Simplicity, Complexity and Subtlety in Digital Musical Instrument Design

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Jeudi 24 mars 2016, 14h, Auditorium du Collège Doctoral Européenn (46 bd de la Victoire - 67000 Strasbourg)

Organisation : Nathalie Hérold

Andrew in studio.jpeg
Andrew McPherson
Centre for Digital Music - Université Queen Mary de Londres
Simplicity, Complexity and Subtlety in Digital Musical Instrument Design

Vidéo de la conférence
(Réalisation : Abril Padilla)

La conférence

If music can be considered a complex system, what are the implications for the design of musical instruments? One major motivation for digital musical instrument design is to provide new creative and expressive possibilities for the performer. An open question is whether building more complex instruments will help support new levels of artistic expression.

In the right hands, even the simplest of found objects can become tools for virtuosic performance, while many sophisticated digital instruments have yet to establish an enduring musical presence. Moreover, some of the most transformational uses of musical instruments, from jazz saxophone technique to electric guitar distortion to DJ turntable practice, have come from creative misuse of technology. Collectively, these phenomena suggest that the job of the digital instrument designer goes beyond simply providing the largest possible space of possibilities to the performer.

This talk will examine several aspects of digital musical instrument design, including dimensionality of control, the creative importance of constraints and the phenomenon of appropriation, where a performer develops a personal working relationship with an instrument. The talk will consider instruments on both ends of the complexity spectrum, from an over-constrained digital instrument to a pair of augmented keyboards: the magnetic resonator piano, an electromagnetically-augmented acoustic piano, and the TouchKeys, an augmentation of the digital keyboard into a multi-touch control surface.

I suggest that the common thread running through each case is subtlety, an elusive and possibly subjective quality wherein the performer is able to communicate finely shaded differences in their creative intent. A simple instrument with sufficiently subtle control might nonetheless be able to produce complex music. The talk will conclude with a discussion of how subtlety might be further investigated and supported in future instrument designs.


Andrew McPherson is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary University of London. A composer and electrical engineer by training, he studied at MIT (M.Eng. 2005) and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D. 2009) and spent a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Drexel University. His research focuses on augmented instruments, embedded hardware systems and the study of performer-instrument interaction. He is the creator of the magnetic resonator piano, an augmented acoustic piano which has used by more than 20 composers worldwide, and the TouchKeys multi-touch keyboard which has shipped to musicians worldwide through a 2013 Kickstarter campaign and 2015 production run. In 2016, his lab launched Bela, an ultra-low-latency embedded platform for creating musical instruments and interactive audio systems.

Table ronde

Avec Pavlos Antoniadis (GREAM), Frédéric Bevilacqua (IRCAM), Nathalie Hérold (GREAM), Andrew McPherson (C4DM), Pierre Michel (GREAM), et discussion avec l'ensemble des participants. Café à l'issue de la discussion.