By: Tyler K. Cassidy-Heacock (Rochester, NY) //

Nicola Baroni playing his own compositions, as well as music by Cage and Stockhausen, on the hypercello.

A cellist sits on stage. As he plays, the instrument produces music that no typical cello could. That’s because he’s playing a hypercello, a technologically augmented instrument that interprets the movements of the performer so that his bowing and plucking produce both acoustic and electronic sounds. The hypercello is just one of a variety of “expanded musical instruments” that make it possible for skilled players to create even more unique and striking music. Though they are certainly experimental compared with standard musical instruments, the blending of sounds that hyperinstruments accomplish is something we also hear in other contemporary genres, like acoustic chamber music and heavy metal. Hyperinstruments challenge and affect us as listeners, and the sounds they produce are becoming part of our musical norm, perhaps even turning us into hyperlisteners.

The key figure in developing hyperinstruments is composer Tod Machover, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future project and Juilliard-trained composer and inventor. Machover has been developing new technologies for music composition and performance as well as writing compositions that use those technologies for over 30 years. In a 2012 Wired magazine article, Machover recalled that when composing his 1987 opera Valis, he needed a way to produce a full palette of sounds with a tiny “orchestra” of two musicians. Remembering the experience, Machover related, “[W]e’ve got two performers: how do we tell what they’re playing, where they are in the music, what they’re improvising, what the expression is, what the gesture is, and how do we use all that to add these layers?” His search for ways to facilitate expressive, gestural, rich music using just two performers led Machover to develop technology that manifested in the first hyperinstrument.

Machover then realized that digitally enhanced instruments and environments held the potential to multiply the musical sounds any performer could create. Performers as virtuosic as Yo-Yo Ma and Prince could use hyperinstruments to augment their playing, but the technology was equally available to amateur and untrained musicians. Because some of Machover’s technology produces sound by interpreting a player’s movements, some hyperinstruments can be played by making natural physical gestures. In fact, Machover’s students used software originally implemented in hyperinstruments to develop the games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which similarly measure performers’ motions to produce virtual sounds—whether or not they know how to play guitar, bass, and drums.

While they make composition and performance more accessible and allow instruments to produce new, complex sounds, hyperinstruments also challenge audience members with music that exceeds and subverts their expectations. But the surprises and challenges of listening to hyperinstruments are, in fact, not entirely unique; hyperlistening is just as appropriate when listening to music like the famously complicated and inscrutable compositions of German composer Helmut Lachenmann. Lachenmann, who has been active since the 1960s, writes music for acoustic instruments played with highly unusual techniques rather than using real-time electronics or technological enhancement to change the instruments’ sounds. Although he chooses to write music for traditional instruments rather than develop new technologies like Machover, Lachenmann has expressed strikingly similar goals in some of his writing: in a conversation with Gene Coleman for Slought.org, Lachenmann described a compositional technique he calls “musique concrète instrumentale,” in which “qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, … you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.” Rather than hearing the beautiful tone of a technically virtuosic violinist playing a melody, Lachenmann’s audience is confronted with unusual noises that draw attention to the physical actions of the performer, like playing a violin with the wooden sections of the bow. Many react to his music with shock and even contempt, but Lachenmann argues that “the problem is to find a new way of listening.” In other words, his audience must accept instruments that don’t sound like themselves. Instead, the audience hears instruments blending together to form one giant, unrecognizable “super instrument.”

It’s almost impossible to hear the individual timbres of a super instrument—formed by a group of performers playing their instruments “wrong”—even in a live performance. In the same way, Machover’s hyperinstruments produce music that gives us a chance to hear recognizable sounds alongside the synthesized, digital, and unfamiliar.

So how do we understand and enjoy music when no matter how hard we try or how much we know, we can never pick out which instrument is which? In fact, we are already accustomed to hyperlistening. Consider an electric guitar played with plenty of distortion: it doesn’t sound much like an electric guitar. Like Lachenmann’s “super instrument” or Machover’s hyperinstruments, guitar distortion requires several pieces of equipment doing things they don’t ordinarily do: a pedal that affects timbre, an oversaturated amp, speakers that break up because they’re overpowered—or even all three at once.

Jimi Hendrix performs “Purple Haze,” a song that relies heavily on guitar distortion and feedback.

Similarly, records that are chopped and screwed or sped up and layered using turntables no longer resemble the melodies and harmonies of the original tracks. Wild and futuristic as they might seem, hyperinstruments and their acoustic classical counterparts might fit into the musical world we already inhabit: one full of intense, expressive sounds that invite us to hear the performer’s gestures and intentions. 

For Discussion

  1. Describe the differences between listening to an acoustic guitar and a heavily distorted electric guitar (or an acoustic bass and distorted bass). What different emotions, effects, or ideas do you associate with them?
  2. What are some challenges or frustrations that arise when you listen to music and can’t identify the instrument playing? How might this change the way you react to the music?

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