Is the Laptop a Musical Instrument? or, What's Old Is New Again, and Vice Versa

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One night in April 2008, during two sets at The Jazz Standard, a leading New York City jazz spot, master jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas clearly demonstrated there's not one part of the instrument's range he can't call up with precision at a moment's notice. But Douglas's masterful performance is but the tip of the iceberg in an evening of compelling sounds not just from traditional jazz instruments, but non-traditional ones as well, that speaks loudly about the influence of electronic media and concomitant inherent messages.

Joined on the stage with Douglas were Marcus Strickland (saxes), Adam Benjamin (Fender-Rhodes), Brad Jones (electric baby bass), Gene Lake (drums and cymbals), and DJ Olive. All these musicians are individually highly skilled and inventive in their own right. But what made the evening's sounds all the more compelling was DJ Olive's performance--except Olive doesn't play an instrument. He plays around with sound. One of his instruments is a laptop. Others included a turntable and an assortment of electronic buttons!

Olive's contribution to the evening's entertainment were the various sounds and sound effects elicited from his library of LPs and hard-drive stored effects: sirens, people talking, a woman yelling, the sound of dice (I think that's what it was), laughter, and fireworks, among others. At one point, I thought I heard sound effects from the 1956 science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet.

The introduction of these electronic "instruments" could easily be viewed as gimmicky to some jazz purists, who might point a finger at the commercialism such a "player" represents being on the stage with the rest of the "legitimate" instrumentalists: "Come now. A turntable? Is this a rap concert or what?"

Fact is, Olive's contribution to the music fit right in. Fact is, the very first and last "sounds" heard (at least in the first set) were from Olive's smorgasbord of auditory offerings. Musically, it worked. Perhaps it worked because, as Douglas remarked between sets, he and Olive have worked together for about five years. Clearly, there is a comfort level between the standard instrumentalists and Olive's "playing." In fact, in the first piece of the first set--a funky, moderate tempo tune anchored by an electric bass ostinato--Olive takes a solo. How does a laptop, et al., take a solo? It all seemed quite natural and integral to the performance.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The use of non-standard instruments and sounds in live musical performance has been a "compositional" technique going back to at least Mozart's day. The "Toy Symphony" (there is some debate as to who actually wrote it) uses toy instruments that are highly integrated into the score. Hovhaness' "And God Created Great Whales" uses whale sounds. Walter Piston's "The Incredible Flautist" uses dog sounds. Eric Satie's "Parade" features a typewriter, revolver, and siren. Shostakovitch's "Symphony No. 2" uses a factory hooter. And Tchaikovsky's world-famous "1812 Overture" employs cannons and bells.

There are other examples. Musique Concrete--the use of sounds from life--was pioneered by French composer and radio broadcaster Pierre Schaeffer in the late 1940s and 1950s. This genre was facilitated by developments in technology, most prominently microphones and the commercial availability of the magnetic tape recorder used by Schaeffer and his colleagues for manipulating tapes and tape loops.

On the jazz side of the twentieth-century music house, in 1967 trumpeter and composer/arranger Don Ellis began his experimentation with electronics. His pianist started using the Fender-Rhodes electric piano, clavinet, and electric harpsichord. Ellis himself started using what he called the "electrophonic trumpet," that is, a trumpet whose sound was amplified and often routed through various effects processors. The first appearance of this innovation is on "Open Beauty" from 1967's Electric Bath, in which Ellis takes an extended solo with his trumpet processed through an echoplex. …