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.