Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Playing The Body Electric, Part One

10 March 2009

Playing The Body Electric, Part One

I believe that we as a species are currently witnessing the evolution of a new relationship between the inner and outer worlds, renegotiating that tricky self/other boundary...and in the process we might ultimately reach a new platform of musical development at which the individual has internalized not just the other players, but the instruments themselves.

But first, a bit of necessary exposition in the field of developmental psychology, so bear with me, here...

I went to grad school for Integral Theory, which meant studying the intricacies of human mind/body development. One of the recurring themes of "growing up" (which of course extends into ongoing adult development, although most adults seem unwilling to admit that such a thing exists – as if someone with their own job and car has reached the goal posts of maturity) is that we all rely on our environment to take care of things we eventually learn to do ourselves. As we grow more accustomed to assuming personal responsibility for some psychological or physiological function, we go from not even noticing that we're being taken care of, to seeking sources in the external world that will satisfy that need, to satisfying it ourselves.

One example would be how newborns don't even know they need to eat; but eventually learn to inform their parents when they're hungry, and finally manage to feed themselves. Again: young children are unaware of "the rules;" older kids learn to follow them (but don't know how or why they are in place); and adults can not only obey or disobey, but explain why certain rules are necessary for a functioning society.

(Quick check: If you think that the statement "Murder is wrong" is true "because God said so," I love you but you don't qualify as an adult in the modern world. You're still relying on external support for your moral system. If this concerns you, go read Robert Kegan's book In Over Our Heads and then find a few more literate friends.)

So what does this all mean for music? Well, it means we were born right in the middle of a revolution.

Archeologically speaking, instruments appeared first as more or less extensions of the natural environment...hollow reeds, rocks, sticks, and animal gut strung across a bent frame. The earliest instruments emerged from human experimentation with accidental noises and animal calls...what po-mo sophisticates such as you and I would call "found sounds." Ethnomusicologists observe a trend from these earlier instruments, capable of a limited expressive range (typically only a handful of notes, and only one at a time) toward more intricate devices capable of producing complex polyphony. (Think about the difference between relatively ancient intruments like a shaker or hand drum and relatively contemporary instruments like a guitar or piano...or even more contemporary instruments like the laptop.) In other words, the history of human musical instrumentation follows that same developmental curve: first, a symphony of natural sounds; then, a symphony of humans playing simple instruments; then, one human playing an entire array of chords, with remarkable tonal variety, on one instrument. Like so:

Music Starts Here

Egyptian Instruments - A Halfway Point

Internalized Orchestra on the Chapman Stick

These trends seem likely to continue even further as we continue to deepen our relationship with technology. Groundbreaking child psychologist Lev Vygotsky built his developmental model on observations that use of tools within a cultural substrate are often the means to new levels of development (that a child learns to write letters exactly as taught before developing his own handwriting, for example...take it one step further and eventually the child learns to write with any marking object or create his own). From a different field, but with a similar understanding of the flow of things, technology writer Kevin Kelly says that we don't really live in "The Age" of something until it's so much a part of the background of our experience that we don't even notice it until it breaks. We don't live in The Age of Computers...yet. But we will, as soon as computers shrink to invisibility and are embedded in everything.

Likewise, I think we don't live in an Age of Instruments...but we're about to. We're coming up on a new world in which playing music by crude manipulation of some boxy device will be left to the retro-ers and traditionalists. An era when we can speak symphonies as easily as we can form sentences.

This may sound somewhat akin to claiming that soon we'll be able to give up scissors and cut paper with our bare hands. But what I mean is that we may learn to exercise not only conscious control over our hands and voices, but over the subtler biological circuitry of our bodies - those systems responsible for our breath, heartbeats, and brainwaves - in order to make music that is directly translated from tiny electrical potentials through novel electronic interfaces into sound. Not only are people already rigging electroencephalograms to synthesizers, but some are developing full-body suits that communicate musical dimensions of dance in a much more intricate and expressive way than any keyboard-and-pedal control surface ever could.

As a compulsive futurist, I have little doubt that this would bring the evolution of instrumentation to the logical conclusion of a trajectory along which the means of music are increasingly internalized. And of course, music itself grows in complexity at every step along this path - of course, the music made by a group of people all playing polyphonic instruments is potentially much more complex than one guy trying to imitate bird calls by blowing across a blade of grass. There isn't an end point; each new development opens up an entirely new realm of musical expressive possibility, in which each person becomes the entire orchestra of the previous realm. So what will this mean when we have polyphonic synths hooked up to each of a person's once-autonomous bodily functions, have trained that person to operate each "instrument" independently of the others, and throw him in a room with forty other people similarly prepared?

What kind of music can we expect to grow out of early experiments, such as these...

Phil Stearns has bent circuit boards through a biofeedback unit and uses his body as a variable-resistance conductor to make experimental noise music.

Daito Manabe has attached myoelectric sensors that turn the electrical impulses of his muscles into sampling, trigger, and loop controls.

And THIS guy is processing an EEG (electroencephalogram) signal through mediating algorithms to turn raw brainwave data into an intelligible composition (although the guy with the helmet is certainly able to use his info of the device to "compose Beethoven-like music, and make it fast and loud!"

(Written for Colorado Music Board.)