Project

Design for Virtuosity

Goal: Musical performers spend many years achieving proficiency on their instruments. Newly-created digital musical instruments (DMIs) face a significant barrier to adoption in that few performers are willing to repeat these years of training to develop expertise on an unknown instrument. Without expert players, evaluating the success of a DMI design is challenging, and establishing its place in a broader musical community is nearly impossible. As a result, while many digital instruments have been created over the past decade, few have achieved lasting impact beyond the first few performances.

This fellowship proposes a new approach to DMI design which repurposes the existing skills and experience of trained musicians, providing them with a rapid path to virtuosity without years of retraining.

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Project log

Jack Armitage
added a research item
Extensive training with a musical instrument results in the automatisation of the bodily operations needed to manipulate the instrument: the performer no longer has to consciously think about the instrument while playing. The ability of the performer to automate operations on the instrument is due to sensorimotor mechanisms that can predict changes in the state of the body and the instrument in response to motor commands. But how strong are these mechanisms? To what extent can we alter the structure of the instrument before they disappear? We performed an exploratory study to understand whether and how sensorimotor predictions survive instrument modification. We asked seven professional violinists to perform repertoire pieces and sight-reading exercises on four different violins: their own, a cheap violin, a small violin, and a violin whose strings had been put on in reverse order. We performed a series of quantitative investigations on performance intonation and duration, and on bowing gestures and errors. The analysis revealed that participants struggled adapting to the altered instruments, suggesting that prediction mechanisms are a function of instrument configuration. In particular, the analysis of bowing errors, intonation, and of performance duration suggested that the performance with the reverse violin was much less fluent and precise than the performer's own instrument; the performance with the small violin was also sub-standard though to a lesser extent. We also observed that violinists were differently affected by instrument modifications, suggesting that the capability to adapt to a new instrument is highly personal.
Jack Armitage
added a research item
Despite digital lutherie’s goal of enabling liveness in performance, digital lutherie as a process often lacks liveness. The tools of digital lutherie, adapted from domains where liveness was neither feasible or important, can make craft process feel dull, blind and isolated. Understanding and supporting live craft process in digital lutherie is important for advancing and disseminating the art, and for improving digital luthiers’ control over the liveness of their instruments. This requires a shift in focus from declarative and explicit knowledge of instruments, to the study of liveness, craft process and tacit knowledge in digital lutherie. This research aims to provide a foundation for this shift through integration of traditional and digital lutherie, and detailed comparison of digital luthier behaviour in different live crafting environments.
Jack Armitage
added a research item
This half-day workshop will explore the craft of digital musical instrument design. Craft practice is central to the working process of both acoustic and digital instrument builders. Unlike the higher-level NIME design frameworks and tax-onomies that appear in the literature, craft knowledge is often personal, subjective, and occasionally difficult to describe in writing. This workshop will call attention to this important aspect of instrument design through a combination of discussion and a hands-on instrument design activity focused on sculpting the subtle behavioural details of an instrument. The workshop will also reflect on how craft knowledge can be better disseminated and shared in the NIME community.
Jack Armitage
added a research item
In digital musical instrument design, different tools and methods offer a variety of approaches for constraining the exploration of musical gestures and sounds. Toolkits made of modular components usefully constrain exploration towards simple, quick and functional combinations, and methods such as sketching and model-making alternatively allow imagination and narrative to guide exploration. In this work we sought to investigate a context where these approaches to exploration were combined. We designed a craft workshop for 20 musical instrument designers, where groups were given the same partly-finished instrument to craft for one hour with raw materials, and though the task was open ended, they were prompted to focus on subtle details that might distinguish their instruments. Despite the prompt the groups diverged dramatically in intent and style, and generated gestural language rapidly and flexibly. By the end, each group had developed a distinctive approach to constraint, exploratory style, collaboration and interpretation of the instrument and workshop materials. We reflect on this outcome to discuss advantages and disadvantages to integrating digital musical instrument design tools and methods, and how to further investigate and extend this approach.
Fabio Morreale
added a research item
The term 'NIME'-New Interfaces for Musical Expression-has come to signify both technical and cultural characteristics. Not all new musical instruments are NIMEs, and not all NIMEs are defined as such for the sole ephemeral condition of being new. So, what are the typical characteristics of NIMEs and what are their roles in performers' practice? Is there a typical NIME repertoire? This paper aims to address these questions with a bottom up approach. We reflect on the answers of 78 NIME performers to an on-line questionnaire discussing their performance experience with NIMEs. The results of our investigation explore the role of NIMEs in the performers' practice and identify the values that are common among performers. We find that most NIMEs are viewed as exploratory tools created by and for performers, and that they are constantly in development and almost in no occasions in a finite state. The findings of our survey also reflect upon virtuosity with NIMEs, whose peculiar performance practice results in learning trajecto-ries that often do not lead to the development of virtuosity as it is commonly understood in traditional performance.
Fabio Morreale
added a research item
Every new edition of NIME brings dozens of new DMIs and the feeling that only a few of them will eventually break through. Previous work tried to address this issue with a deductive approach by formulating design frameworks; we addressed this issue with a inductive approach by elaborating on successes and failures of previous DMIs. We contacted 97 DMI makers that presented a new instrument at five successive editions of NIME (2010-2014); 70 answered. They were asked to indicate the original motivation for designing the DMI and to present information about its uptake. Results confirmed that most of the instruments have diculties establishing themselves. Also, they were asked to reflect on the specific factors that facilitated and those that hindered instrument longevity. By grounding these reflections on existing reserach on NIME and HCI, we propose a series of design considerations for future DMIs.
Jack Armitage
added a research item
Many digital musical instrument design frameworks have been proposed that are well suited for analysis and comparison. However, not all provide applicable design suggestions, especially where subtle, important details are concerned. Using traditional lutherie as a model, we conducted a series of interviews to explore how violin makers “go beyond the obvious”, and how players perceive and describe subtle details of instrumental quality. We find that lutherie frameworks provide clear design methods, but are not enough to make a fine violin. Success comes after acquiring sufficient tacit knowledge, which enables detailed craft through subjective, empirical methods. Testing instruments for subtle qualities was suggested to be a different skill to playing. Whilst players are able to identify some specific details about instrumental quality by comparison, these are often not actionable, and important aspects of “sound and feeling” are much more difficult to describe. In the DMI domain, we introduce the term NIMEcraft to describe subtle differences between otherwise identical instruments and their underlying design processes, and consider how to improve the dissemination of NIMEcraft.
Jack Armitage
added a project reference