KES Transactions on Innovation in Music

Publisher Future Technology Press
Vol. 1 No. 1 Special Edition - Innovation in Music 2013
Article TitleSampling the Past: A tactile approach to interactive musical instrument exhibits in the heritage sector
Primary AuthorKenneth McAlpine, University of Abertay Dundee
Pages 110 - 125
Article ID im13bk-011
Publication Date 17-May-15
AbstractIn the last few decades, the heritage sector has undergone a periodic shift in its approach to visitor engagement, moving from very detailed, didactic displays of collections to a more experiential, even interactive, mode of engagement, with some museums embracing wholeheartedly the concept, and using immersive spaces and actors to provide visitors with an ?authentic? sense of culture, environment and period. Collections of musical instruments have been slower to adopt these ideas, and for good reason. Curators and conservators must balance access to fragile historic instruments with their duty of care to ensure their preservation for future generations: let a few cohorts of eager schoolchildren loose on a working 16th Century Spinet, and the collection may not have a working 16th Century Spinet for very long. Nevertheless, there is a clear and identifiable desire to engage with music collections in this way, and a sound museological rationale for providing such access. After all, if we present a musical instrument behind a red velvet cord, or inside a glass case, we strip it of its function: it ceases to be a musical instrument and becomes an ornate, but ultimately impractical piece of furniture. Of course, guided listening tours and special concerts do give the public the opportunity to hear the instruments being played, but this still falls short of actually playing a keyboard, and directly experiencing the link between the form and the function of the instrument. But music technology can provide a solution to this ?red velvet cord? problem. Since the key curatorial concern is focused on preserving the fragile mechanics of the instruments, and since the primary interest by the visiting public is in the sound, any technology which effectively separates and recreates the sound of the instrument from its mechanics would enable the original instruments to be accurately modelled and rehoused in cheap, robust digital electronics, making it a realistic possibility for anyone who wishes to play the originals to do so, albeit in a digital form. This paper discusses the development of one such collaborative project, which began in 2003 in response to a professional production problem. At the core of the project lay a set of historic music manuscripts, and the intent to create a set of authentic archive recordings using instruments, voicings, tunings and performance techniques that were contemporary with the music. Although an instrument was identified, a single-manual Kirckman harpsichord in original playing condition, centuries of exposure to saline air and changing temperatures and humidities meant that it was not sufficiently stable to record. This gave rise to a research project, which set out to establish the necessary and sufficient acoustic data required to create a high-resolution sampled instrument that was perceptually indistinguishable from the original. The resulting instrument was used as the basis for a set of recordings, and exhibited at an exhibition of digital curation and preservation at le Grand Hornu in˙ Mons, Belgium in 2005. This led directly to a collaboration with the National Trust, which saw the underlying process applied to the keyboard instruments of the Benton Fletcher Collection. The Collection, which was gifted to the National Trust in 1937, was established as a playing collection, to support Major Benton Fletcher?s conviction ? unusual at the time ? that music should be performed sympathetically on the instruments for which it was written. The Trust is fully committed to this purpose, but because of limits on staffing and due to the fragility of many of the instruments in its charge, access is limited, and most visitors to the collection never get to hear or play them. The next phase of the project, then, sought to determine whether or not˙this type of virtualisation represented a legitimate means of exhibiting museum artefacts. After all, arguably, museums exist primarily to offer a means of accessing authentic cultural and historical artefacts, and no matter how much we strive to ensure transparency in recording and modelling, experiencing a digital simulacrum of a musical instrument is fundamentally a different experience to experiencing the instrument itself. We discuss the implementation and testing of an interactive playable exhibit alongside the Benton Fletcher Collection, and draw conclusions about its effectiveness as a museum tool, focusing specifically on its key shortcoming: at present, there is no way to effectively model the key feel of a historic keyboard instrument. This issue is of profound importance. Musicians train for many years to achieve the fine motor control necessary to coax the full range of expression from their instruments, and will work to adapt their technique for specific instruments, recognising that the mechanics of a keyboard?s action necessarily influence the approach to performance and the music written for it. This problem is not, of course, unique to the harpsichord. Many classes of musical instrument ? wind and string, for example ? and many gestural approaches to performance have limited or no direct analogous electronic implementations as a means of musician-instrument interface, and even the piano, which has traditionally been very well served in terms of electronic key action and interface, is still limited in terms of accuracy of feel, and adaptability and accuracy for other instrument classes. From a heritage perspective, where the aim is to model the precise key characteristics of specific instruments, there is also a much more stringent threshold than ?good enough? ? it is not sufficient to create a mechanism that is generically appropriate to the instrument class, but to create, on a key-by-key basis, the precise mechanical feel of an entire keyboard. We conclude, then, by outlining a solution to this problem, which is currently in development. Building on work by Brent Gillespie and others, we will outline early work on a real-time adaptive haptic keyboard interface that modifies its action in response to sampled resistance curves, measured from the original instruments.
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