Guitar Dreams

Adrian Freed's decades-long desire to marry music and technology is finally going public. Will anyone listen?

Technology is the reason these composers and artists are able to realize the strange, complicated, and beautiful things they hear in their heads. "All the aspects of music – rhythm, harmony, pitch – all these things get totally expanded when you work in the area of technology," says CNMAT composer-in-residence Campion, who has written a piece that will be performed by the Berkeley Symphony in June. "The reason I'm interested in technology is certainly not tech for tech's sake. I engage in new technologies in order to question how they can inform and expand the kind of music that is possible to make."

He says the new digital guitar is one piece in the ever-growing tech-music puzzle. "With this guitar, you have possibilities of expanding the sensitivity of certain effects," continues Campion, who dislikes the term "computer music." "The guitar is just one example of an expanded instrument."

As much as he believes in the marriage of technology and music, and as much as he sees the digital guitar as the public's candy-flavored introduction to this idea, Campion knows that not everyone is ready for this future.

For decades, Adrian Freed has dreamed of 
using technology to increase the sonic 
possibilities of the electric guitar. The 
MaGIC (above left) is the result.
Paolo Vescia
For decades, Adrian Freed has dreamed of using technology to increase the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar. The MaGIC (above left) is the result.
Adrian Freed (left) and David Wessel both 
worked at Paris' IRCAM, the most influential 
computer music center in the world.
Paolo Vescia
Adrian Freed (left) and David Wessel both worked at Paris' IRCAM, the most influential computer music center in the world.

"I do encounter – and maybe rightly so – people writing for symphonies or chamber music in a more traditional vein who don't see any need for [this type of music]," Campion says. "What they think is, 'Well, the music that you're doing with technology is not as good as the music I'm writing, or that I love, because there's not as much structure.' I think in a lot of ways, they miss the point."

Evening has arrived at CNMAT, and everyone but Adrian Freed has left the building. Though his wife calls him to tell him that dinner is on the table, Freed continues to putter around the rear basement studio at CNMAT, eager to show off one of the prized digital guitar effects he has created.

CNMAT doesn't have a final version of the MaGIC, so Freed plugs a regular Les Paul into a "Rimus box" (named after the pistachio-munching tech genius who built the thing single-handedly), which is an external version of the chips inside the MaGIC that convert analog signals to digital. (The Rimus box, which CNMAT hopes will someday become its own consumer product, also allows harpists, violinists, and other acoustic musicians to plug more directly and easily into computers than they now can.)

Freed calls up a program on a nearby computer and searches for a patch he has written called the "yeah yeah pedal."

"This is one of my dreams from way back when," he explains, taking the guitar under his arm. "So, you know the wah-wah effect? It's the 'ooh' sound and the 'aah' sound. The question I asked myself was, 'Why only wah-wah?'"

On the computer are two pull-down tabs, each with a list of all five vowels. He selects the letter "A" in one tab and "I" in the other. Freed runs his fingers over the strings, and they ring vibrantly. He steps on a pedal connected to his computer to activate the effect, and suddenly, the distorted chord sounds like the guitar is singing "aaay-aye."

Freed, smiling, switches the vowels to "A" and "O," and strums the guitar again, producing a loud "aaay-owww." He explains that this vowel effect is but one example of something that can be done digitally, but not on analog.

"You want to shift from the realm of 'Damn I wish I could do this' to 'Damn, what could I be doing?'" he says. "That's what this environment and the tools I built are all about. You make the instrument – I don't want to impose my will on you. I want to make as big a palette as possible.

"Every personality reacts to this kind of thing differently," Freed acknowledges. "Some people don't like the fact that they have to throw their wah-wah pedal away; they don't like the fact that they have to buy a new [Ethernet] cable that's blue. Some people spend so long on their technique, they don't want to expand their technique; they don't want to think about something else, they just want to get more expressive, faster. But musicmaking for the people that I'm around all the time is a multidimensional, multilevel, expressive thing."

To demonstrate, Freed abandons the Les Paul and picks up a charango – a ukulele-size instrument from South America with 12 strings – lying on a cluttered table near the door. He shows off some palm-damping techniques that a CNMAT grad student taught him, playing a series of bluesy chord changes and tamping the strings with the fleshy part of his hand.

Warmed up and in full performance mode, Freed puts down the charango and opens up an acoustic guitar case on the floor. "I want to show you one more thing," he says.

He begins playing three notes in a cycle, building chords from that arpeggio and fiddling with the rhythm until he's in the midst of a hypnotic country-blues improvisation. With gusto, he adds in the beginnings of a melody using grace notes, syncopation, new chords, and octave changes. His fingers fly faster along the frets, and as his playing becomes more impassioned, the notes get sloppier as he loses himself in the music.

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