Sound Bytes, Neon Dreams

In a dimly lit rehearsal hall in Oakland, Calif., the musical instruments are glowing a neon blue. They are electronic marimbas that a group called D'Cuckoo uses to create sounds ranging from a traditional African drum to a modern guitar riff to a dog's bark. Handmade out of plexiglass, computer chips and neon tubes, the marimbas are played with drumsticks. The music is hot and engaging-entirely unlike the chill beeps and boops of earlier electronic music. "We want to build totally new instruments," says D'Cuckoo member Patti Clemens. "We knew what we wanted from our instruments and it didn't exist."

As Chuck Berry said in another context, roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news. Not since the 18th century have musical instruments been so dramatically altered by technology. Yamaha, for example, now sells a $995 electronic wind instrument that can function as both flute and saxophone and, with the right connections, can even sound like a guitar. Stanford researcher Chris Chafe has created the Celletto, an electronic cello that can sound not only like a cello but also like a symphony orchestra. These magical musical tours are possible now because of the yoking of computers to instruments; ultimately the meld will open musical performance to millions not blessed with traditional sonic dexterity. But a question remains: will computers rob music of its soul?

Dance music: Biomuse, for example, is a musical instrument that requires no instrument at all. Developed by Hugh Lusted of Stanford University and Ben Knapp of San Jose State University, Biomuse uses electrical sensors, wrapped around the musician's scalp and forearms, to monitor and amplify brain and muscle waves. The computer converts the waves into sound-allowing one, say, to play the violin simply by moving one's arms, without actually having a violin. Eventually the Biomuse system may allow the disabled to perform music. And, dancers swaddled in electrical sensors may soon create their own soundtrack as they move onstage. "It is simply listening to the music of the human body itself," says Knapp.

Slightly more complex is the new instrument called Radio Batons, developed at Stanford's computer-music center. Prof. Max Mathews has created an electronic device that will allow every person to be a Toscanini. The batons are waved about above a gizmo the size of a pizza box. The box detects the movement of the batons and tells a computer just how quickly or slowly to play a given movement of, say, a symphony performance recorded on a computer disk. The computer in turn controls the music synthesizer. It's the ultimate version of air guitar: you're conducting an entire symphony orchestra, at your whim. The computer knows the score, but the conductor can vary the pitch, loudness and tempo. Mathews predicts that Radio Batons could sell for as little as $200.

Yamaha's Disklavier is the modern version of the player piano. This model is driven by a floppy disk which directs the piano's keys. The disk, in turn, was cut by a professional player, generally a star like Chick Corea. This is better than a recording which depends on amplified music; here the music is played directly through an instrument. It may also give new life to music long left for dead. Boston pianist George Litterst and music scholar Artis Wodehouse are now busy transforming old player-piano rolls from the '20s and '30s into computer information for instruments like the Disklavier. Early candidates for resurrection are performances preserved on piano rolls by artists ranging from George Gershwin to Sergei Prokofiev.

Joyful noise: Most musicians agree that the need for physical dexterity will not disappear. "We will always need the traditional skills," says Yamaha's Mike D'Amore, "strummed and plucked strings, keyboards, wind. We can't make musicians out of novices. But we can make it easier for nonmusical people to become more musically oriented." Adds Dominic Milano, editor of Keyboard magazine: "Musicianship is still important, but no longer a must. The computer can correct a lot of your errors. The result may not be brilliant noise, but it will be useful noise."

The technical key to these new musical instruments is MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Less than 10 years old, it is the international standard for denoting music in computer form. Once a tune has been recorded in MIDI (usually on a computer floppy disk) it can be connected to a music synthesizer and produce sound in any "voice" the synthesizer can duplicate, from cello to harpsichord. Companies like Passport Designs in Half Moon Bay, Calif., are now publishing hundreds of songs on computer disks for home musicians to tinker with, or for business people to add to promotional presentations. Says Passport president David Kusek, "You can really go in with your computer and make the piece faster, slower, or change the key."

This isn't like anything you've heard before. This isn't the Chipmunks speeding up a tape or cutting and splicing a work. The new technique takes the music in, converts it into digital bits, then allows a musician to vary pitch, tempo, volume or instrument and spit it back out as music.

The personal computer is becoming more musical as a result of two innovations developed in the last decade. The first, known as sequencing, allows someone to rearrange the bars of a musical composition precisely as one rearranges paragraphs of writing on the computer screen. The second is called sampling, a technique that takes a small bit of prerecorded sound--anything from a complete vocal track to a single drumbeat-and then manipulates it into a new sound. Example: in the last Indiana Jones film, when Harrison Ford found himself surrounded by thousands of rats the chirping of the rats had nothing in common with rodents. The sound was actually a gaggle of upset geese, sampled and sped up to sound like tiny mammals.

Sampling became a controversial technique earlier this year when a Toronto musician named John Oswald produced a compact disc called Plunderphonic. Oswald used sophisticated computer techniques to rewrite classic and pop tracks from the Beatles to Michael Jackson. Dolly Parton became a baritone; Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was condensed to four minutes. "Over the Rainbow" was reprocessed to feature a 101-string orchestra. Glenn Gould's Aria to the Goldberg Variations was packed with additional grace notes that no human pianist could manage.

1,001 strings: Oswald was legally savvy enough not to sell the discs; he shipped 700 copies as gifts to the music industry before he was sued by the Canadian Recording Industry Association over one point: failure to purchase rights to Michael Jackson's sampled song. While Oswald maintains that his electronic rewrites are in fact original compositions, in the legal settlement he agreed to crush his final 300 discs. But the daring CD paid off. After hearing Plunderphonic, the Kronos String Quartet asked Oswald to turn their work into a 1,001-string ensemble; they wanted to hear what it would sound like. Oswald also has a deal with Elektra to rejigger several classic Doors tracks starting with "Hello, I Love You."

Oswald's optimism is not universal in the music industry. Patrick Leonard, the Los Angeles songwriter and producer for Madonna and Julian Lennon, uses computers and a Disklavier for his work. But even he worries that "we're seeing more evolution on the technical level than the emotional level. It's not soul-moving anymore, and that's unhealthy for young musicians. Anyone can sound like anyone. We may be feeding the future of music with something that's not music at all." Yet Leonard still employs the latest technology. Like the women of D'Cuckoo--currently staying up at night to wire their own circuit boards--the science is simply too seductive to resist. In the end, the beat goes on.