Digital Lutherie Crafting musical computers for new musics' performance and improvisation

TitleDigital Lutherie Crafting musical computers for new musics' performance and improvisation
Publication TypePhD Thesis
Year of Publication2005
UniversityUniversitat Pompeu Fabra
AuthorsJordà, S.
AdvisorSerra, X.
Academic DepartmentDepartment of Information and Communication Technologies
AbstractThis is a dissertation about performing music with computers, and about constructing the tools that will facilitate playing and improvising with these computers. The primary aim of this research is to construct a theoretical framework that could serve in evaluating the potential, the possibilities and the diversity of new digital musical instruments, with the hope that these ideas may inspire and assist the construction of new and powerful instruments with which perform and listen to wonderful new and previously unheard music.

Computer-based interactive music systems date back to the late 1960s, initially involving computer-controlled analog synthesizers in concerts or installations. The use of real-time algorithmic composition spread in the 1970s with the work of composers and performers such as David Behrman, Joel Chadabe, Salvatore Martirano, Gordon Mumma or Laurie Spiegel. However the most rapid period of growth probably occurred during the mid 1980s with the MIDI standardization and, subsequently, with the advent of data-flow graphical programming languages such as Max, which made the design and implementation of custom interactive systems simpler than ever before. In spite of this, nearly four decades after the works of these pioneers, the design of computer-based music instruments, and computer music performance and improvisation in general, still seem immature multidisciplinary areas in which knowledge does not behave in incremental and accumulative ways, resulting in the permanent 'reinvention of the wheel'.

New digital instrument design is a broad field, encompassing highly technological areas (e.g. electronics and sensor technology, sound synthesis and processing techniques, software engineering, etc.), and disciplines related to the study of human behavior (e.g. psychology, physiology, ergonomics and human-computer interaction components, etc.). Much of this focused research attempts to solve independent parts of the problem an approach essential to achieve any progress in this field. However, as this dissertation will show, it is also clearly insufficient. I believe an approach dedicated to the integrated understanding of the whole is the key to achieving fruitful results. Integral studies and approaches, which consider not only ergonomic or technological but also psychological, philosophical, conceptual, musicological, historical and above all, musical issues, even if non-systematic by definition, are necessary for genuine progress.

Putting forward the idea that a digital instrument is a conceptual whole, independent of its potential components and features (e.g. the ways it is controlled or its sonic or musical output tendencies), we will investigate the essence and the potential highlights of new digital instruments, the new musical models and the new music making paradigms they can convey.

This dissertation begins with the assumption that better new musical instruments based on computers can only be conceived by exploring three parallel paths


  • identifying the quintessence of new digital instruments; what they can bring of really original to the act of music performance; how can they redefine it;
  • identifying the drawbacks or obsolescences of traditional instruments; what limitations or problems could be eliminated, improved or solved;
  • without forgetting the essential generic assets of traditional instruments; those qualities that should never be forgotten nor discarded.

The identification of these points is the primary aim of this thesis. There is a complex interconnected relationship between the tasks of imagining, designing and crafting musical computers, and performing and improvising with them. This relationship can only be understood as a permanent work in progress. This thesis comes from my own experience of fifteen years as a luthier-improviser. Therefore the dissertation is both theoretical (or conceptual) and experimental in approach, although the experiments it documents span years, even decades. To better organize this, the thesis is divided in three parts.

Part I progressively enlightens the aforementioned three fundamental exploration paths. This is achieved by introducing the new possibilities offered by digital instruments, in addition to providing a thorough overview of current know-how and of the technical and conceptual frameworks in which new instrument designers and researchers are currently working on. Several taxonomies that will help us in developing a more synthetic and clear overview of the whole subject, are also presented. This first part concludes in chapter seven, presenting the first fundamental contribution of this dissertation; a theoretical framework for the evaluation of the expressive possibilities new digital musical instruments can offer to their performers.

Part II describes in depth seven musical instruments, the implementations of my journeys into Digital Lutherie, developed during the previous decade. Since all seven are conceptually very different, each of them serves to illustrate several paradigms introduced in Part I. Presented in chronological order, these music instrument also help to clarify and understand of the path that has led me to the conception of the framework previously introduced.

Part III incorporates the teachings and conclusions resulting from this evolutionary journey, and present the final milestone of this dissertation the presentation of possible solutions to better accomplish the goals presented at the end of the part I. Finally this dissertation concludes with what could be considered 'my digital lutherie decalogue' which synthesizes most of the ideas introduced in the thesis. As a postlude, I offer the reacTable* to be presented as future work. The reacTable* is a digital instrument which constitutes the first one conceived from scratch, that takes into account all the concepts introduced in this thesis, the culmination thus far of my journey into Digital Lutherie