My new toy

The first toy I can remember wanting really badly is, of course, one that I never got. This was back in the late ’70s, when the original Battlestar Galactica was my favorite show, Star Wars my favorite movie, and fighting in space with guns was by far the greatest joy imaginable. And so one evening (I remember it was evening) on a quick trip to Walgreens or some other medium-sized drugstore or discount store with my mom, I saw the most desirable toy I had yet encountered.

It was a boxed set of all the tools you might need to fight bad guys in space: a laser rifle, a laser pistol, a walkie-talkie, and I think some sort of utility belt that held another couple of gadgets, including a small flashlight with a futuristic casing. I immediately envisioned my future self in possession of this set of space-age weaponry. There would be no space-related make-believe game I couldn’t play, no imaginary aliens or cylons or cosmonautical baddies I couldn’t blast into oblivion.

But what really made the set great was its lack of branding. It wasn’t a Star Wars toy, or a Battlestar Galactica toy but a gloriously generic space-themed toy. Luke Skywalker did not use a light saber with a Star Wars logo on it, after all. The future (or, in the case of Star Wars, the long-ago-and-far-away), was clearly logo-free, and I was constantly frustrated by adults’ inability to understand this as they pushed licensed merchandise on me.

I pointed out the generic space-gun set to my mom, knowing that Christmas was several months away. I remember trying to emphasize that it was exactly this thing that I wanted, that it was so much better than all the other similar space-gun sets (of which, at the age of four, I imagined myself a leading connoisseur), and that my mother should probably purchase it right now in case the store were to sell out.

Of course she didn’t; I recall we were in some kind of hurry to get somewhere. And of course I couldn’t really read at that age, so I had no way of precisely indicating the toy when, a month or two later, I was asked what I wanted for Christmas. “That space-gun set at the store, the one without a lot of words or stickers on it.” And so of course I received some space-themed toys or other that year that were perfectly fine but never matched the imagined sweetness of the generic space-gun set that vanished in the mists of my illiteracy like Brigadoon.

I have had many toys since then. Some were much desired and kept their promise of hours and hours of fun: a pair of walkie-talkies from Radio Shack, Lego sets, plastic dinosaurs. (Plastic dinosaurs could live in the dirt tunnels we created in the back yard, or in the streams and pools we created in the gutter out front after rainstorms.) Some toys didn’t promise much fun and at least didn’t disappoint. I remember we had a couple of those wooden pop guns, the kind with a cork on a string and painted rings around the barrel; I never quite saw the point of these toys, but they stayed around, and every once in a while you’d “shoot” one a few times, and they more or less justified their existence on the periphery of fun objects.

The worst toys, I discovered, are the toys that are intensely desired but whose actual utility once possessed is very low. One year at the State Fair the carnies were selling lizard puppets made of foam rubber mounted on the ends of coat hangers; you pushed them along the ground and wiggled them back and forth and could even make their heads turn by twisting the wire just so. Of course I had to have one and spent $10 or so that I had saved from my allowance. The thing was fun for about half an hour and then again for five minutes each time a friend came over who hadn’t seen it, but really there wasn’t much you could do with it.

Like everyone else, I’ve moved into more expensive toys as I’ve gotten older, and still with some of them I repeat the same cycle of interest building up to tremendous desire, jubilation at first possessing the object of desire, and then, usually, the discovery that the thing hasn’t really changed my life much for the better. I’ve noticed the cycle and wondered why I persist in thinking that things can make me happy; I actually try to talk myself down now, finding that if I put off buying something until the initial flush of wanting has passed I can make a better decision and in fact can usually live without it. As a result, I own fewer gadgets than a lot of other technically inclined guys my age — although I’m far from pure of heart in this regard. (There have been a few exceptions to the sad cycle of gadget disappointment: my first iPod was every bit as happy-making as I dreamed it would be, and I get so much use out of the laptops I buy every three or four years that they, too, must be considered a success.)

All of this is merely a prelude to talking, briefly, about my latest toy, the toy I couldn’t stop thinking about while I conceived and wrote this post (and so I figured, why fight it?). About a month and a half ago, E. Tan was over at my place and we were making music, and he showed me some videos online of a very cool new musical instrument by Yamaha, the Tenori-on. It’s a grid of buttons that light up, 256 of them, coupled with a sequencer and a synthesizer. (Sequencers tell synthesizers what notes to play and when; synthesizers translate messages from sequencers into some kind of sound, depending on how you set them up.) E. was clearly in the midst of techno-toy lust over this object, and I had to admit it looked pretty cool.

Later that evening, by complete coincidence, I happened on an interview with a couple in Philadelphia (I’d guess no more than two degrees removed from our own Farrell and Trixie) who make devices they call monomes. The monome is similar to the Tenori-on in being a grid of buttons that light up (monomes come in flavors: 64 buttons, 128, and 256. But the devices themselves don’t include anything else, just the buttons and a USB port for connecting to a computer. Various users have then written pieces of software that use the monome in various ways to make music — some similar to the Tenori-on, some very different.

Something about this was very appealing to me. I’ve been making more and more music on my computer lately, and the monome looked like just the thing to push me to be more creative in my musical practice, especially thinking of the prospect of performing in front of an audience. And the idea of a user-supported, open-source community was attractive, especially since I’ve been interested for a few years in learning some of the software that people are using for writing monome apps.

The problem was, monomes are both expensive and scarce. Kelli and Brian, their creators, make them in fairly small batches in a sustainable way, so there’s a sizable waiting list. I queued up for a couple of 64-button kits (to make a 128) and also for a pre-built 128 and 256, figuring my number would come up for one of them or the other eventually. And just when I was settling in for a long wait, I saw a notice on the monome.org message board: “128 for sale in Brooklyn, would prefer to sell locally.” As they said in 2007, w00t!

The guy who was selling it recently took up electronic music as a hobby but somewhat overbought on equipment, having, apparently, a lot more discretionary income than I do. He was selling his monome for the same price he paid for it three months ago, which I thought was incredibly kind since he could have gotten at least half as much again for it on eBay. It was in perfect condition, and on Sunday morning I forked over the cash and rode my bike home from the guy’s loft with an almost-new monome in my backpack.

I didn’t have much time to play with it yesterday, but I have gotten a few apps working on it, and so far it’s definitely living up to the hype. Time will tell, of course, whether it turns out to be more of a foam-rubber lizard than a plastic dinosaur. But already I’m quite charmed by the unbrandedness of the thing — there’s a small “MONOME” burnt in to the bottom of the black walnut case where nobody can see it, but otherwise it looks like the future.

Now permit me to completely geek out for a minute and show you a picture of my monome:

my monomeAnd here’s a video of me using a very simple app called boiingg, running MIDI notes (on a whole-tone scale) out to Ableton Live to take advantage of one of its cool mallet sounds (sorry about quality; I shot it with my tiny digital camera, a toy that has turned out relatively well but has not fulfilled my highest hopes):

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjrE0bViJ9Y[/youtube]

24 responses to “My new toy”

  1. lane says:

    wow. that’s almost as cool as the new photo copier in my studio.

  2. Dave says:

    I’d never thought of it before, but photocopiers definitely make awesome toys.

  3. bw says:

    i have a feeling this isn’t a styrofoam dinosaur. i see you and e. tan becoming the first major dup to perform with multiple versions of this thing. it could be seriously crazy.

    do you know of anyone who’s written about the composition possibilities? most of the videos online seem to lean toward electronica, but you’d think that there are other generic options as well. it certainly lends itself to a sort of post-minimalist thing that could have more to do with classical trajectories than pop.

  4. bw says:

    oops — dup should be duo. it’s not meant to be an acronym for daughters of the utah pioneers.

  5. bw says:

    don’t miss WFMU’s website today. it really made my heart skip for a moment.

  6. Beth W says:

    I wasn’t impressed until I watched the video. Then I thought, oooh cool I want one. Pretty lights. Pretty sounds.

  7. Scotty says:

    As someone who can spend hours noodling on my guitar plugged into a digital delay pedal, both of those instruments fascinate me. I can definitely imagine one of them falling into the wrong hands at a drug party, however.

    I think I’d be more inclined to go with the Tenori-on because it appears to be self-contained. Is this the case, or does it need software too? At any rate, they’re both super cool. Congrats to you both for finding some new conduits.

  8. Dave says:

    Yes, the Tenori-on is self-contained, which I think is the main reason Mr. Tan favors it. There are some videos of Jim O’Rourke playing it (and speaking fluent Japanese): street cred.

  9. bw says:

    dave — i should have said earlier that i found the portrait of you as an anti-brand name four-year-old consumer to be charming, if a little far-fetched.

  10. Dave says:

    No, it’s absolutely true! I wouldn’t wear t-shirts with stuff on them; I preferred those knit shirts with horizontal stripes, because I could be Luke Skywalker or Superman or whoever else. And I was always on the lookout for a plain lunchbox but had to settle for a Peanuts one, which at least had comic strips on it. I wanted Muji before Muji was cool!

  11. Cool! I’m highly amused.

    As far as brands go, I don’t think I’ve ever been fond of brands and logos either, but I wasn’t nearly as conscious of it as you were when you were four. I really hit upon my preference of no logos in my teenage years; it was part of that “I don’t want to be labelled, but rather known and noticed for my own attributes” thing.

  12. LP says:

    For some reason, when I picture fouryear-old Dave, he looks exactly like he does now, like a mini-me version.*

    *this comment brought to you by Nike.

  13. bw says:

    Is your imaginary 4-year-old Dave bearded? b/c that would be kind of creepy.

  14. Lisa Parrish says:

    Ope, last time I saw Dave, he was clean-shaven. And carrying a Peanuts lunchbox.

  15. bw says:

    would he have a big head and a little tiny body?

  16. lane says:

    of course he has a big head.

    . . . and with all this talk of the gym, now he’s going to get a body to match!

  17. Tim says:

    That is the coolest toy! I love the minimal and highly functional design. It begs to be toyed with.

    In re the bearded mini-Dave, my parents had this Blood Sweat & Tears record when I was a kid. I stared at that image for hours, transfixed and a little weirded out, especially by the guy with the bearded kid version of himself on his lap.*

    *This comment brought to you by Sony Music.

  18. E. says:

    omg. i can’t wait to play with this.

    the menome + the tenori-on. ahhh! can’t wait can’t wait.

  19. bw says:

    your band could be called Me Gnome and Tenor E. Tan.

  20. Dave says:

    5: You should check out KFJC’s site.

  21. trixie says:

    fucking rad.
    i checked out the sites related to the monomes. that is seriously the most beautiful piece of functional art/science that i have ever seen. i have been thinking about it all day and i am this close to going over to the house of these two kids that made these and proposing to the two of them at once.
    good thing i don’t know where they live and i am already in my pajamas.

  22. lane says:

    a new photocopier AND and new BLACK Macbook.

    it’s been a good week!

  23. PB says:

    #465th reminder that I am O.L.D. – you wanted the Battlestar Galactica laser gun, I had a photo of Starbuck (from Tigerbeat) taped in my locker.
    Seriously though – lovely writing and wicked cool gadget.