Every musical instrument has its mother tongue, its own native language that it speaks fluently and without accent. Determining factors include pitch range, timbre, articulation, agility, dynamics, and of course instrument-specific idiosyncratic abilities (drum rolls, shrieking electric guitar feedback, wild saxophone runs).
Consider, for example, the cello. Imagine it speaking (singing) a melodic line in its own unique cello-istic mother tongue. Pitch range is about that of a baritone: low to mid-low, with occasional forays into tenor territory. Timbre: sensual, voice-like, mellow to strident. Articulation: tending towards legato. Agility: more stately than that of a violin. Dynamics: barely perceptible whisper to healthy shriek. Idiosyncrasies: can play chords, harmonics, sul ponticello (on the bridge), pizzicato, etc.
Now apply the same analysis to violin, xylophone, electric guitar, timpani, congas, tablas, saxophone, double bass, piccolo, oboe, french horn, tuba, marimba, glockenspiel, timpani drums, zither, sitar, musical saw, human voice, theremin. Clearly, each instrument has its own unique personality: capabilities, limitations, quirks, charms, overall musical gestalt. A critical part of a composer’s job is to become deeply familiar with the personalities of the instruments he writes for. If not, he runs the risk of creating music that sounds wrong (awkward, inappropriate) on the instruments that play it.
Computer as Instrument
Dictionary.com defines instrument as a “a contrivance or apparatus for producing musical sounds.” Computers, in this sense, definitely qualify as instruments. Particularly for composers who build pieces from the ground up via computer: from sound generation, to editing, to mixing, to mastering. It is entirely possible these days to produce a professional-strength electronica composition from scratch with a computer, keyboard, mouse, and pair of decent speakers or headphones.
The question arises: If the computer is indeed an instrument, what is its mother tongue? It turns out this is very difficult to answer. An instrument’s mother tongue, its essential personality, is defined as much by what it can’t do as what it can. A flute can’t play below middle C. A piano can’t crescendo a held note. A snare drum can’t play a pitched melody. And so on. A computer, however, can do pretty much anything. Pitch range: unlimited. Timbre: unlimited. Articulation and agility and dynamics: all unlimited. So the question becomes: What is the mother tongue of an instrument that can speak all languages equally well? After a great deal of contemplation, here’s my stab at an answer.
On the Mother Tongue Trail
First, since the computer’s unlimited-ness is such a key part of its essential nature, it must also be a key part of its musical personality: Fluency and at-homeness with all manner of audio generation. A universal mother tongue; utter musical freedom. But where does that leave us? Too much freedom can be just as paralyzing as too little. Some form of directionality is needed, a set of paths through the endless field of possibilities.
To find these paths I came up with five essential qualities of a computer: binary logic, integer maths, intensive calculation, recursion, and randomization. Binary logic lies at the very heart of all computers: A bit (the atom of computing) is either on or off; there’s no in-between state. Because of this, computers work exclusively with integers (whole numbers), even when representing fractions. Pretty much everything computers do is built around intensive and lightning-fast calculation; around 20 billion operations per second on a typical PC these days. One of the computer’s favorite tricks, recursion, is like audio feedback: A portion of the result of a calculation is fed back into the original calculation over and over. Randomization is something computers do exceedingly well, due to the ease with which they can generate and manipulate (pseudo-)random sequences of numbers.
After arriving at these five essential computer qualities, I created a Reaktor ensemble that embodies them. Lingua Mater (Latin for “mother tongue”) generates an array of 128+ sine waves. (I considered using square waves, because of their binary waveforms, but they sound more harsh and specific than sines, more contextually loaded; sines are wonderfully neutral and abstract.)
Lingua Mater manifests binary logic by periodically turning each of its 128+ sine waves on and off. Integer maths is used to derive the sine pitches. Harmonics are integer multiples of a specified root frequency (RF): 1xRF, 2xRF, 3xRF, etc. Subharmonics are integer reciprocals of the root: 1/1xRF, 1/2xRF, 1/3xRF, etc. Intensive calculation is used to incorporate “jitter” into the audio flow: smooth, slow, subtle variations in pitch, volume, duration, etc. Recursion (feedback) is used in conjunction with delay to generate reverb-like echoes. Guided randomization determines jitter trajectories, sine-wave starting/ending points, pitches, volumes, pannings, and recursion parameters