The further I wandered into the seemingly infinite forest of electronic music, the more questions arose… certain foundations — protocols — had been laid down for decades, and as with any paradigm that is well-planned yet can’t possibly foresee the spectrum of desired future flexibility, we come across some frustrating limitations.
One of my unfavorites is as follows: play a chord — let’s even simplify the example to two notes — and pitch-bend them in opposite directions, with different degrees of movement (one finger goes up a couple semitones, the other goes down a fifth). It’s such a simple request, yes? Yet, a very small percentage of setups (referring to both the hardware controller and the software instrument) empower you to intuitively do this without laborious setup. Live, without the need for post-edits.
Contrast that with the ease of bending two strings on a cheap acoustic guitar in different directions, and how glorious that can sound!
This continues to be such a bizarre vexation to me: the capacity for expression has exponentially expanded in terms of polyphony (number of notes/voices we can hear at once). Yet, what about articulating each one of those voices independently? Members of a choir do not sing exactly alike, and if we are to have true “orchestras at our fingertips”, then each one of our fingers (save some further granular differentiation) must possess a unique liberty. There we come to a near-standstill.
At the risk of this sounding like the beginnings of a manifesto… a conventional pitch-bend and mod wheel or joystick are tyrants, dictating the behavior of what’s all played. I’m convinced the longer-term solution lies within gliding fingers on the playing surface itself sans 12-tone stair-steppyness in the grossly restricted “piano keyboard” form (so familiar, yet so problematic), and it also needs to become popular enough (through entertaining education) to be a commonplace access — so the Continuum, Seaboard, TouchKeys, etc. will lead the way towards removing the veil of esoterica.
A freedom from how we’ve thought about keyboard synthesis for so long, only because this is what’s been placed in front of us, so it’s the dominant shortcut to making music. And yet, what else is out there that would encourage us to unify conventional instrument families in the body of a post-space-age beauty? Where we could truly build upon earlier lessons gleaned from the great luthiers and other masters, honoring their commitment to building stairs to musical heaven?
My own preferences lead me towards a continuous playing surface, perhaps dubbed “fretless”, where discrete notes can be hammered out and pitch can be quantized (this already exists in some of the aforementioned), a sort of Auto-Tune for your fingers, if you will. Yet it would become far easier to explore the spaces between the keys, and by that I don’t mean silence. There’s so much to be done with what I call “pitch-swooping”, and on the popular EDM dancefloors, electro house stabs and trap bass drops are but two examples enjoyed by millions, even if they don’t know the mechanics behind it — remember, it doesn’t take a mechanic to drive a car.
In related immersions, the Swarmatron (as a fairly specialist device) embodies some of this “flocking” behavior of pitches converging then diverging. I like the metaphor draw to birds and bees, and we can take much inspiration from nature’s migrations.
If we can’t improve upon nature, though, we might as well recreate it in our own image.