TitleThe Fingerboard Instruments: Recontextualizing Lutherie without Strings
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsFreed, A
Conference Name3rd Music and Cognition Conference
Conference LocationMcGill University, Montreal

Recent attempts to extend organology to add useful classifications ofelectrophones and music controllers have rightly focussed on gesture.The naive approach of classification by gestural attributes (strum,pluck, hit, slap etc..) fails because gestures say more about musiciansand their music than their instruments. The routine development ininstitutions of "extended" techniques and the drive for uniqueness andtheatricality in popular music practice results in each instrumenthaving an increasing number of gestural attributes ruining thepossibility of useful classifications. Hendrix's enkindling of the guitarguitar, or Townsend's windmill strum are gesturesassociated with a time, an individual, and a repurposed ritual but suchgestures can be applied to any instrument. The british sport of pianobashing where the winning team is the fastest to destroy and put anentire piano through a letterbox reminds us of the wide range ofexpected and unexpected gestures that may be associated with musicalinstruments.

A more useful approach is classify by structural attributes looking from the instrument out toward thegestures. The example I willfocus on is fingerboard instruments. This family includes the guitarand cello but not the harp dividing traditional chordophones in a waythat makes sense with common gestural practice. All these instrumentscan be strummed by virtue of their strings but the hammer-on andpull-off are not available on the harp. More interestingly thisclassification organizes the early electrophones and early and recentcontrollers. The Ondes Martenot, Hellertion Tellharmonium, and Theremincello, synthesizer ribbon controller, Continuum finger board and GuitarHero are members of the fingerboard instruments but the Theremin andorgan are not. Like all effective classification systems this one yieldssome annoying but interesting edge cases like the koto and iPhone. Thekoto player doesn't interact with a fingerboard directly but thepillars mounted on the sound board, dividing the string are an essentialaffordance. The iPhone has both proximity (a la theremin) and a surfacefor finger interaction whereas most of the other fingerboard instrumentshave a chord, strip or switch between the player and the fingerboard.

An interesting feature of fingerboard controllers is that they can bedifferentiated from each other by structural features integrated todiscretize gestures - usually those that involve pitch. These fiducialsmay be visual (slide guitar, iPhone), mechanical (frets), staticallyhaptic (dimples of the Ondes Martenot), or actively haptic (lamella ofthe Tellharmonium).

The fingerboard classification allows us to contextualize David Wessel'sSlabs and my own recent controllers in a family of related instrumentswith a tradition rather than as "unique inventions" whose newness has tobe confronted. In the Slabs the fiducials are a rectangular grid ofslits with the interaction pads tiled between them in two dimensions,. My "Big Guitar" can be seen as a hybrid koto, fretless bass guitar andHellertion. My Tablo fabric drape controller shares features of theHellertion and Theremin cello with a distinguishing annular fingerboard.The 12-stringless cello developed with Frances Marie Uitti has featuresof ribbon controllers but with position/pressure sensing strips on bothsides of the fingerboard and a structurally independent array of rodsfor two-bow interaction.

This contextualization suggests an atypical answer to the question ofwhich field new musical controller design and development belongs in,i.e. the plastic arts. One definition (wikipedia) of the plastic artsis that they "involve the use of materials that can be molded ormodulated in some way often in three dimensions." This new lutheriestands alongside architecture, textile arts and sculpture involvingnecessarily issues of both concrete forms/structures and engagement ofmultimodal interactions.