Shaping Music

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

In Samuel R. Delany’s 1966 science fiction novel Babel-17, a space-traveling society is only able to replicate an alien civilization’s more advanced engineering designs after figuring out that civilization’s language. It’s a remarkably well-crafted metaphor for explaining that if you do not have words to describe concepts, you cannot conceptualize them.

There’s definitely something science fiction-like about a lot of experimental musical instrument building, but perhaps that is because we still fully don’t have a language to describe many of the new sonorities these instruments produce. When many of the instruments we’re used to nowadays were brand new, they probably seemed just as incomprehensible. The reverse is also true. Playing on an older version of a familiar instrument can feel like being greeted by someone on the street in Anglo-Saxon, as I recently learned when I was allowed to play on old keyboards during a behind-the-scenes tour of the musical instrument collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is an oft-stated truism that at the time the standard repertoire of Western classical music was being codified, so were the instruments for which this repertoire was created. The music and the instruments evolved together in a symbiotic relationship. Yet most people who decry the paucity of new repertoire among classical music ensembles address the just as relevant issue of a paucity of new instrument designs being used by classical musicians. It is no coincidence that the various forms of popular music that are ubiquitous in today’s society are mostly new music played on mostly new instruments, whether electric guitars, synthesizers, samplers, or even turntables…

But, as Joe Peknik, the Met’s Principal Instrument Technician at the Met pointed out to me, "Composers tend to play with what they’re given." And there certainly is a lot of great music still being created for older instruments. Even Bart Hopkin, founder of Experimental Music Instruments and himself a composer, performer, and builder, acknowledges that, "If it weren’t for the fact that these things work really well, we wouldn’t have most of the music we all enjoy."

Yet the urge to create new sounds is just as human as the urge to create new music, and new instruments can offer tremendous creative fuel for composers. I went away from the afternoon I spent with Bart Hopkin mesmerized by the variety of new sounds his instruments created. This creative fuel is the core of the history of new instrument building in this country.

Of course, building new instruments can take many forms, from creating completely new one-of-a-kind instrument designs to finding ways to make established designs of the past work for our own time. We asked a wide range of instrument builders to tell us what prompted them to design instruments and what they believe the role of the builder should be in shaping the future of music. We ask you to consider the possibilities of raw materials.

One composer/instrument builder whose spirit hovers over this month’s issue is Harry Partch whose compositions and instruments are symbiotic halves of a whole new approach to music. While Partch is no longer around to offer his unique commentary on the state of music, we recently came across some never-before-published drawings of him made by composer Victoria Bond toward the end of his life. This issue seemed life a perfect home for them.

While Partch is a hero to practitioners of just intonation all over the world, his approach to the dissemination of his music is a model that goes far beyond specific theoretical positions. His precise attention to sound as pitch, as rhythm, and as timbre is a lesson for all of us whether we are creating new instruments to perform otherwise unrealizable music or striving to create new idiomatic piano music.

Playing an early 18th century Cristofori piano at the Met was a wonderful contrast to playing Bart Hopkin’s Disorderly Tumbling Forth; the two experiences were remarkably similar. When Cristofori first built his instrument, the concept of a being able to control the volume of a struck string was as radical as the Tumbing Forth’s streams of glittering sustained tones elicited from separate pieces of copper pipe.

Without the piano, much of the music of the past two centuries is unimaginable. Without new instruments and new ways of playing old ones, the next two hundred years is equally unimaginable!