This gadget rocks! The world's newest musical instrument
Peter Gabriel has one in his studio. Bjork takes hers on tour. But what exactly is it? Tim Walker gets to grips with the radical new instrument that's part digital sampler, part light-show – and part toy
Wednesday 05 March 2008
Blip. Blip. Blip. Blip-donk-blip. Blip. Blip. Blip-donk-blip-tshk-blip. Blip. Wraaa- AAAOOoow. Blip. This is the noise of a novice trying to make something resembling music from the world's newest musical instrument, the Tenori-On. And, by the way, it sounds a whole lot better than it reads. Designed by Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai and built by Yamaha, the Tenori-On is a remarkable piece of kit that has already made its way into the excited, sweaty palms of musical pioneers such as Peter Gabriel and Bjork.
It was only launched in September, yet an LA-based audio-conceptualist, Norman Fairbanks, has already recorded an entire album using only a Tenori-On. In London, meanwhile, a pair of Japanese girls calling themselves the Tenorions perform using two of the instruments in sync – one has her's programmed to make drum noises and percussion, while the other covers guitars and bass. You can watch the Tenorions' live sessions on their YouTube channel.
"Tenori-On" translates as "sound on your palm", and that just about sums up the machine. A hand-held silver tablet framing a square grid of 16x16 flashing LED buttons, the Tenori-On is double-sided: both faces look identical, but one is played by the performer, while the other provides a miniature light show for the audience – providing a visual rendering of every sound that has to be seen to be truly appreciated.
When you first switch it on, the Tenori-On appears rather like your average, common or garden sequencer. Lights flicker across the display in perfect four-four timing, and you can build up a looping sequence of up to 16 tracks, from plinky electric pianos to booming bass drums (although these sound better once it's plugged into a proper set of woofers – the one-watt built-in speakers aren't brilliant for bass). There are 256 sounds in the Tenori-On's arsenal, but you can load up your own samples using the memory card.
Then, as with any decent sequencing program, you can drop your dog barking, your guitar plucking, or some saucy French gobbledygook into the mix. A thumb-roller allows you to scroll between tracks, and each of the 256 little light-buttons produces a different note when pressed. You can change the time signature by reducing your 16-beat sequence to 15 or less, you can change the tempo with a quick push and roll, and you can change the volume on each track by turning the tablet sideways to transform it into an instant live mixing desk.
The Tenori-On has plenty more unexpected tricks up its sleeve, such as the bouncing ball function, which bounces up and down on your light display: you pick the height of your recurring bounce and the "ball" makes a noise every time it hits the "ground". Or you can sweep your hand over the lights to produce a warm wash of sound. Or you can pick a series of points on the tablet for a pinball to ricochet around, sounding every time it hits an obstacle. Each mode can be layered into a sequence in real time. And if you're particularly proud of your instant creation it can be saved to the memory card.
If this all sounds rather complex, it's not. Or, at least, it doesn't have to be. At the Tenorions' MySpace page, you can watch leftfield and experimental musicians – such as electro-folkie Four Tet, Manhattan math-rockers Battles and progressive Chicago guitarist Jim O'Rourke having a go at playing the instrument. Some pick it up more quickly than others, but the beauty of the thing is how instantly gratifying it can be to an absolute beginner. Its intuitive controls make it simple to pick up the basics, but its complexity means there's real skill involved in producing exactly the sounds you want.
"I can create sequences that I'd never be able to with software," says Peter Peck, Yamaha's Tenori-On spokesman, demo-ing the device at a London music technology expo. "I don't need to know anything about music, I'm just pressing lights and buttons. Anyone can walk up to it and make something happen, and be inspired. With a guitar you don't get that instant reward. But after that initial bit of inspiration, there's also a huge curve of musical development to learn on the Tenori-On if you really want to get the most out of it. It's a unique way of creating and performing music."
Under the name Four Tet, the 27-year-old British musician Kieran Hebden produces music contains elements of folk, electronica and dance. He has released a trio of albums with the avant-garde American jazz drummer Steve Reid. Hebden is an early adopter of the Tenori-On and played it at the London launch alongside its creator, Toshio Iwai. "I'm interested in anything that's about finding new ways to trigger and use samples and sounds," says Hebden, "and I also love using step sequencers, so this was just the sort of thing I'd be interested in. It's really good for live improvisation: I use it to play rhythmically along with drums and to make dense washes of sound. I can also run it through effects and get some crazy noises out of it. It just works really well at shows because it's so visual."
Listening to electronic music can be a thrilling experience. Seeing it performed is another matter: as artists can spend most of their time on stage huddled behind a laptop. The highlight of a show might be the musician thrusting one finger in the air while they slide up a fader knob with their other hand. Part of the Tenori-On's mission is to make the performance of electronic music more visually exhilarating; the moving lights on the tablet provide an exact visual accompaniment to the sounds it produces. Bjork has already been seen using one on her South American tour. But, like Norman Fairbanks, Hebden also sees recording potential in the Tenori-On: "I think I could make whole tracks on it if I tried, and it's so portable," he says. "I use it on train journeys and stuff just to mess around with ideas. And it's so quick to work on – you can get a lot of sound working together very quickly."
Peter Gabriel has supposedly added the Tenori-On to the array of instruments at his Real World Studios in Wiltshire. Fairbanks released his Tenori-On album, 7 Days Microsleep, as a free audio download, but also released some of the tracks as Tenori-On native data, which means that fellow Tenori-On players can deconstruct (and reconstruct) his tracks, becoming amateur remixers at the drop of a hat. Those who want to can happily store albums'-worth of material on the memory card.
Iwai, the Tenori-On's iconoclastic creator, is known in Japan as an interactive media and installation artist, but in the UK his best-known design is Electroplankton, an interactive music game for the Nintendo DS. The Tenori-On, despite its Japanese origins, is only available in this country. Yamaha chose the UK as a test-bed to find out who its market might be before allowing the rest of the world access to the object.
Getting your hands on one via the Yamaha website can be a slow process – but the slow trickle of instruments into the UK is just enough, says Peck, to satisfy the real enthusiasts. While the nuts and bolts are put together by robots, the magnesium finish is hand-polished, meaning that every instrument is, ostensibly, unique – an electronic Stradivarius. The price tag, thankfully, is not in the Stradivarian stratosphere: £599 isn't an immodest fee for a musical instrument.
The Tenori-On doesn't produce its own distinctive sounds, and in that respect is a combination of synthesiser and sequencer, the two inventions that are responsible for electronic music. It might just end up as a fun performance tool rather than a widely used recording device, but what fun it is. Incidentally, it has a rather fetching clock function. So it looks good even when it's resting on your coffee table.
To buy a Tenori-On, visit www.tenori-on.co.uk
Inventions that changed music
The Gibson Robot Guitar
Launched last December, the Gibson Robot Guitar is an electric guitar that can tune itself. The Les Paul design uses robotic technology not only to retain string tension for standard tuning, but also to store a number of other alternative tunings. If it weren't for the current £1,300 price tag, this would surely be a machine with some serious mainstream potential.
The Stylophone was a 1960s novelty now confined mostly to car boot sales and gadget websites. It looks like a pocket radio, with a metal keyboard across which you move a stylus to generate notes. Three million Stylophones were sold on the back of a Rolf Harris advertising campaign, one of them to David Bowie, who used the device on the recording of "Space Oddity".
A curious-looking pair of antennae around which you wave your hands to vary pitch, producing the eerie whine best known as the sound of the Mysterons. Invented by Léon Theremin.
On sale from 1971, Dr Robert Moog's Minimoog Model D was one of the first mass-produced electronic keyboard synthesisers. Portable and relatively cheap, it was a massive hit and retains a cult following today. Stevie Wonder popularised the sound of the Moog on Talking Book and Innervisions.
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