What Is An Instrument? - Instrument Week on BTR


Photo taken by Steve Snodgrass taken from Creative Commons

About a year ago, some interns and I set out on a month-long investigative report to learn about the Music Under New York program and profile some of New York’s subway musicians. The range was wide, as we spoke with players who stemmed from classically trained backgrounds, like violinist Valeriy Zhmud, to roadie vagabond turned street drummer Mike Alaska (click HERE for the video). On the one hand, we had an extremely skilled soloist playing some very difficult Bach while reading sheet music and advertising the work he does with his quartet. On the other hand, we had a very talented improvised beatmaker, who relied on showmanship and gimmick to earn more money, as he pounded away on turned-over pails, old bicycle spokes, and empty cans. Both were clearly making music. But, were both using “instruments” to do so?

Every word has its limitations. Lawyers have been making millions of dollars off this abstraction for hundreds of years. What defines an “instrument” could be as subjective as what defines art. Recently, the Brooklyn Museum decided to cancel their plans for the LA Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition “Art in the Streets”; a show featuring the sometimes incredible, sometimes obscene, but always controversial, graffiti. Citing economic woes and financial strain as their motivation for pulling the plug, there was no doubt in the art world that part of the decision (perhaps the large part) came from premature criticism about Brooklyn’s decision to promote what many call nothing more than glorified vandalism. As such, if spray paint and a concrete wall can be a pallet and canvas, can buckets and pails be considered instruments?

This question of “what is an instrument” is more for a class that teaches meaning and truth than for one that teaches theory and sound. Piling on recording and technology and the question even becomes more complicated. Is anything that records sound, or plays it back, an instrument? DJs and MCs broke that debate wide open in the late seventies and early eighties as club performance went from the DJ responsibility to seamlessly fade tracks in and out to a performance where records and sound-systems were manipulated with great skill to make new sounds, new rhythms, and alter the expectations of certain songs. Recognizing the melody was the hook; building anticipation was the tease; and dropping in the beat was the victory.

As equipment improves, musicians and producers are finding more ways to use the playback sound as part of their performing technique. I remember going to see Owen Pallett play in Toronto about three years ago. He stood at the front of the stage with his violin held like a guitar and began to finger-pluck the opening riff to Bloc Party’s “Modern Love”. After repeating the riff for 8 bars, he pulls his violin down to his side and began to make jokes with the small crowd as the riff repeated over the speakers. Following that, he picked up his bow from the floor where he had left it, sang the first verse into the microphone with his instrument at his side, and then stepped away from the microphone and plucked on the strings again, this time playing the second guitar part. Repeating the same method, he then went on to sing the second verse, only this time, the speakers played both parts he had just layered. Repeat with chorus, add in some brilliant fiddle-strokes for the bridge, and voila—one man, a violin, loop machine, foot pedal, and we have a one man band. It was pretty incredible to watch, and the first time I had ever seen anything like it.

Should we be required to deconstruct a performance such as this, how do we label the individual parts? Musician—Owen Pallett. Instrument—Violin. Performing agent—loop machine.

A good friend of mine shared the musician Joe Driscoll with me this weekend, who also prefers loop machines, foot pedals, and beatboxing to large bands (see HERE). Again, Driscoll and Skilly are not shy of talent or creativity. This music is both impressive and entertaining. But when considering the whole as greater than the sum of the parts, I think the guitar is the only “instrument” part in there. The others are creativity, agency, and technology.

Personally, I wouldn’t call a loop machine and foot pedal an instrument. In the same way, I wouldn’t call an empty paint bucket an instrument. There is no doubt that all of these objects are very capable of making sound, but so are the palms of my hands, the chords in my throat, and the balls in my feet. The same can be said for anything that has the ability to record, because it in turn has the ability to project harmony and rhythm—the two separators of “music” from “noise”.