and PAiA.
They range from less than $100 (Rs4,280) to more than $1,000. Modern electronic whizzes continue to create clever electronic instruments which can be played with more ease than Theremin’s device.
The new breed ranges from the laser harp—arrayed beams of light that, when broken by a player’s hand, signal programmed, MIDI processors—to the Beamz Music Performance System, more novelty than serious instrument, found in Skymall and Sharper Image catalogues for about $600. These electronica are the modern manifestations of musical progress: Jetsons-like technology combined with utterly simplistic interfaces in which the work has been backloaded, beats and samples arranged and at the ready for someone to wave his finger through a beam of light.
The popularity of “Guitar Hero”, the video game in which participants compete by playing a guitar-shaped controller along with the music on a screen, may also popularize new instruments to a wider audience. “Guitar Hero’s combination of an alternative controller, an alternative music notation and an interactive pedagogy has doubled the number of instrumental music makers in the US in just two years,” said James Plamondon, chief executive of Thumtronics, maker of a keyboard-like device called the Thummer.
In sync: Terpstra Keyboard by Cortex Design has 280 keys.
If the artistry of the laser harp lies more in its programming than its manipulation, Aaron Andrew Hunt set out to create the opposite effect—and ended up with the Tonal Plexus (www.h-pi.com).
Hunt, a pipe organ technician-turned-instructor of music theory and composition at Eastern Illinois University, was frustrated by the mainstream musical mandate that 12 pitches an octave—a standard piano keyboard—are all one needs to make music. His solution: Add more pitches. A lot more.
His resulting keyboard is to standard 88-key pianos what Yankee Stadium is to a Little League park; they serve similar purposes, but on completely different scales. Hunt raised his pitch count to 211 from 12, each individually controlled, with a line of keyboards ranging in size from two octaves to eight.
But it turns out that mastering 1,688 keys is not 20 times more difficult than the standard 88. Hunt created a layout in which the relationship between chords and scales is consistent, no matter which key one starts from.
“It’s based on research over the past century in psycho-acoustics, or human pitch perception,” Hunt said. “Our ability to perceive pitch is much finer than our sense of touch or sight. It’s the finest human sensory discrimination.”
And when it comes to emanating ethereal sounds, logic is sweet music.
©2008/ The New York Times