— Commentary —

What is an Instrument?

Sile O'Modhráin
Palpable Machines Group
Media Lab Europe, Dublin

From our vantage point at the dawn of the twenty-first century, this debate seems as necessary and relevant for performers today as Aristotle's discussion of the nature of soul was for philosophers 2,300 years ago. Moreover, the analogy holds true at a deeper level: does the disembodiment of the instrument, the separation of sound production from the physical mechanism that was its genesis, fundamentally redefine the nature of instrument? Certainly it has redefined the relationship between composer, performer and instrument designer. Sometimes these roles are combined in the same person, as in the work of Curtis Bahn. Sometimes the merging of roles gives rise to new kinds of collaboration between creator and interpreter, designer and performer, and so on, as in the work of Tod Machover and others.

It is, however, a fact that these new paradigms for musical instrument design leave behind not just the connection between the performance gesture and the physics of the sound-producing mechanism of the instrument, but the notions of mastery that come from a lifetime of practice, of building up a mental model of the connection between a player's actions and the response, both auditory and tactile, of their instrument. The shift toward instruments which exist as manifestations of particular compositions, which are mastered by a very small number of performers in service of these compositions, is an incredibly liberating concept because the instruments are themselves part of the musical expression.

The question we must answer, though, is whether we are prepared to accept the long-term implications of the merging of the roles of composer, performer and instrument maker. Will the body of work which depends on the electronic instruments of today be accessible to performers of the future? What will interpreters of the future build their performance upon? What, in short, will be their instrument?

About the Author

Sile O'Modhráin leads the Palpable Machines group at Media Lab Europe. Her research focuses on human-computer interaction, especially interfaces incorporating haptic and auditory feedback. She earned her masters degree in Music Technology from the University of York and her Ph.D. from Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) where she investigated the role of touch feedback in musical instrument playing, particularly with respect to computer-based musical instruments.

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