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A Field of Possibilities: Designing and Playing Digital Musical Instruments

Research project
Inactive research
Project owner
Academy of Music and Drama

Short description

Dissertation by Per Anders Nilsson, 2011
The sounds produced by a fiddle are not always musical, but the fiddle is still nevertheless regarded as a musical instrument. However, if one uses sticks or car engines to create music – do they become musical instruments?

This is the point of departure for Per Anders Nilsson’s research. It has led him to the creation of a number of digital instruments for various purposes and also into questions concerning the interaction between his roles as designer and musician – always on the basis of his own experiences for more than 40 years as an improvisatory musician.

On 25 November 2011 he publicly defended his doctoral thesis A Field of Possibilities: designing and playing digital musical instruments in the subject musical performance and interpretation at the Academy of Music and Drama at the University of Gothenburg.
The thesis discusses a number of tailor-made digital musical instruments intended for improvisation and created by Per Anders Nilsson himself.
Apart from the text, the thesis comprises video recordings from concerts in which he performs with the improvisation group Beam Stone and the duo pantoMorf, as well as a duet with the bass-player Peter Janson and solos.

On Thursday 24 November, Per Anders Nilsson performed on his instruments with these groups, as well as with his specially invited guests Mats Gustafsson, saxophone, and John Tilbury, piano, at the jazz club Nefertiti in Göteborg.

Per Anders Nilsson’s research project is among other things about creating digital musical instruments for special purposes, in his case ensemble improvisation. In practice, the instruments he creates constitute a hyper-instrument: about ten instrumental modules are collected and linked together in a shared computer programme. The choice varies and is decided by the context.
The challenge for him has been to create instruments with distinct identities and with limits in precisely the same way as with traditional musical instruments. To become accomplished one has to practise, in exactly the same way as with all other instruments. One can also incorporate musical skills into a digital instrument, making it possible for a musician to play better than he or she has the capacity to do. One example is Per Anders Nilsson’s instrument the Walking Machine that allows him to play the drums and bass in jazz style, even though he cannot play either of these instruments particularly well. The game designer calls these virtual skills. One can thus incorporate performance behaviour into an instrument, and the musician’s role becomes that of controlling the instrument rather than anything else.

The thesis also discusses the two roles of designer and musician – the hypothesis that one and the same person is both designer and musician can have a double effect when playing with other musicians: a direct effect via the interaction of the moment, and an indirect effect since one has decided on the characteristics of the instrument oneself. A digital instrument is a field of possibilities – in performance, the aesthetic choices made during the design process of the instrument are made manifest. Per Anders Nilsson has created instruments that appeal to his musical aesthetics and that function well in the contexts in which he himself plays music, and the aim is not total control but more the possibility of surprising oneself!

Yet another aspect brought up by Per Anders Nilsson in his work with digital instruments, is to regard musical improvisation as a game or sport. All games have rules, goals and a play space. In a piece of music, it may be a matter of explicit rules on which chord sequences and melodies etc one may use, or it may also be a matter of tacit rules about what one may not do, the equivalent of ”sportmanship”.
Per Anders Nilsson looks forward to continuing his research in this field and especially to investigating different musical styles as though they were games. His opinion is that this approach will analyse music from the perspective of the musician, and not from the perspective of the musical score or the composer.

External examiner: Robert Rowe Ph.D. from New York University, New York City