Postcard — August 6, 2014, 8:00 am


Inventing the instruments of the future

Roger Linn with the Linnstrument © Roger Linn Design

Roger Linn with the Linnstrument © Roger Linn Design

One of the more unlikely solos in music history was recorded live on July 16, 1986, during a performance in Tokyo by the fusion-jazz supergroup Steps Ahead. The footage is worth watching, even if fusion isn’t your thing. Saxophonist Michael Brecker stands center stage, not with a sax but with an oboe-like instrument that looks as if it had been plucked from a Cubist painting. His fingers rest on silver buttons attached to a skinny black box with no discernible wind passage, and in his mouth is a stem wrapped in a rainbow sports band. Brecker performs a series of ambient tones — from chimes to otherworldly trumpets to squalls of white noise — that to modern ears harks back to the Nintendo era. But the instrument sings, the mood building to a tension that is released only when he triggers a drum machine and starts jamming over the beat.

Brecker is wailing on a prototype of an electronic wind instrument, or EWI (pronounced EE-wee), the first virtual instrument that allowed woodwind players to transfer their technical skills to the digital world. The EWI’s inventor, Nyle Steiner, had begun tinkering with a brass-style electronic synthesizer in the 1960s, unveiling in 1975 the world’s first playable “electric valve instrument,” the Steiner Horn. The EVI garnered some buzz, but it was the EWI, officially released in 1987, that turned heads. It paired a fingering system comprised of sensors laid out like clarinet or saxophone keys with a highly sensitive mouthpiece that registered changes in wind pressure. With the EWI, a woodwind player could vastly expand his or her sonic palette without having to learn entirely new skills. Fusionists like Brecker began adopting it, and it seemed possible that many others would follow suit.

A few years before, however, a powerful new musical language for digital instruments had taken shape. MIDI allowed notes to be programmed in advance and multiple synthetic instruments to communicate simultaneously. “Before MIDI,” writes Jaron Lanier in his curmudgeonly manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, “a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition . . . after MIDI, a musical note was no longer just an idea but a rigid, mandatory structure.” Synthesized arpeggios and drum-machine sequencers could now be matched up perfectly, and the technical precision this allowed immediately birthed a musical genre, New Wave — without MIDI, there would have been no a-ha, Depeche Mode, or Human League. Over time, automated syncopation came to dominate popular music, separating the physicality of a musicians from the music they played.

Brecker’s solo seems novel today because it heralded a future of expressive electronic instruments that never arrived. But with digital culture now pervasive, instrument designers have been working to create new market for “expressive controllers,” MIDI instruments capable of both dynamic and polyphonic playability. Among the most acclaimed of these creators is Roger Linn, a Grammy winner for “outstanding technical significance” who is beloved of musicians and producers, and who has been responsible for many of the most distinctive sounds in contemporary music.

You’re unlikely to have heard of Linn’s instruments, but you’ve certainly heard them. The famous drumbeat opening of “Billie Jean” comes from his LinnDrum, as do the scurrying sixteenth notes that lead both Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” and the floor-on-the-floor thump of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby?” When New Wave bowed to the rise of glam metal and eventually to grunge (i.e., to real drummers), Linn’s company went out of business. But he was soon hired by the Japanese company Akai to develop its line of Musical Production Centers (MPCs), machines that allow users to string together samples of their own creation. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that the MPC ushered in modern hip-hop.

In 2002, Linn returned to manufacturing his own products under the banner Roger Linn Design. He is now putting the finishing touches on his latest creation, the LinnStrument, an expressive controller modeled on the chromatic grid system of a guitar. With its rectangular silicone surface and wood borders, the LinnStrument looks like a tiny ice rink. The surface is divided into touch-sensitive finger-sized squares, with multicolored LED lights underneath that indicate the location of notes within a specific scale. As with a guitar, fingering patterns and chord shapes are the same regardless of key. Players bend notes or add vibrato by moving a finger from side to side, and alter the volume by applying greater or lesser pressure. Unlike a guitar, however, the LinnStrument has no frets, allowing for seamless movement between notes in the style of a violin or cello. And unlike an acoustic device, the LinnStrument is capable of pitching any note along a full spread of two octaves, via sounds patched into it from a computer.

But although there are plenty of videos online showing demonstrations of various expressive controllers, actual live performances with them remain scarce, in large part because professional musicians have been hesitant to adopt them. “I don’t think competition from each other is our biggest enemy,” Linn told me, referring to other designers, “but rather the general resistance to new ideas in musical instruments.” To that end, he and his colleagues have been banding together to present their creations at conferences and TED Talks, positioning themselves as examples of a growing movement to bring virtuosity and individual voice back to their field.

In April, I caught Linn’s demonstration of his controller at Moogfest, a week-long electronic-music conference and festival held in Asheville, North Carolina, in honor of one of that city’s adopted sons, Robert Moog, creator of the modern synthesizer. The town hosts Moog, Inc.’s headquarters, a tiny two-floor factory where twenty-five technicians labor over handmade synthetic instruments. While the techies of the West Coast have the entire Silicon Valley, the synthesists have a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Linn’s talk took place up the street from Moog, at Asheville’s Masonic Temple. Many instrument sellers had set up shop, and people were trading modular panels and wheeling and dealing vintage synths. When Linn went onstage, shushes quickly brought the room to a standstill. Now in his fifties, Linn talks and dresses like an academic, but within minutes of greeting the audience, he was strapping a glowing LinnStrument over his shoulder, looking as if he had suddenly donned an LED-lit sandwich board. The instrument connected via USB to a MacBook running Logic Pro X, Apple’s frontline music-studio program.

Linn began with a basic synth from the sound library. “All this is is a pulse waveform with a low-pass filter,” he said. “There are no envelope generators and no LFOs.” He placed a middle finger on the board, and a warm tone filled the temple. He added two fingers and massaged the notes into a chord. When he lifted his hand, the sound dwindled away, and the room cheered.   

Then he adjusted a setting on Logic and placed his hands back on the LinnStrument. He recited a few measures of baroque music with a virtual cello, vibrating each finger-square as if it were a taut string, forming a chord with his right hand, and then laying down another with his left. He changed the setting to add some effects, and the cello turned into a reverb-heavy electric guitar. I watched his hands pluck and wiggle bluesy notes as they danced across the board. Clicking a button, he made the LED lights divide into green and blue. He triggered a drum beat from the computer and placed the fingers of his left hand on a chord of green lights. The propulsive sound of syncopated eighth notes emerged, which he accompanied by placing a single finger in the blue region. The electric guitar he had demonstrated earlier was now leading a trio. “I should also mention,” he said, “that if you don’t like blue and green, you can always change the colors. My niece prefers magenta.”

Linn concluded his demonstration, but rather than exit the stage he requested that the lights be dimmed. “I wanted to show people other types of multi-touch expressive controllers,” he said, cuing up YouTube. “As you’ll see, there are some pretty amazing ones out there.” Now began a parade of futuristic instruments. The Seaboard, with a continuous surface of pillowy silicone molded over touch sensitive controls:

The Continuum, an instrument that resembles a ceremonial red carpet, with major and minor keys of equal length running across eight octaves:

Linn then asked that the lights be switched on, and he invited onstage a Belgian software engineer and musician named Geert Bevin, who would demonstrate something called the Eigenharp. This turned out to be a four-and-a-half-foot-long controller finished in ebony wood. Dubbed the “sci-fi bassoon” by the BBC, the instrument features five rows of 120 LED-lit keys — besting a modern grand piano’s eighty-eight — coupled with a drum sequencer and a curvaceous blow pipe.

Bevin greeted the audience, strapped on the instrument, and performed a New Age–tinged tune. He tapped ambient percussive sounds on the keys while blowing out ocarina notes from the pipe, briefly transforming himself into a contemporary take on the busking one-man band:

I was impressed by the performance, but it had been the clip of the arresting solo played on the Continuum by its co-developer Edmund Eagan that had made me a believer. When I closed my eyes for a second, the music he played sounded exactly like a violin. His hands moved across the board without hesitation, knowing exactly where to find and apply vibrato to each note, bending pitches here and there. When it was over, the crowd stayed hushed. “Eagan’s my favorite violin player,” said Linn, “and he doesn’t even play violin.”

Each new electronic instrument is a statement about the inventor’s musical and aesthetic philosophy — a theory of how notes should be played, or how an instrument body and layout might look when liberated from traditional physical constraints. One instrument, the Opal Gecko, looks like a beehive and uses an isomorphic key layout as its basis (think of transferring the octaves of a piano onto a grid system).

Another, the Madrona Soundplane, is made almost entirely of finely polished wood, its electronics all concealed gracefully within.

By far the most punk-rock of the bunch is the Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeee, a keyboard founded on the principle of  relative pitch (no key is discordant to another), thereby thumbing its nose at the absolute pitch to which most instruments are tuned. An early model used recycled computer keys, built into a paint-splattered mold.

“In fifty years’ time,” Linn told me, “I think people will still be playing piano, guitars, and violins, but I also think they will be playing electronic instruments — actually performing virtuosic work upon them. What these will look or sound like, I don’t know.”

What music can we expect to hear from these new digital instruments? If a generation of people who grew up listening to plugged-in instruments and guitar solos have moved onto the computer, what happens when a generation of musicians who have learned to sample and manipulate automated audio clips are given the tools for expressive digital instrumentation? A new musical genre, perhaps, or new variations on the familiar. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, but it may take only one virtualoso to hatch the answer.

Single Page
is an associate editor at New Directions and a drummer for the band Megafortress. He lives in Brooklyn.

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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