Essential Tools for the 21st Century Musician: Technology

In my previous post about tools for the 21st Century Musician, I discussed improvisation as probably the most useful tool musicians can be using. In a way, technology is even more indispensable. Unless our voice is our primary or only instrument (and even then there are exceptions), then nearly everything we make music on is the result of some level of technology.¬† Whether we’re talking about the technology of carved bone flutes and dried skins over a wooden frame, or the highly advanced craft that luthiers use to carve/mold stringed instruments, or the ability to build circuitry or program for electronic instruments or computers, there is always some level of technology involved in the making of musical instruments.

That baseline level of tech isn’t what I’m referring to, however–nor am I referring to supporting tech like music stands, microphones, or even acoustic stage design. I saw a piece about a Robotic Spider Dress the other day which I posted to the Camera Lucida Facebook Page and just started reminiscing on all the awesomely bizarre music and artistic tech I’ve encountered or used over the past couple of decades. The Robotic Spider Dress just didn’t seem so new and fresh anymore. BUt it’s still kinda cool:

The first thing that popped to mind was Stelarc’s Exoskeleton Performance. While the Exoskeleton didn’t respond to external stimuli, it was designed to respond to muscle movements of The Artist (Stelarc invariably refers to himself as “The Artist”–or at least he had been doing that up till the day I met him) via an interface using medical monitoring equipment attached to various muscles on the body of the performer.

By the time I’d met Stelarc at a Performance Art Symposium on Art, Technology, and the Body in 2000, I was already familiar with his Robotic third hand and his Ping Body performances (as well as the Exoskeleton performance) but what struck me at the time were his comments on wanting everything amplified as the sound of the robotics was integral to the total performance.

And so much of that incidental sound appealed to me at the time as I was heavily into the noise music scene which tended to be a genre dominated by tech. While my performances as a noise artist followed the “old school mountain of effects” direction (ala pre-laptop days Merzbow), by the time I was most active a number of noise musicians were already transitioning (or starting out) with laptops.

Lately I’ve been much more interested in odd sound sources that can be manipulated, such as my more recent fishtank performance.

Bio-medical technology was integral for much of the work I was familiar with from the 90s. Sensorband and Pamela Z were artists working with ways to use that technology in live performances. The idea was to make the interface a little more intuitive and user-friendly.

Creating new instruments or new ways to interact with the environment through technology to create sound was also a focus. Sesorband’s SoundNet was a fully interactive sound sculpture which they tour around with for a time.

And Tod Machover of MIT created his Hyperinstruments (including a Hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma) which were extensions of the concept of synthesizers but in non-standard forms.

While much of this tech requires relatively expensive software and hardware (as well as the knowledge on how to use it), it represented one strand of new music technology which existed during the 90s.

Software and hardware has gotten infinitely more affordable and use-friendly today. and from the number of performances I’ve been seeing with things like projection mapping, even the movement of the performers can become a part of the total interactive environment without needing to be specifically focused on specific choreography.

And some folks, like Lesley Flanigan, build their own instruments which is tailored to their own idiosyncratic aesthetic.

As I’ve been tracking and documenting here at this blog, there are literally hundreds of new orchestras which are extensions of the European Symphony, some with slight alterations, such as the Video Game and Film to Projection Orchestras. Others using non standard instrumentation, such as the Mobile Phone and Laptop Orchestras, or Telematic Ensembles. With hundreds of new ensembles and orchestras being formed, this requires many musicians comfortable with using and engaging with new technologies to fill. That’s not to mention the smaller ensembles (Laptop Quartets are a pretty regular thing nowadays) and solo artists such as Lesley Flanigan and Pamela Z mentioned above.

This isn’t to say that a high degree of tech knowledge is required, but at least a working familiarity with it–especially older and thus more standardized tech–is essential for the working musician.¬† You know, the things like mic’ing and amplification; electro-acoustic performances; and even old school works with electronic tracks (either pre-recorded or realized in real-time via software like Max/MSP or Isadora).

Working familiarity is the key–I’ve known far too many musicians who refuse to work with technology, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–that just means more openings for those of us who have no problem with doing that! The musical landscape is constantly changing, and the dominant types of music aren’t so dominant anymore (and really haven’t been for some time). In this Post-Pop age, getting gigs will often mean doing new things and those with sets of tools like improvisation and familiarity with technology in live performance have a much wider market open to them than those without those tools.


See my previous post in this series: Essential Tools for the 21st Century Musician: Improvisation



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