Programming New Approaches to Making Music

Kristin Houser Writer & Editor, LA Music Blog
Bjork Biophilia cover

For decades, computers have been used to record and mix music in studios. However, several of today’s more forward-thinking musicians are also using cutting-edge technology to write and perform songs outside the studio.

While some bands will jam for hours or even days to arrive at the bare bones of a new song, Portland indie rockers Menomena have found a way to streamline (and democratize) their creative process using technology.

At the core of this process is the Digital Looping Recorder (Deeler), a software program created in Max/MSP by band co-founder and former member Brent Knopf. After loading the program into Pro Tools, each member of the group performs a number of variations on a short, improvised riff over a click track. The band repeats the process with each member/instrument, and then the program loops the various parts together.

The members of Menomena then listen to the resulting multi-part loops and collectively choose a favorite to use as the basis for the new song. This allows the group to remove individual egos from the process, so everyone can be involved in the decision making and work together from a batch of pre-recorded files.

This innovative writing method has obviously been working for the group. They have now released five studio albums, the last of which, 2010’s Moms, peaked at No. 32 on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart.

The creation of music isn’t the only thing technology is revolutionizing. Another artist is harnessing its power to give her live performances a grander scope.

Ever the musical innovator, Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk teamed up with MIT, The Creators Project (a partnership between Intel and Vice Media), programmers, artists and inventors for the design and creation of custom-made instruments prior to taking her acclaimed multimedia release Biophilia on the road. Each of the partly robotic, partly mechanical instruments used within the Biophilia live show is a functional work of art, capable of astounding audiences visually, as well as sonically.

One of these instruments, the Gravity Pendulum Harp, was designed by musical robot maker and MIT Media Lab alum Andy Cavatorta. As natural motion causes each of the instrument’s four 11-stringed pendulums to pass the equilibrium position, software determines which note is struck.

Cavatorta and his team of sculptors, fabricators, mechanical engineers and designers worked tirelessly to complete the 25-foot contraption, but their efforts paid off. The instrument’s combination of complexity and simple beauty stunned audiences around the globe during performances of the track “Solstice” during the Biophilia tour.

Another Intel collaborator, UK singer-songwriter and composer Imogen Heap, has also turned to tech to help her create music exactly the way she wants to create it.

Since discovering a neglected Atari computer at her boarding school at the age of 12, Imogen has been most comfortable composing music in the space where organic creativity and technology intersect. However, she has often found herself frustrated by the limitations of the equipment available to her.

All that changed after Imogen was introduced to Elly Jessop’s musical glove during a 2009 visit to MIT’s Media Lab. The glove was able to record and loop vocals with a few intuitive hand gestures, and it inspired Imogen to push the concept of glove-as-instrument even further.

Over the course of the past five years, Imogen has teamed up with coders and designers to create gloves that give her the freedom to literally fashion music with her hands. She uses gestures to record, loop, amplify and apply effects to her voice, as well as play virtual instruments, free from the confines of a base station.

As artists continue to push the boundaries of technology, the future of music is looking to be like nothing we’ve ever seen — or heard — before.

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