Every piano the world over has the same user interface: 88 keys, arranged linearly in a standardized order, with a series of 12 notes repeated again and again at higher and lower pitches. But what if you could access more than just those 12 notes, using an interface that adapted based on the music itself?
That’s what the composer and musician Subhraag Singh set out to do five years ago–to create a musical instrument that could access the infinite tones within the traditional octave, while also making it easy for the player to play them. The resulting instrument is the aptly named Infinitone, a pyramidal wind instrument with sliding valves controlled by computer-enabled motors.
Like a high-tech saxophone, the Infinitone’s primary interface is an iPad, which displays 256 notes per octave. His invention recently won first prize at the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech.
“I outsource the mechanical elements of the music and give that to computers and machines and leave the humane expression to the former. The soul, the life, the breath come to the instrument through the mouth and vibration,” says Singh, who trained as a jazz saxophonist. “But the tuning of the notes is a mathematical phenomenon.”
For the less musically inclined, it’s helpful to think about this cornucopia of musical notes like colors on a gradient. There are possibly infinite colors on the color wheel, just as there are feasibly infinite tones between each note on the piano. “The color wheel is kind of like the musical octave,” he says. “I use it as a guidance for my compositions, I use it to visualize it what I’m composing.”
After spending years studying the math behind musical intervals and building the Infinitone, Singh has just begun to compose music on it. His compositions look far different from the double clef notation we’re used to. Instead, each note is delineated with a color and a numerical label that indicates a proportion that generates the musical interval. To perform live, Singh pre-composes a piece, then effectively clicks through each note as he blows through the mouthpiece. A waltz he’s composed for a trio of Infinitones sounds both mournful and jaunty at the same time.
“A musician should be able to use infinite musical color and space in their compositions and performances,” Singh says. “My goal is, I want to be able to play any melody I hear in my head.” He views instruments with such fixed interfaces like a saxophone–the instrument he studied in college–as limiting, and wants to give musicians a method of playing music that isn’t limited by any tuning system, instrument, or style.
The Infinitone itself is made of a long pyramidal brass tube with a mouthpiece similar to what you’d find on a saxophone. The slides on the side of the instrument that control the tone are hooked up to motors that are controlled by an Arduino–itself connected to Singh’s computer. The iPad interface he uses comes from the program Lemur, and he has it set to display 512 notes at a time when he’s composing. He hopes to hire a programmer to create a custom interface for the instrument via an app, which would give him even more flexibility; even if he’s writing a piece that uses 256 notes, he may only be using five notes for a particular passage, and Singh imagines an interface that would only show him the notes that he needs at any given time, eliminating some of the difficulty of playing and making the instrument’s vast number of notes more accessible.
“I can morph and shape the interface however I want,” he says. “I’m no longer fixed to a particular interface. I no longer have to spend years practicing fingerings on the piano.”
Singh isn’t the first musician to compose outside of the 12-tone Western scale–many other musicians in places including India, China, and Middle Eastern cultures use scales that are incompatible with the piano. Other composers have worked with the resonances and variations between notes–called overtones and undertones–to great effect. Compositions that use upwards of 100 notes per octave are feasible to perform using acoustic instruments like the violin, but they are incredibly difficult because the minute differences between each note can be difficult for human fingers to memorize.
Singh points to the composer Ben Johnstone as his primary inspiration–Johnston’s String Quartet #7 uses 1400 individual notes and is considered the most difficult string quartet ever written. It famously took the Kepler Quartet nearly 15 years to master Johnston’s set of 10 string quartets.
But by using a computer to calculate the precise frequencies of each of the 256 notes per octave, Singh is able to achieve a level of precision in his instrument that is incredibly difficult to do manually. He hopes to recreate the Kepler Quartet’s work using the Infinitone, and estimates it will take him far less time.
“The funny thing is that we’ve become so used to the [12-tone musical] system that we assume this is how music is played,” he says. “Initially for people who are used to hearing pianos and guitars, this music I’m creating can sound a little bit strange or perhaps out of tune, but as the ears start to gain more flexibility and experience, my hope is that it sounds very natural and real and beautiful.”
[Photos: via Infinitonic]