Live electronic music discussion part 2: Chopping the affordance

An instrument should not be able do everything

The idea of putting limitations to an electronic music performance instrument, is in order to make it more inspiring. The Electribe ESX2 could probably be the most limited sequencer I have used (I am used to DAW’s and digital tools) and it has been the most inspiring one. One possible misconception about music making, is that an author first has an idea, and then he puts this idea into sound through his tools. While this may be true in some cases, the biggest amount of electronic music is made out from exploring synthesizers, and when something interesting comes out, it is recorded or saved, then arranged to make a song.

The latest years, have been full of new instruments that have a strong identity: they resign from designing widely usable tools, and aim instead towards originality. Or in Seth Godin’s words: remarkability. Teenage engineering have been really good at recognizing the fact of music making is an exploratory process. Starting with the OP-1; which won’t offer parameters such as filter cut or FM level, but rather an arbitrary abstract shape. This demonstrates that the parameter clarity is unimportant, and often detrimental for a musical creative process. It makes sense: an improvising violin player wouldn’t apply a certain technique of digitation because it produces a low pass. It applies a certain digitation technique, because he remembers how it sounds.

Musical expression instruments are often designed intentionally in a limited way. This is what I will call affordance chop: you don’t allow the instrument interaction to afford all what the provided hardware could afford, because the musician prefer something that will make his process into music easier, rather than an instrument that allows everything and is too complicated to use. I have heard people citing Stockhausen, that one must make sounds from what is possible and available (I have never ran into the cite myself). This means that music is not only made by the musicians, but also in great part by the musical instrument designers.

When it comes to live performance of the instrument, the affordance chop is crucial, because the player must generate musically sensible changes in real time, while the music is played; and after all, the ideal instrument to afford every sonic possibility, would be just a bunch of spare parts. The drawback of this, is that we trade a better experience of music at expense of musical possibilities. One example is that whereas a guitarist could change a chord of the arpeggio he is playing just by changing the finger position, a man with a sequencer will need to go note by note, and while the pattern is playing, the not-yet-ready pattern will keep looping. This means that a whole scope of important musical transformations can’t take place during a live electronic music performance. Every music performance instrument will implement it’s own, specific means for making these musical changes. They were thought and set by the instrument designers, and many other musical possibilities were left out.