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The Single-Instrument EP (MP3)

The recent EP Soft Answers by Janes Scenic Drive makes a strong case for the single-instrument recording — in this case not solo piano, or solo cello, but a synthesizer called the Polar, and produced by the company Access. Janes Scenic Drive is a moniker for the active electronic musician Phillip Wilkerson. Here, playing solo on his one select tool, he ekes out plaintive soundscapes. The tracks vary widely, from daybreak haze to industrial droning. One particular highpoint is “In the Country of Her Eyes,” which changes shape as it progresses, and steers a course midway between the collection’s more dissonant and consonant extremes (MP3). The enjoyably meandering quality to the synthesis may be a result of the randomization opportunities employed by Wilkerson. It’s especially pleasurable throughout to keep in mind that this was all produced on a single machine, that the sounds, tempo, the overall approach, all of it, is in part determined by a piece of technology that Wilkerson has taken the time to learn to make the most of. Certainly he is pursuing his own aesthetic goals — but he’s also, arguably, pursuing the aesthetic goals of the instrument’s developer.

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More on Janes Scenic Drive (aka Phillip Wilkerson) at janesscenicdrive.wordpress.com and twitter.com/philwilkerson. Record released on the netlabel Amorphous, which makes its home at archive.org.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , , / Comments: 22 ]

19 Comments

  1. [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 8:41 am ]

    Can an instrument such as the Access Polar — a truly multifaceted polyphonic studio full of timbres and textures in one white box — really fit into the “one instrument” category? Granted, at least we’re not dealing here with a sampler and hearing a virtual orchestra of fake “real” instrument sounds. The work is most certainly synthesizer (and is really nice by the way). But making the comparison to a solo piano or cello, each of which make basically one sound, is maybe like comparing a jar of watercolor to Photoshop, and saying both are one art supply.

    • [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 12:23 pm ]

      Darn good question, and one very much on my mind. The Polar is an instrument no more or less than an orchestra is, I suppose. I’m just comparing the Polar to other single instruments, not fully equating them.

      The thing about presumably self-contained instruments like cellos and pianos is how their range of tonality and techniques expands with each generation of players, so even if they seem tidy by comparison, they still provide a wide range of possibilities.

      And the thing about polyphonic mini-studios like the Polar is that the more wide-ranging they get in their possibilities, they still have their own limitations, their own intrinsic sounds, and in time their own presumed performance approaches, all waiting for an individual to help codify (turn into tradition) or explode (flout).

      What this activity may be about more than anything is the idea of a musician dedicated to any single tool, in contrast with the table-of-spaghetti-cables-and-objects that has become the post-laptop performance norm.

      • [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 1:05 pm ]

        In practice, I think the table full of cables and objects (or any modular system) tend to be played like a single tool, rather than an array of many.

      • [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 1:38 pm ]

        @Steve — definitely, those assortments of gadgets are invariably the result of dedicated iterative refinement on the part of the musicians who employ them.

        An intriguing side consideration is software systems like Max/MSP, in which both Max and the programmed setups within Max have been described by musicians as instruments. Instruments within instruments.

        What’s intriguing about the Polar exercise, in contrast with the table-of-tools approach, is about diving into a predetermined system, rather than developing a new system.

  2. Joe. McMahon
    [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 8:55 am ]

    Interesting – I did something like this in 1995, doing a whole album with an Ensoniq VFxsd, using the internal sequencer for all the recording. It was an exercise in economics rather than esthetics, but still a very good experience. Ensoniq may have had hardware problems with the VFX series, but the sequencer OS was outstanding, and is still a great way to capture ideas (yes, I still have it and use it in my studio).

    The album’s on iTunes for the curious: search for “Shatterday” ( can’t paste in iTunes URLs here).

    • [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 12:12 pm ]

      Thanks, Joe. I’ll look for it. This is an interesting distinction: “economics rather than esthetics.”

  3. wingo
    [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 2:58 pm ]

    This is a fascinating topic – one that I’ve pondered often over the years.

    Back in the early ’90s, my first real serious gear purchase was an Akai 2800 sampler. Which, at the time, was basically considered ‘limitless’ in it’s capacity, compared to everything else available.

    But when you put it into perspective, it’s limitations (relative to today) really made it a unique self-contained system, or ‘instrument’, and since it was basically all I used for a few years, I became extremely familiar with its operation and developed a style and a distinctive ‘sound’. I would join jam sessions with it, and people would be amazed and say things like, ‘you play that like an instrument!’ And I would say, ‘but it IS.’

    If you think about it – it had limited sample memory (8 mb expanded to a mind-blowing 16!), a very specific OS with particular modulation routings available, unique sounding LP (only) filter, and a small palette of limited, but interesting fx (mostly delay/chorus). The midi control options were few, and midi controllers were relatively crude at the time still (basically just pitch/mod wheel). And you had to really know how to navigate those layers of menus to program it and tweak the sound live.

    I found it not unlike mastering an acoustic instrument like a trumpet (which I also played at the time). I still tend to approach my synths, and even Ableton Live in this same way to this day. Learn it and practice with it like a performance instrument.

    • [ Posted June 18, 2011, at 3:05 pm ]

      @wingo: Thanks for the input. The familiarity one gains with a tool over time, and the extent to which that tool satisfies the musician as a solitary endeavor both are solid marks of “instrument-ness.”

  4. [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 3:37 pm ]

    Re: the orchestra as instrument. I have been meaning to write about the Spectralists and their approach to the symphony is based on FFT and additive synthesis, which I find quite exciting.

    I think probably the true measure of an instrument is the degree of expertise/virtuosity/expressiveness that can be gained from careful study and experimentation. Even though it’s so simple in concept, I think the theremin is definitely an instrument – the control of changes in pitch and volume give it an expressivity that is improved by further study/practice (any video of Clara Rockmore I think is pretty convincing).

    Whereas a contact mic’d rubber duck might not have as much expressive range. But in the context of a ensemble of other contact mic’d toys (much like a percussionist’s kit), it could be part and parcel of a very expressive instrument.

  5. [ Posted June 17, 2011, at 6:15 pm ]

    Good thoughts all around. I may be the wrong guy to chime in here, but the whole idea of ‘instrument’ is to me almost antiquated. I’ve done lots of albums based on a single sound source: voice for “Aughtet”, analogue drum machines for the “Electret Quintet” series, Noam Chomsky for “Linguism”, the “Constant” series of drones for “Inconstant”… but for me the take the original source and transform it into something new. Knowing what the source sound is lends interest, but it’s still merely the seed from which something else has grown.

    This is why I hesitate to call myself a “musician”, because the first question is always “What do you play?” I’m always caught in a total mind-loop when trying to answer that question. Perhaps the sound-editor is my ‘instrument’.

    Meanwhile… I’m going to have to check out that new Jane’s Scenic Drive. Phil Wilkerson’s music is consistently high quality.

    • [ Posted June 18, 2011, at 3:10 pm ]

      @c. reider: I hear you on the “antiquated” sense inherent in the term “instrument.” I think one thing we’re working toward here is an understanding of how the word can be rejuvenated in light of contemporary performance habits.

  6. [ Posted June 19, 2011, at 1:57 am ]

    lots of good points here and need to chime in. i think ooray has a good point going and i’m going to try and say the same thing in a slightly different way. when we get into the digital realm each instrument becomes more of a ‘controller’ that has an interface and can be ‘performed’ in many different ways depending on the software that is used .

    although many have lustily repeated the old canard ‘eletronic music has no soul’ i have found quite the alternative (as well as many of the musician/makers you feature on this website) by focusing on the expressive potential that is micro-idiomatic to these very unique hardware and software combinations. yes a iphone used as an x-y pad is not as expressive as an piano but… if closely studied and practiced it does have a hyper-expressive potential that could not be reproduced by mere analog instruments

  7. [ Posted June 19, 2011, at 2:19 pm ]

    A very interesting topic.

    I do think that any electronic music tool can be approached as an instrument, the same way a stone (Akio Suzuki comes to mind), a flute or a drumkit or a table of gadgets can. dedicated practice and research is a prerequisite.

    instruments in the classic sense and the ways they are played have a century-old history and tradition of refinement. music software (and any other) has but a decades old history and its main features can often be tracked back to individual developers, arbitrary decisions suddenly becoming industry standard (e.g. MIDI), and a commercial need for emulation of already existing principles (e.g. piano keys to play a synth, piano roll in DAWs, imitation of analogue interfaces in software tools).

    to free oneself from working within culturally and commercially narrow preconceptions, a few things might be worth thinking about. these are personal thoughs from my scrapbooks, to be taken as stimuli not as my ultimate answers to my own questions. :-)

    the above is why it is important to make the “how” of electronic music unclear and irrelevant to the music. this is obviously a generalization and doesn’t hold true for meta- and conceptual works, and probably some others as well.

    combining different publically available software is a compositional act.

    it may also be regarded as an act of collage.

    software can be regarded as the score, executed by the computer rather than the instrumentalist.

    software can also be regarded as an instrument, played by another (or part of the same) software.

    the instrument maker is (to varying degrees) the composer.

    become your own instrument builder (or, more pointedly, the writer of your own score) to avoid “collage” charcteristics in your music.

    in digital electronic music, choices and changes can be implemented much quicker than in physical instruments. the instrument can thus be constantly refined, as Marc says above (in his comment from june 17 at 1.38)

    and with regard to interfaces and interaction with electronic tools – a discipline that IMO gets all the attention while I find the musically/compositionally interesting things to be mapping and scaling of data:

    creating a graphical or physical interface is a compositional act. it is interface design, shaping the way people come to view a set of possibilities.

    mapping data (from controllers or software-internal) is a compositional act. it is interaction design – shaping the way people interact with a set of possibilities.

    thus, to hold artistic control, the musician has to be able to map and scale freely the data his interfaces produce.

    creating a new interface does not automatically lead to a new way of making music, or even new music. interface creation is a means to an end.

    no matter what advertising says, there is no such thing as a “limitless” tool. :)

  8. [ Posted June 19, 2011, at 3:53 pm ]

    Steve Hamann says it for me. I use a bunch of boxes on a table (and a couple of pedals on the floor). As one of the strategies I employ to challenge myself as an improviser, I use a different configuration nearly every time I perform, but I still think of my aggregation of stuff as “an instrument” (singular), albeit one that’s in a constant state of flux. Probably the most important thing for me (besides the capability of producing the sounds that I want to hear) is expressiveness in the sense of being able to tweak multiple parameters in real time. Sometime there are more knobs/pedals/wires than at other times, but it still feels like the same “thing” when I sit down and play it.

  9. [ Posted June 19, 2011, at 5:16 pm ]

    I suppose in asking the original question, I was thinking less whether the Polar could be regarded as a single instrument than whether it could be compared in that way to the piano, etc. I’m in full agreement that the idea of an “instrument” is at times a tenuous one. I also agree that any instrument, no matter how complex (Polar) or simple (a stick) each require time and practice. In the modular synth forums, the question is often asked whether the rack of modules is the instrument, or is it the individual modules themselves? The comparison is made to the table of gadgets. Is the keyboard that one can attach to control the synth the instrument? One can have mastery of the keyboard without knowing much of the electronics, and vice versa. The comparison is made then to a piano, and we ask it the keyboard or the hammers and strings that one is playing?

    And it goes on and on. I have a box of modules staring at me here, about 40 of them in total — oscillators, filters, sequencers, LFOs, logic things, envelopes — and very few of them I’ve spent enough time to say I really know it. Moreover, probably I’ve probably turned over half of these modules in the last year. So unlike the Polar, and definitely unlike the piano, this instrument of mine isn’t even fixed. Sometimes I plug a guitar into the input, which then turns it into something closer to a very expensive stompbox.

    I’m just mentally riffing here. Maybe nothing coherent. I don’t doubt that Phillip Wilkerson knows his synthesizer. I hope to leave mine alone long enough now that I can get to know it in a similar way. (Although I have a sampler/looper coming on Monday and a new filter arriving next week, so ask me again later…)

    • [ Posted June 19, 2011, at 7:11 pm ]

      In the case of the module versus the modular, I think each may be the instrument, it just depends on how you look at them at a given moment.

      A piano or a guitar may seem fixed, but they aren’t really. They are modular by nature, constructed of a series of parts, each of which can be changed/removed: new strings, prepared hammers, swapped pickups. We’ve accepted that these collections of discrete parts are one instrument, even though many of those parts could be used as an instrument on its own (a taut string, a hammer, a piece of wood, a transducer).

      An instrument is simply the thing with which you make music. I’m not sure much more qualification is necessary. I don’t think depth defines the thing. Rhythm sticks are an instrument, but there’s little to them. A piano is 88 percussive devices, yet it’s a single instrument.

  10. [ Posted June 19, 2011, at 8:01 pm ]

    Really interesting topic and some fantastic discussion.

    I do agree that the idea of an instrument is increasingly – in electronic music at least – becoming a tricky and tenuous as Brian puts it. The concept behind such a release to my mind has more to do with the imposition of compositional limitations than anything else.

    As I’m sure we can all appreciate, the ubiquitousness of tools at our disposal as musicians/composers/producers these days can be extraordinarily inspiring, but can also perhaps be stifling to creativity – the burden of choice that is present in many aspects of our daily lives. Getting to know a limited set of tools well – and sculpting them to your needs can – as Tobias mentioned – be a large part of the compositional process.

    I guess it can be akin to decisions made in writing for a solo instrument – the choice of a solo instrument is a limitation in and of itself to be sure, but then knowing the instrument’s capabilities and choosing which areas to use and explore and which to omit becomes another set of limitations imposed upon that context – a compositional decision.

    Discussion on what constitutes an ‘instrument’ could be a long and arduous one – and is the topic of much current research. The balance of control and influence in the design and use of an electronic system is crucial to whether or not the system can be considered an ‘instrument’, or a synthetic collaborator. But at whichever end of the spectrum, aesthetic decisions and the imposition of limitations are usually made by both instrument designer and the potential end user – decisions that are allow musicians to redefine their relationship to an interface – to compose AND perform their instruments.

  11. [ Posted June 20, 2011, at 2:27 am ]

    Lots of food for thought here.

    Steve Hamann – I too was thinking of the electric guitar as a modular instrument, in a slightly differnet way: The guitar itself is analogous to an oscillator in a modular synth, since it generates the signal. There are filter modules built in (tone and volume controls) and optional settings (pickup configuration). But more importantly, both synth and guitar require a speaker output (some kind of amp). This ‘module’ is rarely considered as such in synth terms, but it does seem to be treated in this way by guitarists. So, we might say ‘guitarist’ when in fact we could more accurately describe them as ‘guitar-and-amp-ist’.

    The relationship between guitar + amp seems to me to be less ‘parasitic’ than the relationship between a VST instrument and its ‘host’ DAW, OS and computer, which may or may not contribute to the perceived sound. Further, any recorded music also has a similar relationhsip with whatever sound system is being used at that time to make it heard, which acts as a further ‘module’ and may also affect the sound, as does the location of the sound system. Finally, our ears also contribute to what is heard. We might also question to what extent we can call the ear a single instrument, being made of many complex mechanical and electrical parts, and which is similarly problematic to isolate from the host system.

  12. [ Posted June 20, 2011, at 8:31 am ]

    Steve and Guy, thanks for clarifying my own thought on the modular and the analogy of the guitar. A conversation I’ve been having related to this lately gets more into the specifics of what makes the specific instrument that instrument. A guy I read about bought a Mesa Boogie amp, except he didn’t. He bought a front panel with no knobs, several missing pots, attached to a board whch contained about 80% of the components — resistors, caps, wiring, vactrols — that would have been found on the original board. It had no tubes, no speaker, and no cabinet. The question was posed, “so what exactly makes this a Mesa Boogie?” Is it the specific circuit design? And as long as one replaces the missing parts with the same value and type of parts, is it still a M-B? The question was of course posed to guitars as well. This guitar looks like a Telecaster, sounds like a Telecaster. It doesn’t say Fender, however, and the parts were all sourced online by Warmoth and other companies.

    I don’t know what is my synth. Doepfer, Make Noise, TipTop Audio, Flame, Malekko, Wiard, etc and so on. It’s a mix of various things I like that make sounds I like in a way that I specifically chose to make them. I definitely see it as an instrument, and if I attach a reverb pedal to the end of the signal chain, that too becomes part of the instrument. I’m not much for drawing lines and confining labels and I’m happy to call pretty much anything that makes me interested “art.” So any question-posing I’m doing is more for the sake of this thread and in advocacy of the devil, as it were.

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