by Author David Ashworth

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'Good enough' technology - don't knock it

During a session at the recent Inclusive Excellence Conference, part of Bristol’s Fast Forward Festival, an interesting discussion developed on what we mean when we say inclusive and excellent. As usual, it was only on the journey home that I was really able to clarify my thoughts on this. I share them now.

The context was a demonstration of how devices can be developed and used for making standard instruments playable by musicians with physical disability. There were some remarkable performances, live and recorded, of disabled musicians now able to play standard classical repertoire as a result of modifications or attachments to a range of traditional instruments. Valuable and important work which addresses the excellence and, to some degree, the accessible.

The conversations moved on to the current ‘inadequacies’ of accessible electronic instruments and devices – and how there is still much work to be done before they can be regarded as serious musical instruments, which will bear comparison with traditional instruments. This is dangerous territory that raises all sorts of thorny issues:

  • Why should electronic instruments necessarily aspire to the functionality associated with some acoustic instruments?
  • There are many traditional instruments across the world with very limited functionality which have been used for centuries in totally valid music making contexts
  • There are so many of our disabled students who will never be able to engage with instruments where mechanical manipulation is a factor. Electronics provides the only viable opportunities they will have.
  • Music made using electronics and synthesized sounds does not have to conform to the criteria and benchmarks embodied in the paradigm of western classical music. These parameters are not to be thought of as a hegemony for all musics.

Of course, we always want to see improvements and developments in music technologies, but some of the devices we have at present are perfectly adequate for enabling genuinely musical experience. If those performing and those listening are moved in some way by the sounds that are being made, that will suffice. Music is happening.