A genuinely new instrument isn’t something you can expect to simply pick up and judge. Part of what makes music so addictive, so satisfying, is the amount of time and energy we put in. One would expect the same of new digital instruments.
And so, we’re fortunate that musician Geert Bevin is giving the Eigenharp, a new digital instrument combining touch-based, real depth and attention. The Eigenharp itself is a strange animal, with a crooked wind input and larger model form factor inspired by the bassoon, plus wind-style keys coupled with a fretted touch surface. Geert has followed the invention since its introduction, and shares an in-depth discussion of what it’s like playing the flagship Alpha instrument after three months of use.
Of course, as with any instrument, different players will discover different techniques and have, well, different musical ideas. So Geert has also co-founded an Eigenharp video group on Vimeo, on which users share their experience.
Don’t judge these tracks as polished, finished, perfect performances. In fact, on the contrary, what makes these videos useful is that, just like inviting a friend into your living room, you get to experience the music in progress. The artists are sharing their process of learning the instrument and finding musical ideas. (And Geert, I hope you forgive me for posting the video, but I got a lot out of it!)
For instance, here’s bar|none (see also his blog) trying a live jam:
I wanted to know more about how Geert came to discover the instrument and what his approach was to it. He kindly shared still more insight with CDM:
Maybe my approach and discovery of the Eigenharp is a bit different than others, let me explain.
I had traditional music training in my childhood and learned to play the classical guitar and a bit of piano. Being an early computer geek, I tried to use my Amiga and a Yamaha YS-100 back in the day for music but never really felt comfortable with sequencing and the DSP capabilities back then. So I shifted gears and went full on towards being a singer-songwriter, learning to play the steel-string guitar and got vocal training. I gigged a lot back then and did a lot of busking also. I took some years of Jazz training on a basic electric guitar but realized that all that theory actually removed much of my spontaneity, so I stopped that, tried to forget much of the patterns I learned and which was quite easily done since I had already been using open-tunings a lot for my own compositions. I really focused on getting an atmosphere and a feeling out, either through music or through vocals or both, more blues and traditional folk song oriented, looking for expression more than for virtuosity. Then I recorded my CD in auto-production, too soon for this kind of thing and the music industry here in Belgium wasn’t very accepting of it, hence not even wanting to distribute my CD, even though it was produced by one of the biggest Belgian producers and I got a lot of well known musicians to play on it also. That got me to really ‘fall into a chasm’ and I kinda give up on music out of disappointment. I started my family and focused on being creative as a software engineer, building out that career for 7 years, mostly not playing music anymore.
Two years ago, I randomly picked up my acoustic guitar again and the songs started flowing out of me. I felt the need to start a band and my girlfriend (who’s a very good singer) joined me in on that. Within 6 months we had a full repertoire and started gigging quite regularly. For my band Flytecase, I moved on to the electric guitar since I discovered one that I loved: a Godin LGXT, with great magnetic pickups, a piezo pickup and MIDI out (none of the standard Fenders or Gibsons ever did it for me). Never really having liked playing an electric guitar before, I didn’t have any gear for it. So I decided to go virtual all the way. I bought a Metric Halo audio interface and created my whole performance setup with Plogue Bidule on my Mac, the built-in Metric Halo guitar amp simulations, Guitar Rig, Studiodevil and a bunch of AU effects. I also started using more and more of the MIDI capabilities of my guitar with Kontakt and Omnisphere, blending the real guitar and soft synth sounds together. The latter of course was never really expressive due to the latency of the MIDI tracking and the clean precision that was mandatory in my playing to avoid wrong detection of MIDI notes. I could however feel a great attraction towards the software instruments since they sound so authentic now.
This is when I saw a tweet about the Eigenharp’s release in November of last year. It lured me in, I felt too attracted to this instrument that promised the same expression and physical interaction as a real guitar … but with software instruments! So, I ordered a Pico, got mine mid November and fell in love. It inspired me to write a bunch of songs (which are all online on my YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/gbevin) and it allowed me to treat the digital world with the same intimate passion as I did the real music instrument world. However, instead of being limited to one sound of my instrument, I was now able to venture into pretty much any direction I wanted. So I tried some classical, instrumental, jazz, … it all just felt right for me, but I couldn’t try it out before. I got into close contact with the guys at Eigenlabs since I wanted to know more of the details and internals, went to the first Pico meet-up in London and got to try out an Alpha. I liked it, but I also feared it. The Alpha is clearly different than the Pico, you don’t just pick it up and play it, its size and amount of keys requires real training. Even holding it is initially a challenge, let alone figuring out where to place your hands. I offered Eigenlabs to write a detailed review from my musician perspective after having learned to play the Alpha for a few months. They agreed and loaned me one of their final prototype Alphas, which I played daily for three months … and then I wrote the review.
My approach is different I think in that I don’t focus on learning to play the Alpha with its built-in step sequencer or looping engine. I want to be able to play whole songs in real time, just as I did with the guitar, ie. being a singer-songwriter first. I’ll probably move on to using the other features in time, but the Alpha allows so much expressiveness through its keys, that it feels a shame to loop things ’round and ’round, just as every note when you play the Eigenharp is different, it feels natural to me that every time a sequence is played, it is also expressed differently, hence no looping. As you can imagine, that’s quite a challenge since it means that I have to be comfortable enough to fill of an arrangement by playing chords, leads and/or rhythm in real time, without making mistakes … eventually while singing also 🙂
That’s why I haven’t recorded many videos with the Alpha yet, I don’t feel I’m there yet. The video I put on Vimeo is not really for ‘the public’. We’re a bunch of Eigenharp Alpha player on Twitter than like to exchange our findings (since there’s no training or teachers), so that video is more to give them an idea of what I was working on two days ago than to show something to a wider audience (hence also Vimeo and not YouTube). I’m afraid that if you add that vid to the post it will be judged as a finished work, while it’s just something I was experimenting with at that time 🙂
Perhaps more important than any of the particulars of the review, he notes that it’s that feeling of losing oneself that really makes this an instrument – and in a way that raises questions about what makes instruments most satisfying:
One aspect that I like to much about the Eigenharp is that you can get lost in it in the same way as I get lost when playing in open tunings on the guitar. You theoretically have no clue what you’re doing since all your reference points are gone, but due to the tuning, things sound good. Since the Eigenharp can be set up to play any scale in any key at the press of a button, you don’t play any ‘wrong notes’ anymore, just ‘less appropriate’ ones. I find that this on one hand limits me since I can’t play out of scale notes anymore. However, as is often the case, limitation fuels creativity since the bounds are clearly established and these are then boundaries in which you can fully express yourself. I find that I’m much more comfortable with improvising and experimenting since I’m not worried about actually playing the right key or scale, I’m just relying on my instinct and intuition to get to the notes I want to express. Of course, you can also play it fully chromatically if that’s your preference 🙂
Cool and unique as the instrument is, I do find myself wondering if I couldn’t have similar experiences on a keyboard with expression controls. Of course, that’s because I’m a keyboardist by nature; a flute player might get ideas from a Tuvan throat singer and try them out on the flute.
So, anticipating what some people might say in comments – could you try similar explorations on something like, say, a $500 iPad? You lose a lot of the precision, the comfortable form factor, and pressure sensitivity for expression. But new iPad applications are trying some of the same ideas in regards to “no-wrong-notes” tuning and exploration. (Hey, it’s not a new idea – acoustic instruments have done this since the dawn of time – but it’s an idea that can continue to pay off.)
Be sure to read Geert’s complete review. And if you’re using an Eigenharp yourself, we’d love to hear your thoughts and see your videos – or those on other instruments, as well.