Musical puppetry

This week I sat in on some really wonderful thesis presentations by Masters students in the NYU Music Technology program. The sheer amount of intellectual energy and inventiveness on display was very inspiring.

One trend I noticed was that some students would start with a traditional acoustic instrument they really know and love, such as a trumpet or a classical guitar, and convert it into a musical controller. The result would not make any direct use of the sounds that the instrument produces naturally.

Rather, the student would use those sounds as data, to be input into a computer synthesizer. A new sound would then be computed — perhaps one that could only be created with computer assistance. The result, however radically different, would retain a subtlety and expressiveness that is characteristic of the original musical instrument.

This general approach reminds me of other recent trends in computer mediated performance. For example, there are similarities to the way Andy Serkis “performed” his own body in the Lord of the Rings films, to create a digital Gollum. You never saw the actor himself, but only the computer-transformed result of his performance. Essentially, he was using technology to puppeteer his own body.

In a sense, an artist’s use of any tool — from the paintbrush to the piano — is a kind of puppetry. And as computers continue to become more powerful, new kinds of puppetry will continue to emerge, allowing us to use our brains and bodies to create ever more powerful forms of aesthetic expression.

After all, what is the piano, but a complex industrial innovation, enabled by advanced technology, which interposes itself artificially between musician and nature, in order to give the performer a greater power of expression?

One Response to “Musical puppetry”

  1. J. Peterson says:

    I’ve been reading Brian Jay Jone’s biography of Jim Henson. It has many fascinating insights into the art form he revolutionized. Favorite: Somebody visiting the set of the Muppet show observing the puppets on the set would continue to chat with each other between takes, staying completely in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

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