From the September 2005 issue of Teclado and Audio Magazine, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Click on images to enlarge
Link to an abridged version of the original Portuguese-language article
Excellent translation by Hank
Schroy. Because there are some inaccuracies in the article, occasionally
i have made comments - these are in square brackets.
Because in translation some
of this interview is confusing, I would recommend going to my samchillian
website to read my description and watch my demo video (or better
yet download the PC software) to understand
the technical points of the article.
THE FUTURE ARRIVES!
Is the surprising invention of Leon Gruenbaum the revolution of the keys?
Harmony By Numbers (by Marcus Vinicius Benedicto)
A musician who has a math degree from Harvard, Leon Gruenbaum, invented an instrument that combines his two passions.
Music and mathematics are two elements that at first glance are distinct. But they can work very well when they are put together. This is what the work of North American Leon Gruenbaum, creator of the unusual Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Chee Peeeee [Cheeepeeeee] demonstrates. The musician studied classical piano since he was little. He even passed through the New England Conservatory of Music. And on top of that he has a diploma in mathematics from Harvard. "My tastes were always more towards music. This instrument however was a way for me to combine my interests. I'm sure that my mathematical training and my scientific background helped with all the computer and electronic work", he explains. Gruenbaum, who performs frequently on a conventional piano in new york, says that his interest in electronic music grew at the moment he started to pay less attention to jazz. However, he still appreciates the harmony of Brazilian music, and especially the musicality of the people from here. "I have the impression that, in Brazil, the 'normal' people are more sophisticated than the people in America. They seem to understand. If an American would hear Brazilian pop music, the harmonies would probably be too complicated for them," he observes. Coming through our country to present music of guitarist Vernon Reid, Gruenbaum spoke to Keyboard and Audio magazine about how he conceived the instrument that he created and what it can do.
What exactly is the Samchillian?
It's a keyboard that has no fixed tones associated with each key. On a normal instrument if someone wants to hear a particular sound, they press a certain key. Every time you hit that key you hear that same note. But I had a different idea. With this instrument, it's possible to descend a series of notes with just one key. For example, I have some keys prepared for G pentatonic [This is of course one of many examples]
Is the instrument already finalized?
I think that one of the most interesting things about creating something new is that besides having an idea about why i created it, the instrument is always showing me new things that I hadn't thought about. I always think about Jimmy [Jimi] Hendrix using feedback. I am sure that Les Paul [the inventor of the electric solid body guitar] didn't anticipate feedback. And if he did anticipate it, he didn't want it, he didn't like it - it was a mistake. But anyway, someone such as this guitarist comes up who has perfected the art of dealing with that effect. He even would turn towards the amp to increase it. There was an article that was explaining he had discovered exactly where to stand on the stage inside of the sound: "If i stand here i'll get this particular frequency". The question is how does one react to the reality of what's happening.
What can the Samchillian do?
The principal function is the tone row. [This is one feature, certainly not the principal one.] The term comes from last century from the serial music of Schoenberg and some other modern composers. They utilized a method of composition that subverted traditional harmony. What they would do is to elaborate an idea based on 12 tones in a particular order without repeating any one. I thought "the computer is ideally suited. it is very easy for me to create a tone row". So I have one button so that when i press it it plays the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, and this will automatically keep you from repeating the notes. So immediately i have a tone row. So it's possible to improvise one immediately after recording the twelve notes [this is complicated to explain - check out above links at top more info.] (not as audio - the computer remembers the notes). So you can play them with the "+ 1" key and hear them in the order in which they were inserted. Or if i hit "-1" i will hear them backwards. Or, i can hit the 2 keys and jump, one yes and one no. ["yes", "no"- this is quite mysterious.] This becomes very interesting because there are certain patterns that I play especially in the microtonal scales that are 20 notes per octave. If the correct sequence of chords are played [not sure why he says 'chords'] you will have a very quick pattern, something that would require months of practice on piano (laughter). Immediately, I can be pressing the keys very quickly and playing something that seems very complicated and doesn't repeat itself for 10 seconds. This was a very interesting discovery. Still in the functions there is rotating tuning button that doesn't have a center as a normal pitch wheel does.
This one continues to turn. It will send MIDI commands until the end and then it doesn't do anything. [After the wheel has spun a rotation or two it will continue to physically spin but not send any more pitch bend commands] and the lights give an indication of the notes that are being played. I had to add them because the movement of my fingers were so subtle that no one from the audience knew that i was doing anything (laughter). It's evident that most people use their eyes more than they use their ears. And so i discovered that the more visual stuff i do the more the public appears to appreciate it.
Why this name, the Samchillian Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee?
That's a good question (laughter). One day I will make up a good answer. It's a simply a strange combination of syllables I invented. I remember that Charlie Parker wrote a song called Klacktovedsteene [Klactoveesedstene]. They asked him,"Why that name?" and he said, "It's a sound, man. It's a sound." That is my answer.
Did you not think that the available controllers in the market were sufficient for what you wanted?
That's what motivated me the most to do this. The truth is if the objective is to be original and create something that was never made before, using electronics is frequently the easiest way. Sometimes one notices that one is creating unusual music that was never heard before but then neither the creator nor anyone else wants to hear it [laughter]. This is the danger of working with electronics. People criticize it for being cold. It takes a lot of work to make it sound warm and human. It's what I would like, but it's something difficult to do because we're dealing with a medium that's naturally cold. I believe that what we respond to music is the human element. We feel the emotion. When a singer makes a high note, he's working hard. If a high note is played by a synthesizer, one is simply pressing a button. Sometimes the passion in this doesn't appear in a very clear way. I believe that I was interested in expanding what could be done with keyboards, and in general I am pretty satisfied. It was an experiment; I don't know anybody who has done anything like this. I have a patent of this idea. On my site, samchillian.com, the software is available for whoever is interested in experimenting.
What are the difficulties that you have had?
I had a series of problems
in the beginning, because of the electronics, which aren't my field. I
understand a little bit about computers, because i have worked with them.
But i had the good fortune to have a few good people to help with the
hardware and the software. They are people who could possibly make a lot
of money [working for others], but obviously i'm a musician and not a
big company. I am not paying them in the way that i should, but they are
really helping me a lot, making me feel a lot more secure when i perform.
Many times in the beginning in the middle of a show everything would just
stop. I have a back-up unit, but i remember there was a show where even
the backup unit didn't work. (laughter). There are also problems with
voltage, when we travel to different countries. The issue is that i was
able to make one unit just about all on my own. I had some help on the
details on how to stabilize it.
Is there a market for an instrument such as this? Do you have plans to commercialize it?
Yes. One of the reasons that I obtained a patent was to protect me in case I decided to commercialize it. I am in the process of preparing it for this. I went to NAMM and made a demonstration a few years ago. One of the important aspects of what I do is that this instrument is not something that makes music easier. There is electronic music nowadays that has as its purpose saving money in the studio. But this is not the case. It's a creative tool and that also limits the commercialization. Yes, there are people that are interested in being creative. I receive emails now and again from people wanting to buy it. But I'm not currently prepared to sell. Theoretically, whoever downloads the program would be able to put it on a laptop and do more or less the same thing. But it would be cool to do a hardware version with the same functions that I use.
How did you develop the technique for the samchillian?
It was a very long process. I had a very large mathematical problem on my hands. And so I thought, "I want to fill out all of the keys with "+1", "+2" etc." I started to think about the typewriter keyboard. In the beginning, it was mechanical. There was a problem that if people typed too fast the keys would stick. So they distributed them [the most commonly used keys, he means] throughout the keyboard in order to make typing slower. So, an American, Devorak [Dvorak] put all the vowels together, and it was his ideas that I studied. I thought that they would apply to my problem, because I wanted it to be as efficient as possible. For example, one pattern that I use very often is "-2" followed by "+1". If I put them next to each other [played by same finger] then I am not able to play them very fast. If I put one key on each side (one in each hand), I am able to play much faster. I also discovered, and this is something I hadn't perceived before, that when I use the thumb, it's even faster. In truth, I did a very sophisticated analysis using a program called Prolog, in which I showed the computer the problem and the computer showed me a way. I analyzed a few examples of technique, such as mine, Charlie Parker's, and Bach. I took a few examples of improvised lines that I wanted to hear, so these were the most common lines and I wanted to fit the maximum number of them on the instrument. So in this way I went
on thinking about the organization of the keys. Some of them I used to duplicate the function of the principal keys. As opposed to a traditional piano, where there is one note for each key, I duplicated the function of some of them. There is also a 'repeat' key and an 'undo' key, which is very useful when you are learning. I also developed a few exercises, because i had to start somewhere to learn the fingering, that obviously is a very important part of the process. I thought about what I wanted to play, wrote it, and practiced it. I wrote the equivalent of piano exercises. [Hanon exercises].
Does the samchillian work like other programs?
This equipment works by itself [I.e., it's a standalone unit]. It doesn't need to be plugged into a computer. It is not any different from buying a traditional keyboard with a MIDI output. The program, which is on the site, works on any PC. So with any program that you have it's possible to use it as a MIDI controller for your program, such as a sequencer or whatever.
What else do you do with the instrument?
I also play bass on the samchillian. We did a tour with Vernon Reid, on which i was the bassist. If i play really fast, for example, i can do things that would be difficult to do on a traditional keyboard. I have my own work,in which I sing, play keyboards, and sometimes bass lines. I execute it all by myself with a sequencer. Later I did a project called Math Camp, in which I play with a band also with the keyboard.
How do people usually react to the equipment?
I'm used to seeing different reactions. Some people are very impressed. One student of E, M and T [local music school in which we did a music clinic] said it was one of the most interesting things he had seen. [Early on] I had the choice in the beginning of using a conventional keyboard and changing the function of the keys. Although this would have saved me a lot of work, I saw that nobody was going to notice that I was doing anything different. I started with a normal computer keyboard, but since I was playing so much I had problems with my hands. So I looked for an ergonomic keyboard, which is much better. I feel guilty sometimes for using this keyboard because people sometimes think I made it. It's something I bought; there's a company that makes this keyboard [Kinesis]. My invention is not this physical part. I went to visit the company and always joke that I am endorsed by them [laughter]. The keyboard that we are used to hearing was developed in a period of music history when there were certain rules about harmony. Now, 300 or 400 years later, we don't use those rules anymore so why should I be using this instrument? When I started I had the idea that this would take the place of the piano for me. I discovered after a few years that there is a limit to how much I can learn. The piano has its place, just like the samchillian. Sometimes I start a solo on a conventional instrument and in the middle switch to this one. Some people are offended because this is something new. Some, I believe it's almost genetic, have as a reason to live to keep things as they are.
What do you see as the dichotomy between electronic and acoustic?
Like Vernon I have the feeling
that the most interesting things happen in the path halfway between electronics
and acoustics. Between the machine and the human being. Using a machine
to complement what you can do as a person isn't letting it be your master.
I'm starting a project called Jeans [Genes] and Machines. The idea is
to have two drummers onstage, one electronic and one acoustic. It becomes
very obvious that you are mixing electronics with acoustics. It is a fundamental
part of my interest in music to explore this division. How the two parts
mix and contrast. I believe I have much to learn.
[By the way these answers that follow were made under duress! I had a hard time to pick my 'favorites' and just offered up anything that came to mind]
Complete Name: Leon