With Daft Punbk embracing classical music, we look at the new breed of hybrid instruments on the market
Daft Punk go classical
It's a strange world where the kings of the synthesiser are pushing their fans to discover something as old-school as the violin. This, however, is exactly what the electronic dance duo Daft Punk have been up to recently. In the run-up to the release of their latest album, the Tron Legacy soundtrack, the French synth experimenters Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo have been plugging classical music with something approaching passion, urging their followers to broaden their horizons beyond beats and bleeps.
This is an unlikely step for an act who became famous for creating catchy, ground-breaking house music, and for putting French dance music on the international map. Their new album, however, represents a bold departure for the duo, including a 90-piece orchestra and a large-scale, classically influenced structure. So impressed were Daft Punk with the process of creating the album, they have gone as far as dismissing the synthesiser, their erstwhile instrument of choice.
"A cello was there 400 years ago and will still be here in 400 years," comments Bangalter in this month's edition of the British magazine Dazed and Confused. "But synthesisers that were invented 20 years ago will probably be gone in the next 20. Synths are a very low level of artificial intelligence. Whereas you have a Stradivarius that will live for a thousand years."
Such enthusiasm for acoustic instruments from the masters of digital music-making might seem odd, but then Daft Punk have never played the pop game straight. Sidestepping the star system completely, they are only ever photographed in masks (usually robot helmets) to preserve their anonymity and concentrate on their music. In 2003, the duo even took their suspicion of the music industry to the length of writing and producing a 70-minute Japanese cartoon that addressed the subject metaphorically. Titled Interstellar 5555, the film matched music from Daft Punk's Discovery album with a plot following alien musicians who are kidnapped and forced into an unsympathetic recording contract by dastardly humanoids. Taking this extreme ambivalence to promoting their music into account, Daft Punk's enthusiastic endorsement of a different style from their own starts to make a little more sense.
But is Daft Punk's current celebration of traditional instruments over electronic ones entirely fair? It certainly seems to be part of a trend for popular musicians stepping over into classical spaces. Just last month the Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright announced a residency at London's Royal Opera House, the first ever by a non-classical artist. What makes Bangalter's comments slightly ironic is that they come at a time of increasing fusion between electronic and traditional instruments. While electric instruments have been around a long time now, a new breed of hybrid models is using technology to enhance performance in strange, complex ways that make simple amplification look a little last century.
Chief among these new mutants are hyperstrings, a set of new instruments created by the American composer and inventor Tod Machover. These are electronic versions of traditional stringed instruments that build on standard electric versions by not making sound exclusively through the amplified strings. Incorporating sensors that note gesture and the positions of the left hand, Hyperstrings modify the sound they produce accordingly. Hyperstrings also gain an extra layer of complexity via a supersensitive electronic (but wireless) bow - predictably dubbed the hyperbow. Developed by Diana Young at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, this electronic bow monitors the player's movements and gestures and relays them to an amplifier, which converts them into music with astonishing accuracy. The hyperviolin and bow has already been demonstrated by the US violinist Joshua Bell, while Yo-Yo Ma has also performed on the hypercello - and while the sound remains fairly faithful to that of a standard string instrument, the results are still intriguing.
Judging by performances on youtube.com, the bow creates a lingering, ghostly reverb that lasts longer than on an acoustic instrument, giving the music an echoing, metallic edge. With its sensitivity to individual playing, it also combats a criticism many people have of electronic instruments - that they are more or less the same no matter who plays them. Few would claim that hyperstrings sound better than the traditional models they are based on, but the hyperbow's shift to interpreting gesture as a way to create music opens up some radical new musical possibilities.
That possibility, in fact, is almost with us already. As well as his hyperstrings - designed for use by already expert players - Machover has also designed other new instruments that require less playing experience and make the entirety of their sound remotely. The Music Shaper, for example is a child-friendly squidgy ball that emits a tone that can be altered by squeezing. Depending on the holder's hand pressure, the shaper's tone can go higher, lower, louder or quieter. Likewise, Machover's Beatbug is an instrument that looks like a computer mouse with two prongs, but is actually a form of beatbox that allows its player to create rhythmic patterns and share them with other players. These ingenious devices are hardly going to test a musician's virtuosity to the full, but that is pretty much the point. Unlike traditional instruments, they allow non-expert musicians to experiment with making music directly without having to train for years.
As they stand, these are simple devices to encourage novices to experiment with music-making. At the same time, they are also a window into a partly promising, partly worrying future world where even sophisticated musicianship may no longer rely on a talent for playing instruments. If subtle squeezes of a ball become enough to create beautiful, complex sounds then new technology could unlock the creative skills of people unable to master the bow or keyboard. There's a potential downside to this exciting prospect. Semi-effortless instruments could deter people from investing their time in the visceral experience of non-electronic music making, from learning how to coax turns of notes out of a simple stringed box or a shaped and twisted bit of metal. If the slow adaptation of gesture and movement no longer become necessary to master an instrument, future generations of musicians might miss out on a rigorous but hugely rewarding process.
Whatever the outcome, this flurry of musical innovation suggests that Bangalter may well be right. Soon enough, synthesisers may seem hopelessly clunky and crude compared with their more developed successors, like cave paintings might if placed next to the Mona Lisa. A Stradivarius violin will always remain an example of a musical technology that had reached its peak, while a synthesiser is just a low rung on a ladder still to be climbed, a chrysalis from which something exciting and more sophisticated will hatch.
Electronic music's infancy needn't be a cause for snobbery, however. Cave paintings are in their own way as significant works of art as anything by Leonardo Da Vinci, and electronic music has its own interesting and varied aesthetic. At the same time, when people worry that classical music might become obsolete and lose its audience, it's worth remembering that it may still sound fresh when the music we consider modern has long since faded from view.