By way of gadget lust and preamble, let me share something with you:
These are both KORG goodies. (The image is from a promotional video you can visit here, if you’re curious.) The one on the left is the Kaossilator Pro, which is (mainly) an arpeggiator. The touch-screen is for punching in sequences of notes, which loop in realtime though a synthesizer. Kind of like the reel on a player piano, really. Is it a musical instrument? Sure. Only a “grandpa-guitar” purist would say otherwise.
The gadget on the right, which has a very similar interface to the arpeggiator, is the KaossPad 3, and it’s (mainly) an effects processor/sampler. It applies things like delays and distortion to audio signals, and maps the parameters of those effects onto the touch-screen. That is to say, it only messes with sound from other sources. I’m sure KORG saves a little on manufacturing by using the same case for two products, but something about the parity of controls between these two devices really tickles something in my brain. It’s a design that throws a lot of history out the window, and it pushes the question in a weird way. Is an effects box with a slick interface a musical instrument? Or more importantly: how might a revolution in tools eventually change our ideas about what music is and does? That argument gets a lot more interesting, not to mention more divisive. And, I think, it’s very much ‘of the moment’ in music.
If the question grabs you, too, you might find Crystal Castles’ III gives especially articulate form to a lot of those hypotheticals. I don’t know what kind of gadgets they have lying around the studio, but in a way, that’s the point: you never quite know what you’re listening to with this duo. As abrasive and distorted as they are, it’s almost a relief when Alice Glass’s vocals roll in over Ethan Kath’s soundscapes. On the new album, as ever, the sounds are both deeply expressive and painfully loud. And what I like about III is, more or less, what I liked about their last album: there’s a kind of confusion in the whole experience, and it forces the listener to judge things in a vacuum of context. You can pick out aesthetic hooks to sentimentality, disillusionment and love, and the beats are occasionally catchy, but in the end, the music is whatever the artists say it is. The twelve new tracks all roll off with a confidence of execution that’s hard to argue with. We may have plenty of noisy, high-tech post-pop, these days, but there’s nothing else quite as sure on its feet as Crystal Castles.
See the band’s official site for albums, samples and merch
More info about the Kaoss product line at KORG