Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tufts Students Chill with the Samchillian

By Amanda C. Thompson
Gordon College News Service
March 16, 2010
(This story appeared March 18 in the Boston Globe Medford edition, and the Boston Globe Brookline edition.)

For Leon Gruenbaum, Brookline-reared inventor of an instrument called the Samchillian tip tip tip cheeepeeeee, it all started with an Amiga computer and a standard, black-and-white piano keyboard. Well, that and a Harvard degree in math, childhood piano and clarinet lessons, a little avant-garde jazz, and a move to New York.

“I wanted to merge my interests in math and music,” he said simply. On Monday, March 15, Gruenbaum brought the product of these forces, his “musical instrument digital interface” (MIDI) Samchillian, to Professor Paul Lehrman’s Electronic Musical Instrument Design class at Tufts in Medford, where students are learning to do just what Gruenbaum did.


The Samchillian, after years of trial and error and a few software/hardware updates, features an ergonomic keyboard connected to a computer that runs a MIDI program Gruenbaum created just for the instrument. A MIDI enables electronic instruments to communicate with a computer system. What makes the Samchillian different from any other MIDI keyboard is the function of the keys.

“Moving left to right doesn’t mean the notes go from low to high,” said Gruenbam, who’s played his instrument all over the world with the likes of Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and a more recent collaboration, Genes and Machines, whose recordings are available at genesandmachines.com. “The Samchillian is based on intervals.”

It’s the world’s first relative instrument. Instead of having keys for C, D and E, for instance, it has keys for zero, plus one, and plus two. The Samchillianist can change musical key with the strike of a button; the rest of the keyboard’s functions stay the same.

“The connection between what the instrument looks like and what it sounds like isn’t there anymore,” said Lehrman. Gruenbaum added that the Samchillian doesn’t have a “sound,” per se, because as a MIDI instrument it could sound like anything. He demonstrated its ability to create electronically flavored piano and guitar sounds, but explained that even yet-unimagined sounds are possible for his Samchillian.

“It’s half of an instrument, really,” said Gruenbaum. Still, he loves to experiment with his half-instrument. He said it allows him to create musical patterns inconceivable, or impossible, to a regular keyboardist. It lets him play notes faster and at closer intervals than the notes of a traditional scale.

But one thing it doesn’t allow is simultaneous notes; to play a chord, the Samchillianist must “strum” the keys, or use the special pre-programmed triad button. “It makes the hard things easy and the easy things hard,” said Gruenbaum. “It’s not a substitute for a regular keyboard.”

Nor, he said, are any of today’s revolutionary musical inventions substitutes for traditional instruments. Most of them aren’t even marketable or scalable (Gruenbaum recalled a woman playing her long hair with a violin bow). But the principles learned in a course like Lehrman’s apply outside of the classroom even if the inventions don’t get mass-produced.

“We’ve got all different kinds of people working together,” said Lehrman. “Mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, MFA students – a team has to include all the skills, and the students teach each other.”

And just maybe they’ll come up with something they’ll love playing for the next twenty years like Gruenbaum.

“The building wasn’t the exciting part,” Gruenbaum said. “It’s playing it that I love.” And as for the Samchillian tip tip tip cheeepeeeee’s name, he said, “There’s no meaning to it at all! But it may have been influenced by Monty Python.”

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