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Reg Webb

Reg Webb with his Braille-labelled Chroma.

The new model will have an improved alpha-numeric display: But that wouldn't be of much use to you, would it?" I am not tempted to fill the role of one more blind keyboard player bemoaning his lot... and my white stick needs repainting and people will park their cars on the pavement and... In talking about my circumstances as a practising musician, and my reactions to those circumstances, I hope that anyone reading this will perhaps be able to define their own situation better, in terms of whether they agree or disagree with my opinions. This sort of evaluation is important, as shown clearly by my own example, which demonstrates that you can't advance your career if you don't know where you want to be.

I started playing acoustic piano — Oh! remember that? Lessons at school and a curiosity about almost any other form of music developed in parallel. There was no serious pressure towards buying an electronic keyboard instrument until I started with my first band back in the stone age. The reasons were the commonest: the full horror of the dance hall piano, if there was one; the need to make as big a sound as possible with the smallest number of people, known as greed: and a growing interest in what electronics could do when applied to the generation of sound.

I had a 'Road to Damascus' experience with the synthesiser when I heard the first use made of it by Keith Emerson. The impact was so great because, as a jazz player, I had always envied the ability of wind players in particular to be in such immediate control of timbre, vibrato, and especially pitch. I still count the access given to these characteristically vocal techniques as the most important advance gained by the application of the synthesiser as we have come to know it, to the keyboard. That is why, much to the chagrin of purists, I like listening to Herbie Hancock's vocoder playing, because it's an object lesson in applied vocal style. I enjoy searching for, and listening to, freaky noises (or perhaps in this august publication I should say "original sounds"), but it seems to me that control of the sound is ultimately more important than simply producing it. The most amazing noise probably has no longer life expectancy than a good joke.

In the real world, most of us have to decide what we are prepared to do in exchange for being able to go on making a living out of music. In terms of any aesthetic goals which one might set oneself, I think that I have laid quite an effective trap for myself; although I must say that I seem to have been quite happy to fall into it.

It seems impossible for me to distinguish between playing to earn a living, and playing for the sake of art, ego or fun. Either by continually altering the approach to how you play a piece, or by deriving satisfaction from making something, however banal, sound as authentic as possible, it becomes quite difficult to be swallowed up by boredom, which would stop me playing quite quickly. In calling this attitude a trap, I acknowledge the view which others may take that, in aiming whatever creative ability one may have at too broad a target, one effectively diffuses it. I have given very little serious thought to what I do best, because I enjoy playing a wide range of music, and I think I should resent any part of me trying to order the rest of me about concerning what I ought to be playing. Eclecticism is not currently fashionable, particularly in the music business. Direction is all. A lack of it makes the marketing men feel uneasy. One can sympathise with them to the extent that if all the 57 varieties in the supermarket refused to be tied down as to which variety they were, the buying public might have a problem. But I think there is far too much spoon-feeding going on.

Since I go for variety, but have the predictable transport problems associated with blindness, the idea is obviously to go for the largest range of noises from the smallest number of boxes. For this reason, I have so far favoured an electronic piano and synth combination, rather than a one-sound electric piano. This means that you can do credible clavinet impressions, and honky-tonk pianos without proliferating keyboards, and debts. Unfortunately, my old Yamaha gear is beginning to disintegrate — it's a hard life in the task force! In looking at a whole new generation of equipment, there are certainly some keyboards which a blind person would find very hard to control. Back in the good old days of piano key controls, when you pressed something, it stayed pressed, and you could use it as a landmark. But now, of course, it's just even rows of buttons, or in some cases, flat expanses of pressure sensitive nothingness.

I lack the breadth of experience to say which of the keyboards currently available would be impossible for me to operate; but, if only on financial grounds, I fear the trend of design. There is a real prospect that someone who cannot use the light-show provided would have to get expensive modifications done, in addition to the initial retail price of the equipment. There is surely a difference between expecting favourable treatment, and resentment at being penalised because you can't see. However, from that point of view, so far so good.

In looking for a new instrument, I have tried to keep the points so far mentioned in mind, plus the important extra of gaining the capacity, at least potentially, to produce compositions in written form more easily. Dictating music is a laborious business for all concerned, and it does tend to blunt the composing impulse. I am arrogant enough to think that I have a contribution to make via composition, in a less restrictively commercial sense, but my interest in it often proves to be no match for the practical difficulties, when added to my inherent inertia. In this context, the likelihood that a flexible and accurate computer programme for music printing will become available in the next few years, is a very exciting prospect to me.

Trying to take all of that into consideration, it seems to me that the Rhodes Chroma is about the best bet from my point of view; having the sort of dynamic capabilities likely to endear themselves to a piano player, great flexibility as a synthesiser, and the facility for computer interface. While discussing this machine, may I say that, whatever derisive remarks have been made about the internal clunking noise which, unless you switch it off, happens every time a configuration within a parameter changes, or a different parameter or program is selected, if it was put in for possible blind users, then, speaking personally, it will certainly make the difference between being able to use the thing and not being able to. I'm sure it can be used if I become a religious counter of clunks. I'm sorry if some people find it annoying, but then I'm not too wild about buying a whole lot of lights which are of no use to me. At least it's a gesture; thank you for it.

I hope to introduce some optional stuff on electronic music making in the jazz improvisation course which I run at Colchester Institute on Wednesdays (currently for fulltime students only). Typically of me I suppose, it tends to be more concerned with improvisation in general; how jazzy it is depends on the individual student. But how or indeed if you can teach improvisation is another story.

It is clear that a chaotic mixture of studio work, gigs, jazz — playing and listening — teaching/learning from music students, and an enduring interest in art music, all leads to an experience which is not easily put into a few words. Music is never easy to verbalise, which is presumably why there is music. But a thought from chaos may find an echo somewhere in a more ordered brain.

Meanwhile, I hope to persuade someone to let me find out how the blind, or at least this blind player gets on with a computer-linked synthesiser. Another 'Road to Damascus' experience perhaps. Even so, I don't expect any fundamental change in policy, which remains no policy. This may well not be a good way of making the most of whatever it is I do best, but, so far, the experience has been enjoyable.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jun 1983


Home Studio

Feature by Reg Webb

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