The jam session might have been tighter with an infusion of rhythmic tension, and a couple of solos arrived a bar or two early. But the players were having so much fun it didn’t much matter: To their ears, it was music all the same, and at the end of the set they didn’t even have to lug their instruments into a waiting van.
They simply placed them in their pockets.
Cell phones, that is.
An emerging innovation at the Georgia Institute of Technology portends a brave new world of musicianship in which the show goes on with a Nokia or iPhone—rather than an alto sax or Martin acoustic—in the hands of the performers. It’s called ZooZ Beat, a gesture-based mobile application that enables cell users to access instruments on their phones and then shake, tap or tilt them to create digital music. By most estimates, ZooZ Beat is moving quickly through the wireless pipeline, perhaps a year away from a market debut.
ZooZ Beat elicits passionate, occasionally abstruse disquisitions from Tech’s music technologists, who say the software democratizes music making by opening it up to those without financial resources, formal training or access to instruments. Eventually, a layman is able to visualize the concept: Sitting so that everyone can see each other’s faces, instrument-loaded cell phones held firmly in their palms, each member of an ensemble employs a series of gestures that produce the accompaniments, timbre, background beats and solos called for by a particular arrangement.
ZooZ Beat “allows anyone with a cell phone to use expressive gestures to create and share music in a group,” says Gil Weinberg, Ph.D., director of the university’s Center for Music Technology, which developed the program from its infancy. Weinberg, who is enthralled with “the whole idea of a musical instrument that can fit in your hand,” adds, “With this technology, you don’t have to have a lot of skill or know a lot of music theory to become musically creative. You can just use your own intuitive gestures to make music that you can relate to and let the software interpret the movements and manipulate the music accordingly.”
The cradle of invention
Christened last November after administrators secured commitments from 20 Tech researchers from across the academic spectrum, the center strives to be a cradle of interdisciplinary research and development as technology “continues to re-define the way we create, perform, listen to and consume music,” Weinberg says.
A magnetic, uptempo 41-year-old Israeli with a helmet of curly black locks, Weinberg and his acolytes—students who share his goal of reinventing the musical wheel—were known to be relentless in their pursuit of innovation well before the center’s founding. But now, with official recognition by the university, there’s electricity in the air, evident in Weinberg’s amped-up presentations and the center’s ever-widening grid.
In truth, no idea is immediately dismissed as off the grid. The center’s list of long-term projects has expanded into an opus that includes wearable devices that aid music therapy, audience participation in live performances, computational analysis of musical signals, the fine-tuning of acoustical sound and the effect of song on people with visual impairments.
The water-cooler chatter around the center, a unit of Tech’s College of Architecture in the organizational chart, has focused on the catchy ZooZ Beat. Two other high-profile innovations, however, also smack of significant ingenuity: Piano Touch, a white, wireless glove that vibrates around the finger that’s supposed to strike the next key, and robots named Haile or Shimon, which play duets with humans.
Music for the masses
In mileage and in spirit, the midtown Atlanta campus is a world apart from Silicon Valley, the sprawling, northern California office park community that launched the Information Age. But in his absolutist faith in the beneficence of technology, Weinberg is eerily reminiscent of those whiz-bang digitopians.
The center’s guru is aware of the pitfalls of gadgetry, but when it comes to its interplay with music, he hears nothing but harmony in the distance. For instance, in the case of ZooZ Beat, Weinberg says an egalitarian impulse in music circles pushed the invention, rather than a Madison Avenue-style manipulation that creates artificial demand. He asks—what better way to introduce the young to music than through a gadget that’s already become an extension of their hands? And is it more likely that someone owns a cello, or a cell phone?
Innate talent, albeit in wildly varied helpings, resides in us all, he says.
“It’s very easy for a two-year-old to draw with crayons and be expressive,” he says. “Only one in two million of them may turn out to be Picasso. But it’s still creativity, even if it’s less than Picasso’s, less than the kid next to him.”
In the setting Weinberg envisions, in which cell phones replace instruments in a jam, the players, probably nonmusicians or novices, learn to improvise, synchronize, interpolate, recognize tonal and facial cues from fellow musicians and construct a solo.
“Everyone becomes creative,” he says. “Everyone becomes musical.”
Even if this medium lacks its progenitors’ theatricality. Who can forget how Hendrix trained his electric guitar on the audience as if it were an assault weapon, a visual that was as unnerving as his riffs? And many fans, fascinated by the intricate fingering of the greats, brought binoculars with them when Garcia, Santana or Segovia came to town. Undoubtedly, The Who’s ritual destruction of their instruments at the finale of their shows may have disturbed the parents of concertgoers, but the display of nihilistic fury became as much a part of the show as the music itself.
Back then, Gil Weinberg and his followers were, at most, toddlers. Considering how they envision the future of music making, there is clearly a generational divide at play.
With as many makeovers as handheld phones have undergone, maybe instrumentation is the logical next step. Why shouldn’t your Nokia double as a Stratocaster? It just won’t be as much fun to set on fire.