Sunday, 28 April 2019

How the Roli Seaboard is changing the way I think about music

I am making very weird noises at the moment. Partly encouraged by a richly rewarding collaboration with John Hyatt and Mimoids (see, a digital musical instrument - the Roli Seaboard - is becoming my favoured mode of musical expression. A year ago, I would have thought that highly improbable. For me, nothing could touch the sensitivity, breadth of expression and sophistication that is possible with an acoustic piano - if you have the technique to do it. Having said that, I do wonder if we've run out of ideas within that medium.

Part of the problem with contemporary music is that the only way forwards is towards greater complexity. And with greater complexity sometimes comes a barrier with people: music becomes "clever" or "difficult" and we lose something of what matters about the whole thing in the first place.

While I've been thinking about this, I've also been thinking about what music really is in the first place. Why do I have some kind of "soundtrack" running in my head all the time? What's going on? Is it connected to the way I make sense of the world?

Music's profound quality arises from redundancy. That's interesting because it raises the question as to why my cognitive system has to continually generate redundancy. The interesting thing is that redundancy can create coherence. So maybe that continual soundtrack is simply my consciousness making sense of the chaos around me. I'm beginning to wonder about this with regard to all communicative musicality.. even learning conversations: they seem to arise from some profound need to make sense of things - and not just by learners, but by teachers too.

This also helps to explain why class music lessons in school are often terrible. Attempting to rationally codify the very thing that we use all the time to make sense of the world is likely to result in some kind of adverse reaction.

In a complex world, simplicity is important. Which brings me back to contemporary music. Not that we want to create simple music and put it on the pedestal of high art. But we need to express something of what music does to us, and perhaps to understand how it works better. The piano is a sophisticated and delicate instrument which can make simple things sound interesting. But the Roli Seaboard is an instrument which expresses ambiguity, complexity and variety in a way that the piano cannot. To me, the Seaboard sounds like the world around us - the noisy world of loudspeakers, garish colours, and distraction. The Seaboard is context, and it creates a frame for our simpler and more traditional forms of music to reveal what they really do for us: to create coherence, and (in terms of collective singing) conviviality.

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