Imagine hearing a symphony but not recognising any of the instruments. This might not be such a big deal for the average person. But what if you were a music expert? This is Gordon Delap’s vision of the future, a future that the Maynooth University academic from the Department of Music has played a pivotal role in bringing to the threshold of reality, by composing a piece of music using never-heard-before sounds generated by a completely new musical instrument.
‘I think it’s important that practitioners engage with new ways of generating sound,’ he says, adding ‘I’m less interested in the use of instruments. Using computers and electronic sounds is of more interest as there is a wider sphere of things to explore. The thing about virtual sounds is that they don’t have any kind of existence in the real world yet are very convincing.’
Nowadays, music composition has become cross-disciplinary and incredibly sophisticated according to Delap. Thanks to science, people can write, arrange and play entire musical scores without so much as touching a piano, violin or flute. Composers are using computers, not only to create virtual instruments, but also to create new sounds. Creating music in today’s tech savvy society is very different to how things were done in the past with musicians having access to composition software and a larger array of tools such as digital synthesizers to get just the sound they want.
‘Musical instruments are designed for a very specific purpose, to play specific music. It’s hard to expand beyond that. With electronics however, you can expand very far,’ he says. Developed using numerical sound synthesis, a method by which sound can be created using a set of equations and algorithms to stimulate a physical source of sound, Delap’s piece of work was presented as part of the s.low project’s series of events in Berlin. The work, titled Orbit, was derived entirely from sounds generated by Dr Stefan Bilbao’s plate model, developed at the University of Edinburgh. ‘Orbit is the first composition generated using the plate model. It is made up of entirely synthetic sounds.’
The sounds were generated using a short Matlab script (a numerical computing environment and fourth-generation programming language), of approximately 200–300 lines, simulating a network of interconnected bar and plate elements using finite difference schemes. Dr Delap was then faced with the difficult task of not only writing a score, consisting of a series of strikes sent to prescribed locations on the instrument, but also the somewhat larger job of designing the instrument itself, which may consist of upward of 100 elements. He was able to specify locations at which output is read to a soundfile – any number of these may be chosen.
‘It’s not about writing melodies it’s about blowing sounds up and exploring what’s underneath,’ he says, adding ‘It is exciting listening to sounds being created, ones that have never been heard before, and then using the ones I like for a composition. The closer you get to making the plate severely unstable the more interesting the sound.’
Delap believes the vast array of sounds that can be created using numerical sound synthesis and physical modeling is a benefit. ‘You start with a basic object and then you make it more sophisticated. You can design a very complicated musical instrument virtually. For example, using the plate model, you could have one virtual plate being struck, a second plate that resonates and a wire connecting the plates that buzzes.’ On the use of virtual sounds in music composition, he says ‘the exploratory side makes this exciting. These sounds are new.’
On whether this could be the future of music, he says ‘I suppose that’s what’s hoped for by the engineers developing these kind of things. It’s going to get easier to generate virtual instruments… more intuitive and quicker… and then more people are going to start using them. The limitation so far has been the lack of a user friendly interface. Once an interface is developed, it will become easier for everyone to generate music using computers.’
The sounds used in Delap’s Orbit are completely synthetically generated; there is no sampled material, or any other audio effects applied. The basic sound-producing mechanism is a simulation of a physical system: a user-defined network of interconnected metal bars and plates; sound is produced by directly simulating the dynamics of the system, over a grid, and at an audio sample rate. So sound takes a little while to produce. The user supplies, in addition to the instrument specification, a score of strikes (and the locations at which they occur) as well as ‘readout’ locations – as many as desired. Most of the sounds employed in Orbit were synthesized directly in a multichannel format.
Depending on the way in which the network is constructed, sound can range from that of standard percussion instruments, such as xylophones and marimbas, to cymbals and drums, but one can go much farther to explore new instrument designs without a counterpart in the physical world!
The interesting thing is that the role of the composer is greatly expanded in context: not only does the composer write the music (or score) but they are also charged with building the instrument itself, as well as playing it. Needless to say, these are instruments which one must learn to play – just like acoustic instruments.