A Visit to the Workshop of Bart Hopkin
BART HOPKIN: With conventional instruments, there’s a way of thinking about them. You get standardized instruments. You have many individual objects, which are called violins, and all of them are very close physically in their construction. Because of that, you can develop a history of the instrument, a pool of skilled players, a repertoire for the instrument, and something that’s a little subtle, but very important. You can develop a sense in people’s ears of what the instrument should sound like and what the possibilities are. If you’re creating new instruments—which is mostly what the work I’ve done has been about, not only for myself but with other people doing the same kind of work—you make this instrument, you think of a name for it, it’s the only one in existence, there’s not a pool of skilled players, there’s no standard repertoire, and, most importantly, there’s no pre-existing expectations. That, as you can see, is very limiting in some ways because when you write for it no one can play it. On the other hand, it’s extraordinarily liberating because you don’t come to it with a whole bunch of inherited ideas about how it’s supposed to be used.
FRANK J. OTERI: So, to play devil’s advocate a bit, what are the qualities of the conventional instruments out there that are not satisfactory to you?
BART HOPKIN: I find conventional instruments very satisfactory. I love them.
FRANK J. OTERI: So why build new instruments?
BART HOPKIN: Because it’s so much fun. Because you can come up with sounds you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise, either by deliberation or by stumbling upon them. Either way of arriving at new sounds can be great. Another thing that’s very important about creating new instruments is that an existing instrument, which has a set of associations—any individual instrument, whether it’s new or not—has things it wants to play. People say that piano music is "pianistic." This is a phrase that people use. That means something about the piano. It wants to play certain kinds of patterns of notes. I think that’s what "pianistic" means. So if you come up with another instrument, it will be "something else-istic." This touches upon another very important facet of all this. All these years I spent messing with musical instruments, building them myself, and more importantly, being very aware of what other people are building. One of the things that has most grown in my mind is the idea of gesture, the way the player interacts with the instrument, and how much that determines the character of the instrument. One of the reasons a piano is "pianistic" is because there are particular kinds of motions that go with it. So if you invented the Casio keyboard, in one respect you wouldn’t have come up with that much because people are going to be inclined to play very much the same kind of music on it that people play on a piano. If you come up with that has very different gestural qualities, you’ll set something else.
FRANK J. OTERI: This reminds me of a conversation I had with Tod Machover for NewMusicBox almost four years ago. We were primarily talking about electronic instruments, but so many of the new instruments that were being built were based on the same models as older instruments and he was more interested in developing new kinds of interfaces for making sounds, like wearing a jacket instead of bowing a string or striking a key on a keyboard or blowing into a mouthpiece since those interfaces have so many preconceived associations with them already, so much baggage from the past.
BART HOPKIN: Exactly. If he was saying that a few years ago, good for him! This is an idea that more electronic instrument makers are coming to understand, but it’s taken a bit of time. Don Buchla was one of the first to articulate this.
FRANK J. OTERI: With the Lightning…
BART HOPKIN: Yes. And nowadays when you talk to him, he really doesn’t talk about electronics at all. He just talks about whether he can make something which will have both depth and flexibility in terms of the interface. He’s not even saying, "I’m going to create a new interface. I’m going to try to create a system which will allow people to be extremely imaginative about interfaces and see how that feeds into different kinds of music." But I shouldn’t speak for him. I complain about Casios, but a lot of people are having some very good ideas in electronics.
FRANK J. OTERI: What are some of the qualities that conventional instruments have that are de facto models for qualities that all instruments should have? What works?
BART HOPKIN: We’re talking about two different things here. Conventional instruments have these very important things that go with them which are the fact that they have a pool of skilled players, they have existing repertoire, and an existing sense of what they can do. They’re also mechanically very effective. They’re made to work with well-known scales. All those things are extremely valuable. Thank God. If it weren’t for the fact that these things work really well, we wouldn’t have most of the music we all enjoy. There’s really a lot to be said for that. The centuries of development have given us really fine artifacts of what human beings can do. When you’re dealing with experimental instruments, very rarely do you reach the level of refinement of instruments that have been around so long; that’s worth a lot. It’s the opposite side of the same coin.
FRANK J. OTERI: What are some of the qualities of conventional instruments that you carry over into the instruments that you build? Instruments of any culture, not just the West.
BART HOPKIN: That’s a good question because it makes me think that I’ll answer it by saying I don’t! For instance, I love the clarinet more than anything in the world. I wouldn’t try to take qualities of the clarinet and put them into something new that I make because I could never do it as well as a clarinet. So when I make something new, what will make me happiest, for whatever it’s worth, is if it’s not at all like something else. So I’ve done this thing here [holds up a Branching Corrugaphone] which doesn’t do what a clarinet does; it can’t come near. But it does what it does, and hopefully the world is a little bit richer because there’s also this in addition to the clarinet, and it’s quite different.
FRANK J. OTERI: One could imagine making an instrument like this that is triggered by a reed…
BART HOPKIN: Yeah. There’d be some technical challenges, but… And I do make some clarinet-like instruments…