0, 1, infinity: a digital art music tour

It is only recently digital music production capabilities start to provide means for expressing nuances of Indian music. This is true with software and tools, virtual instruments and the means of human-computer interaction.

The most commonly used music creation tools, viz., sequencers/daws provide an interface and workflow that suites creation of orchestral compositions using western musical idioms quite efficiently. Many tools provide advanced capabilities for transforming and creating novel forms that adhere to the principles of western music. Indian music, which is pretty archaic in its representation and even codification*

Virtual instruments (I mostly use VSTs these days) is another area of digital music that has expansive support for traditional, conventional and novel instruments and sounds and many of them are eminently playable. However, the same design and implementation decisions that is heavily biased towards western music production makes them rather clumsy to use in an Indian music context. It is true there are Indian instruments available as VSTs (typically packaged under “ethnic”, “world” or “exotic” category!), but their playability, especially live playability is quite suspect. Some instrument developers try to compensate for the limitations of the daw and keyboards by providing prebuilt transitions and phrases. However, I find them of very limited use since my compositions need more than just occasional riff of an “exotic” instrument.**. Recently, however, more VSTs that consider such dynamic and nuanced articulation and provide a way to execute them even in live setup more or less naturally. Many of the new modelled instruments (as against the sampled ones) seem to have a better handle in this at this time.

Influence and adaptation of instruments from other musical cultures including the European to Indian music has been going on for some time. However, major impact in musical expression itself started happening the wide spread adoption of orchestral instruments as the background for popular music. Harmonium is another one of those instruments that changed the way Indian music is expressed. MIDI keyboards and other controllers for interacting with digital music tools were a direct copy of piano keyboards with some additional capabilities. However, except for some fringe, experimental ones, none of them provided a way to provide nuanced tonal control that Indian music demands. This was the case until a few years ago when a new class of MIDI instruments stated to appear in the market. These are collectively referred to as MPC (Multi-dimensional polyphonic controllers). A new extension for the age old MIDI standard to accommodate larger amount of per note data to support these controllers were also developed alongside. The result is several new MIDI devices that even look drastically different from standard piano keyboards that came to the market in last two/three years.

One such instrument is Linnstrument, which has a matrix layout of keys instead of the linear piano one. This is similar to the fret layout of many string instruments. It also provides four different parameters to be controlled separately for each note, viz, velocity, pressure, timbre and pitch. This is much closer to what a physical instrument like sitar or violin provides. Breath and bite controller from TEControls is another device, which while not provide note data, is capable of capturing x-y movements and bite pressure along with breath.

0, 1, infinity is in some sense, celebration of these tools and methodologies available to produce digital music that includes the extensive melodic nuances of Indian Music. It is also my journey from being an analog bamboo flautist to a purely digital musician.

The video above is from premier performance of the tour at David Hall, Fort Kochi. The tour will continue till March exploring more and more aspects of these new possibilities. This is movement 3 from the tone poem named “Night in the Meadow”.

*While Indian classical music, especially Karnatic has very strong body of formalizing, this is more about the static structure of music rather than a dynamic performance. Thus the gamakas (meend), exact durations, microtonal assignments etc. are left out of the representation system. So, a written version of Indian classical music only gives an outline.

**The situation is better for percussive instruments though. There are excellent Indian percussion libraries available. My complaint is mostly about melodic instruments, as this is where Indian music drastically differs from other musical expressions.

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