Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Visionary Instruments: Tenori-on and Monome

12 November 2007

Visionary Instruments: Tenori-on and Monome

Hopefully I don't have to do much convincing to establish with the readers of this blog that the computer is indeed a legit instrument. In fact, by some accounts, the computer might be the first global folk instrument. Those who still disagree probably do so because so much of contemporary electronic music is composed in sequencers and "performed" by pressing "play." Pre-recorded accompaniment is more like a painting than a dance - pretty passé, in an age when ubiquitous recording technology has restored the novelty of a live performance (thus the boom of live painting by artists such as Kris D on stage at concerts).

But this is the exception, not the rule. The first true electronic instrument, the theremin, requires just as much performance nuance as any other member of the orchestra - and for decades, conducters flirted with it as a worthy replacement for the first violin. In many ways, analog synthesizers require more instrumental expertise than the piano, not less. And today, there is a whole new generation of musical controllers that offer artists a more intimate and organic relationship with computer music software.

One such instrument is Toshio Iwai's Tenori-on, a kooky little sequencer grid that lets its user get inside the beats while they are playing (Toshio might be most renowned for designing the super-cool Nintendo Gameboy DS music game Electroplankton). Like with so many new instruments, it's a little difficult to find the words that describe exactly how it works; but basically, the Tenori-on is a 16-track musical control and display surface... See if this example doesn't stretch your powers of inference:

Thankfully, Toshio is gracious enough to give an in-depth explanation of its workings here (part one) and here (part two). And here's a video of the inventor himself delivering a solo performance on his adorable new device (notice how cool it is that you can see the blinking buttons through the open backplate of the machine):

Tenori-on has six different programs, which means six different ways to relate to its 216-button grid. Here's an artist painting sound onto the grid in "score mode," which isn't as euphemistic as it seems (although it does allow for Beavis & Butthead moves like this one):

Yeah, pretty cool. And notice that it a free-standing device - you don't have to plug it into a computer or a wall. Which is to say, it'd make a delightful travel companion (like theukulele I bought on a lark in Hawaii - or the kalimba I bought after torturous delibaration in the Ozarks, of all places). But before you rush out to buy one (and good luck, anyway: they're currently only for sale in the UK), make sure to check out the even-handed reviewshere and here.

...And consider that the Tenori-on has direct competition from (some might say, "is a rip-off of") the Monome - an earlier controller, designed by Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, that is superficially similar in that it is a blinky little music box, but significantly different in several important ways. Foremost among them is that while the Tenori-on carries all of its own sounds and programming, the Monome is a total blank slate. It is not a standalone musical device and contains no sounds or code of its own - which is bad if you don't likelugging around your laptop, but good if you like using your own sounds or exploiting open source software to do goofy stuff like run Conway's Game of Life (demo on the Monome homepage, here). Brian and Kelli's "about us" page reads like a design manifesto:

"we aim to refine the way people consider interface. we seek less complex, more versatile tools: accessible, yet fundamentally adaptable. we believe these parameters are most directly achieved through minimalistic design, enabling users to more quickly discover new ways to work, play, and connect. we see flexibility not as a feature, but as a foundation."

The kind of minimalism that extends to refusing the decadence of capital letters, apparently, but also enables a musical revolution. After Brian explains a bit about its history (and before Kelli talks about their cool packaging and weirdo felt-calculator-pillow-instrument) check out how he uses it to live-sample and remix a keyboard loop (!):

Here're a few demos of the Monome at work (at play):

The designers work out of their loft and can't possibly make enough of them to meet demand, so they do most of their sales through kits. With this "you build it, you hack it" mentality, people like Sound Tribe Sector 9's David Phipps end up creating their own custom models (good story about that here), such as this one:

Cool as hell. Too bad about the cheesy guitar riff, but otherwise a magnificent proof of principle. Notice how he's split off a piece of the board as a meta-control region, while the rest of it remains a step sequencer. I love blinky things. Especially when they make music.

Again, one thing that sets the Monome apart from the Tenori-on in a good way is that it will work with whatever wacky software you design for it. Open source being the way of the future (at least, according to the present - open source social networking platforms, open source music, and even open source biology), techno-prophet Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine argued in his excellent book New Rules For The New Economy that it's the most flexible products that will succeed. Which is why I so enjoy seeing cool unanticipated applications people find for the Monome like these:

(And you can simulate the Monome on your Gameboy.)

Lastly, you can ditch the fancy sequencing and play it like an "instrument," believe it or not. Its isomorphic button field liberates musicians from what the after-market innovator in this next video calls "the comforting tyranny of the keyboard" - basically, a major shortcut to learning music theory and exploring new tonal spaces:

So there you have it. Regardless of whether you prefer a pricey but immersive toy or a demanding but illimitable canvas, both Tenori-on and Monome deserve a place in the pantheon of visionary instruments. Both are changing the way we think and act about composition and performance. Both open new realms of electronic sound manipulation, and - at least for me - both provide a strong enough argument that just because something looks like a Speak and Spell (or maybe a Lite Brite) doesn't mean it isn't a legitimate substrate for groundbreaking musical expression.

If you're still not convinced (ahem), however, this might be your anthem:

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