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Schott says he's amazed by what the technology can do for his music. At the same time, he confides that he's a borderline Luddite and was initially skeptical of the digital guitar. (He agreed to work with CNMAT in part because it was a paid gig; despite his work on the instrument, he says he won't be able to afford the guitar when it hits music stores this year.)
"As [the guitar] was presented to me, it was along the lines of, 'You can have a fuzz box on the three low strings and a wah-wah on the top three strings!,' and that felt to me like a very uninteresting way of utilizing the technology," says Schott, who has played guitar for 30 years. "And moreover, it was a way of playing that had nothing to do with my experience of playing the guitar."
But Schott says the instrument has opened new musical doors for him. "My interest was not in duplicating things that could already be done with things found at Guitar Center," he says. "My interest was in collaborating with people who really knew what computers could do for me ... [to] collaborate with people who are really interested in the extremes of what computers are capable of, and building a computer interface that could challenge me as a musician."
Like Schott, other guitarists are likely to greet the new Gibson MaGIC with skepticism. "Guitar consumers are notoriously conservative," says Joe Gore, a Noe Valley professional guitar player who has performed with artists like Tom Waits and the Eels, and who used to edit a guitar magazine. "Between the price point [of the digital guitar] and the seeming complexity of doing the setup, I wouldn't imagine there'd be a huge user base. On the plus side, it is an interesting idea. An adventurous, tech-savvy person could no doubt get some really striking sounds out of it."
"Something like this comes out every couple years these days, and it's always resisted by musicians," adds Count, a San Francisco-based music producer. "It could be the coolest thing ever, and totally eliminate every problem ever associated with the original electric guitar, and still, it's going to take a while to catch on. Guitarists don't want to be the guy that looks uncool."
Freed, meanwhile, shrugs at the response. "I don't care [if the guitar is popular]," he says. "But it would be nice if people could enjoy what all the possibilities are there [in music]. I don't care how they get there."
On a rainy Friday evening in mid-December, CNMAT's blue gate remains open to guests for a music performance in the building's main hall. Wessel has stationed himself at a small table next to the entrance, to greet attendees and sell $10 tickets. But as is typical of him, Wessel good-naturedly waves almost everyone in for free.
Freed, his wife, and two of their six children arrive early, taking seats scattered about the room. Donald Buchla, who made some of the first synthesizers (along with Robert Moog) and who designed a Space Age-y keypad-instrument called "Thunder" that Wessel plays, arrives minutes before the music starts. Edmund Campion, CNMAT's composer-in-residence, and his fiancee find spots in the second row. Former and current graduate students and regulars straggle in late, filling the remaining empty seats.
Several minutes after 8, the lights dim and the concert begins. The musicians – CNMAT grad student Roberto Morales Manzanares and the director of Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Chris Chafe – are surrounded by three instruments each, ranging from harps to pianos, Mexican flutes to violas. On a small table next to each performer is a laptop.
In the first piece, Chafe plays the "Stegosaurus," an instrument he made out of a length of wood and protruding metal plates, which gives it a dinosaurlike appearance. He plays it by running a viola bow over the plates, wrenching out low but sharp metallic squawks that are simultaneously manipulated using a computer program. Morales Manzanares, meanwhile, blows viciously into a flute; because he has programmed the laptop to feed the sound from his microphone into speakers around the room in a rotating fashion, the audience hears a fluttering drone similar to that from a dragonfly's wings.
Except for the programming, all the music is improvised.
For about an hour, Morales Manzanares and Chafe serenade the audience with pieces that include quiet buzzing, plucking and scratching, and sounds that sometimes erupt into whirlwinds of thickly layered chords and arpeggios. Some of it is spacey and minimalist; some recalls haunting, long-lost folk melodies. All of it is cinematic.
In this space a week before, a twenty- and thirtysomething crowd had come to a similar "sound-making session" that featured wine and cheese in addition to bizarre and fantastic electronic music. The compositions on that evening felt more urban than those played tonight, but all the music produced at CNMAT has a common element: It's not easily accessible to the Top 40 radio listener. Computer music is more about mood, colors, and images than catchy choruses and danceable rhythms. Even the artists who inhabit this world sometimes have a hard time classifying it: They call it "art music," "avant-garde music," "sound art," and "un-pop."