Innovations in Instrumentation?
Last week, we had a special treat in our Music 030 class. UPENN composer Erica Ball joined our class with pianist Gregory Deturck and demonstrated some of the process of composing music live. Overall, it was an informative experience to watch composition happening in real time and to see a composer’s thought process from idea to execution to editing to analysis to revision. But what was really interesting was the innovation that Erica Ball used in her composition.
The piece began immediately with a harsh, biting dissonance, as if the pianist is punishing the piano keys — a loud, unapologetic series of cluster chords which carry the piece through. Using cluster chords as a primary musical device in music was certainly not something I had heard before. Erica Ball explained that the idea had originated in a sudden outburst of frustration while composing, where she struck the keys of the keyboard, and realized that the sound could be used to her advantage in the piece. Eventually she centered the composition around the technique. I was quite impressed with how she used an accident as an innovative technique for the centerpiece of music, even if she probably wasn’t the first ever to do use cluster chords in this way.
Innovation in musical techniques is incredibly interesting. Taking seemingly unmusical noises and using them in creative ways to contribute to a work requires skill and musical intuition. Erica Ball is certainly not the first to find new, unconventional ways to use an instrument. There is an apocryphal story of a DJ who accidentally stopped running record with his hand and liked the sound, sparking the use of “record scratching” in turntablism. Many performers, like the famous Blue Man Group, are known for using non-musical objects like trash cans to produce rhythm and music. These sorts of innovations in how we use instruments seem to spark revolutions and branches in genres and the way we listen to music, and they can push instruments to higher limits of potential and variety.
What do you think of instrumental innovations in music? What other clever innovations have you heard in music lately, and what other possibilities can we still explore with our instruments?