The Fingerboard Instruments: Recontextualizing Lutherie without Strings

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

Recent attempts to extend organology to add useful classifications of electrophones 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 musicians and their music than their instruments. The routine development in institutions of "extended" techniques and the drive for uniqueness and theatricality in popular music practice results in each instrument having an increasing number of gestural attributes ruining the possibility of useful classifications. Hendrix's enkindling of the guitar guitar, or Townsend's windmill strum are gestures associated with a time, an individual, and a repurposed ritual but such gestures can be applied to any instrument. The british sport of piano bashing where the winning team is the fastest to destroy and put an entire piano through a letterbox reminds us of the wide range of expected and unexpected gestures that may be associated with musical instruments.

A more useful approach is classify by structural attributes looking from the instrument out toward the
gestures. The example I will
focus on is fingerboard instruments. This family includes the guitar
and cello but not the harp dividing traditional chordophones in a way
that makes sense with common gestural practice. All these instruments
can be strummed by virtue of their strings but the hammer-on and
pull-off are not available on the harp. More interestingly this
classification organizes the early electrophones and early and recent
controllers. The Ondes Martenot, Hellertion Tellharmonium, and Theremin
cello, synthesizer ribbon controller, Continuum finger board and Guitar
Hero are members of the fingerboard instruments but the Theremin and
organ are not. Like all effective classification systems this one yields
some annoying but interesting edge cases like the koto and iPhone. The
koto player doesn't interact with a fingerboard directly but the
pillars mounted on the sound board, dividing the string are an essential
affordance. The iPhone has both proximity (a la theremin) and a surface
for finger interaction whereas most of the other fingerboard instruments
have a chord, strip or switch between the player and the fingerboard.

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

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

This contextualization suggests an atypical answer to the question of
which field new musical controller design and development belongs in,
i.e. the plastic arts. One definition (wikipedia) of the plastic arts
is that they "involve the use of materials that can be molded or
modulated in some way often in three dimensions." This new lutherie
stands alongside architecture, textile arts and sculpture involving
necessarily issues of both concrete forms/structures and engagement of
multimodal interactions.