Photo courtesy of DavidByrne.com
This article originally appeared in the November issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe for free in the App Store.
There’s an old Saturday Night Live performance where Beck and his band make music with forks and dinner glasses, plates and knives, turning instruments for consuming food into instruments of a different kind. You can find the song on YouTube. It actually sounds pretty nice.
Or there’s David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman and solo artist who performed a similar feat, but on a much larger scale. In 2005, he turned an entire building in Stockholm into a musical instrument, rigging the pipes and walls and metal beams to a simple church organ. Each key produced a vibration, rumble, whistle, or clang that, in isolation, might have sounded anomalous, but combined, are unmistakably – albeit dissonantly – musical.
Or, if you want another example still, take Canadian musician Jim Guthrie, known more recently as maker of synthesized bleeps and bloops for the video game Sword and Sworcery EP than as a singer-songwriter and indie rock stalwart. The game’s soundtrack was made not with your typical keyboard synth, but with a first-generation PlayStation game released in 1999.
What all of these things have in common is that they take what we know about instruments – how we expect them to function, to be played, and to sound – and turn it on its head. You might not think of spoons, heating ducts, or video game controllers as instruments, but that doesn’t make the music these improvised instruments create any less valid than the whine of an electric guitar.
And yet, we bend over backwards to uphold a very specific ideal of what an instrument is and how it should look and sound – right through to the digital world. On an iPad, for example, you’ll often find synthesizer or mixing applications with knobs, buttons, and keys that attempt to emulate the real things. This digital recreation of analog objects in a virtual space is called skeumorphism, and functionally it often makes little sense. Touchscreens lack the depth and tactile response required to interact with objects of the physical world.
Thankfully, this development practice is beginning to change. It was actually Guthrie who, on Twitter, tipped me off to the existence of Beatsurfing. It’s a music creation app for the iPad. But unlike so many other of its kind, it shies from emulating traditional synthesized keys or MIDI controls.
Rather, Beatsurfing is described as an “organic MIDI controller builder.” You don’t play the keys of a virtual piano by touching the screen, or interact with digital knobs and dials. Instead, you draw and place different shapes and objects (loops, samples, tones, or beats) on screen, arranging them in a way that makes the most sense to you – in a way that caters best to the type of music you want to play.
And because this is an iPad, it encourages you to play your creations as you might expect from an iPad-based musical device – by swiping, tapping, and dragging your fingers across the screen.
Sure, it’s not an instrument in the traditional sense. And as with Beck, Byrne, and Guthrie, that doesn’t make the music Beatsurfing can create any less valid. In fact, it’s one of the few iPad instrument apps that makes sense, precisely because it doesn’t look like an instrument.
Even before the advent of touchscreens and tablets, it looks like David Byrne had it right. “I’m not suggesting people abandon musical instruments and start playing their cars and apartments,” he suggested in an interview on his website for Playing The Building. “But I do think the reign of music as a commodity made only by professionals might be winding down.”
So grab your forks, your heating ducts, your game controllers and knives, and make something cool. Instrument or not, it’s as much music as you want it to be.