When you hear a song on the radio today, there's a good chance that song was made using a computer. There's also a good chance that it was made using Western music software like, say, Ableton Live.
That makes sense, of course, for Western musicians, who are used to things like a 4/4 time signature and a 12-tone scale. But Eastern musicians unfamiliar with these defaults might have some issues. Now, a piece of software called Sufi Plug Ins is offering a solution.
A plug-in is a little program that adds abilities to a larger software application, like a video player or a synthesizer. Sufi Plug Ins is a package of such programs that work with Ableton Live, a commonly used music production software. The Sufi Plug Ins include four synthesizers, a drone instrument and a drum machine.
Sufi Plug Ins were created by Jace Clayton, also known as DJ Rupture. Clayton is based in New York, where he works as a freelance music writer and composer. He has DJed in a band with Norah Jones, lectured at Harvard University and hosted his own radio show on WFMU. He runs a record label called Dutty Arts, and some of his work takes him to other countries. He says he came up with the idea for Sufi Plug Ins while making music in Barcelona.
"Spain has a really active community of Moroccan musicians, and I was making music with a violinist named Abdelhak Rahal," Clayton says. "When I sat down and opened up my program, it defaults to a 4/4 beat and structures which to me are really obvious ... but for him was not the default, and so that really got me thinking about alternate paths through sound."
In addition to rhythm, his software was not compatible with Eastern melodies. When a musician sits down to use Ableton, oftentimes they'll compose by playing a physical instrument connected to the computer. That instrument is often a keyboard, which is literally a physical layout of a Western twelve tone scale. Clayton's program allows the user to modify the notes played by that keyboard. Four of the plug ins let musicians play a maqam, which Clayton says, is sort of like an Eastern scale.
"It is a scale insofar as it's a group of notes with a specific tuning, but in a way its more than a scale. It's like not only the notes you play, but a way in which the notes relate to each other and even a history of songs that have moved though these notes," he explains. "So in a way it's a huge philosophical concept."
One maqam, for example, is used for love songs.
"But for the software I had to interpret [a maqam] in its most basic level which is: OK, this is a series of notes you can play," Clayton says.
Clayton has his friend Amy Zhang demonstrate by playing C Major scale on a keyboard running into his computer. Then he switches on a plug in labeled "Khomasi."
"The difference is about two notes," he says. "On a piano they'd be tuned to notes in between the notes of a piano, so they're called quarter tones."
What you see on the screen is an array of knobs and buttons that allow a user to change the timbre of the notes. All of the labels on the plug ins are in a North African script called neo-Tifinaght. Sufi poetry pops up when you scroll your mouse over one of the knobs. Bill Bowen, the programmer for Sufi Plug Ins, says creating a unique user experience was as important to the project as building functional instruments.
"The attraction of most software is that it appeals to a user's conventional understanding of what it should do," Bowen says. "Whereas this software
challenges the user to turn all the knobs and hear all the sounds because it's not a conventional type of interface."
Classically-trained pianist Amy Zhang has toyed around with of these plug ins for a couple of months; she's studied Western classical music since she was a kid.
"I'm starting to use some of the drawings and some of the poetry, some of the scripts, and trying to kind of remember sort of the effects that they're creating and I'm finding once I'm doing this that I also begin describing it in the way that the poetry evokes it," she says.
For Clayton, that's the hope: that musicians will think differently about music, where it comes from and how it's "supposed" to sound.
"As much as it is a tool which many people are now using, I want it to kind of operate more like an art piece, which is to create questions," he says.
Here's one: Say the son of a muezzin is working all day on a new song. How will he hear the call to prayer over the music in his headphones? Included in the Sufi Plug Ins pack is a program called Devotion, which uses geolocation to automatically lower the volume of your computer five times a day.
Clayton has a few questions of his own. Soon, he plans on spending a few weeks in Cairo with young musicians, to see how the next round of plug ins might best suit their needs.