A new form of live musical performance, involving a new kind of instrument, raises questions about what being a musician, or playing an instrument, actually means.
It's called controllerism, and it has arisen only in the past five years because of revolutionary developments in the abilities of machines that can manipulate digital sounds. Controllerism embodies a lot of important trends in art generally and, as music controllers become easier to use and cheaper, they will start to be considered musical instruments in their own right – instruments that only play other instruments.
A controller is a console with a lot of knobs on it that you hook up to a computer. The computer has a lot of pieces of music stored on it in digital form; the music can come from anywhere. The computer has software that can play several pieces of music at the same time. The software can also detect the rhythm and tempo of all of the pieces and synchronize them.
It presents them on your screen as wave patterns. It can isolate short fragments of these pieces – “loops” – and repeat them indefinitely, without missing a beat. It can change the sound of these pieces using a variety of effects. You can play your library of sounds – particularly the percussive sounds – simply by drumming on pads with your fingers. Every new sound you create can be stored and repeated. You play the controller as one would play a complicated organ, building a tapestry of fragments.
You can see a variety of short demonstrations on YouTube – look particularly for those by a guy called Ean Golden, who is showing off the newest (and I think most impressive) of these machines, the Traktor S4, made by a German company called Native Instruments.
Controllers emerged from dance club DJ culture to facilitate the synchronizing of repetitive electronic music, and that’s largely the music that controllerists choose to play with, but there is nothing to stop you from reworking jazz or medieval chamber music. One controllerist wizard called Moldover shows off on YouTube by mixing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Charlie Brown Christmas jazz by Vince Guaraldi.
The art form owes a lot – some might say everything – to turntablism, the 1990s craze that originated in hip-hop clubs. Turntablism is a display of virtuosity in manipulating vinyl records, spinning in synch on turntables. The DJ creates a variety of sounds by scratching, and by manipulating the controls on his mixer.
It’s horribly difficult to do well, requiring both musical skill and mechanical aptitude, but the products of turntablism, the actual music, are not so much for listening pleasure as for showboating. As with all demonstrations of dizzying artistic technique – and this goes for the most boring kind of virtuosic jazz improvisations as well - the end result is technique for its own sake. I get bored listening to turntablists – I am especially weary of that wet scratch sound, which you can avoid completely on the new digital controllers.
Turntablists will protest that their art form requires much greater skill (because the synching must be done by ear), and they are right. But I think we will find that the music created by controllerists is going to sound more and more like music for dancing and listening rather than like party tricks; the software simply gives a wider variety of effects.
Controllerism is the domain of DJs and tech geeks at the moment – and learning to interpret the software is so dry and finicky that a certain kind of left-brain emotive musician is never going to be really interested (needless to say, it’s almost entirely men so far).
But the idea, the central idea – that new music can be made by rearranging the sounds made by other music – is already popularly accepted. More and more young people, even the non-techy ones, have learned to set up two Ipods in a mixer and do some rudimentary cross-fading; that kind of mash-up play is increasingly a home-party activity.
Once the technical barriers are less daunting, playing the controller will seem less nerdy (and, one hopes, less masculine). And the idea of an instrument that plays a library – the entire library of recorded sound – will be accepted as musical.