COPI — Digital Instrument Design

COPI = Content-Oriented Per­form­ing Instruments


Within the Nume­di­art project you have spe­cial respon­si­bil­ity for dig­i­tal instru­men­ta­tion. Could you explain this in more detail?

Dig­i­tal instru­men­ta­tion could be viewed as the nat­ural exten­sion of the man­u­fac­ture of musi­cal instru­ments, with ele­ments com­mon to many con­tem­po­rary art-forms inte­grat­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. Sound pro­duc­tion is no longer the exclu­sive domain of musi­cians, with actors, dancers or even the pub­lic becom­ing more and more fre­quently the source for musi­cal con­tent. The pro­duc­tion of instru­ments is often done by the musi­cians or com­posers them­selves, and the tech­ni­cal frus­tra­tions of recent decades (how to pro­duce a new instru­ment?) have given way to philo­soph­i­cal frus­tra­tion (why pro­duce a new instru­ment?). In this con­text, we adopt a cau­tious approach, using an open andob­jec­tive descrip­tion of musi­cal expres­sion. We define it as the free­dom of inter­pre­ta­tion used in any given lan­guage for com­mu­ni­cat­ing emo­tional con­tent. There are two tasks to be tack­led in the field of dig­i­tal instru­men­ta­tion. The first is to iden­tify the lan­guages and inter­pre­tive qual­i­ties present at the two extremes: phys­i­cal mas­tery and sound syn­the­sis. The sec­ond aims to pro­duce objects express­ing a coher­ent com­bi­na­tion of phys­i­cal and syn­thetic expression.


What kind of prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions could result from this research?

More and more musi­cal tech­ni­cians agree that the MIDI pro­to­col (dat­ing from the 1980’s) is at a water­shed, due largely to the advent of wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion (Blue­tooth, WiFi). How­ever, most high qual­ity tech­nolo­gies used for syn­the­sis today would not be adapt­able, since the major­ity of com­mer­cial prod­ucts are struc­tured around the keyboard-synthesiser and its nota­tions. You merely have to observe gui­tarists’ enthu­si­asm for the Variax (although fairly lim­ited com­pared to the top synths) to sense this frus­tra­tion. We hope that today’s work at the Mons Poly­tech­nic tech­no­log­i­cal cen­tre, and now Numé­di­art, will encour­age inno­va­tion that pro­duces dig­i­tal instru­ments of inter­est “across the board”.


What would you like to see in terms of artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tion? Is there an artist or com­pany with whom you would want to collaborate?

At the risk of sound­ing nar­cis­sis­tic, we first intend to use the dig­i­tal instru­ments our­selves! Nico­las d’Alessandro has played gui­tar for 20 years and the spec­i­fi­ca­tions he intro­duces reflect his own musi­cal pref­er­ences, such as the left-handed gui­tar neck on ver­sion 1 of the HandS­ketch (voice syn­the­sizer). He has thought he’d work pri­mar­ily with singers, in fact his first col­lab­o­ra­tion was with direc­tor Valérie Cordy, and now his pas­sion for stringed instru­ments will soon be ful­filled by col­lab­o­rat­ing with Jean-Paul Dessy and Musiques Nouvelles.


What are the major tech­ni­cal, finan­cial, indus­trial or artis­tic chal­lenges inher­ent in this type of work?

On the one hand, the audio-digital con­tent (voice or instru­men­tal record­ings) requires much fur­ther devel­op­ment. Mov­ing from a series of notes to a con­tin­uum requires new mod­els and a “dimen­sional” rep­re­sen­ta­tion of expres­sive qual­i­ties. On the other hand, the cap­ture of musi­cal ges­ture, the rules gov­ern­ing the trans­fer of exper­tise (from a clas­si­cal musi­cian), the pos­si­bil­i­ties for inno­va­tion and mix­ture, or the aes­thet­ics and semi­otics are too often ignored. We have the impres­sion that we’ve focused too quickly on the intel­lec­tual aspects of the emo­tional inter­ac­tion, and that the spe­cific, phys­i­cal rela­tion­ship with the machine (Jean-Paul Dessy refers to ‘phys­i­cal intel­li­gence’) has been largely over­looked. The finan­cial and indus­trial chal­lenges are quite clear. Pri­or­ity is given to the ser­vice sec­tor and soft­ware devel­op­ment. We alien­ate poten­tial back­ers by talk­ing of instru­ment man­u­fac­ture which requires major fund­ing. Most of the work will be car­ried out at the Elec­tron­ics Depart­ment of Pole TI, via the Nume­di­art project. As regards long-term via­bil­ity, the artis­tic domain appears to be the most straight­for­ward. The meet­ings that we’ve had so far in Bel­gium and abroad have been pro­duc­tive and very reward­ing. We are there­fore not appre­hen­sive about a poten­tial art/technology con­flict pre­dicted by many, and we believe that Nume­di­art will reflect this con­vic­tion that we will be seek­ing to implement.