Page last updated at 07:45 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 08:45 UK

Do you drum it, strum it or stroke it?

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News


The Eigenharp is put through its paces by three musicians in live performance

It looks like something played by the alien musicians in the bar in Star Wars.

It can be made to sound like it too.

The flagship Eigenharp Alpha comes with a price tag not far short of 4,000

This is the Eigenharp - described by its developers as "the most expressive electronic musical instrument ever made".

One of my colleagues calls it more simply "a sci-fi bassoon".

The Eigenharp is the brainchild of John Lambert, a musician and software entrepreneur, whose Devon-based team has been working on the project for eight years.

Gig stress

The idea dates back to the early 90s when Lambert played in ambient trance band Shen, who would travel to concerts in a truck packed with musical gear.

"The gigs were really good fun," says Lambert, "but the setting up was just a nightmare. Lots of stuff, equipment, wires, endless stress.

"At the same time I would go to the folk club, take my acoustic guitar out of the box, tune it up, get a pint of beer, and play."

Lambert says the new instrument bridges that gap - bringing a vast range of sounds and drum loops to the fingertips of live performers.

But what's it like to play?

We've got pretty fed up with watching people twiddle knobs on stage
John Lambert, Eigenharp inventor

It initially comes across as a baffling array of buttons with winking red lights. But it doesn't take long to get a broad spectrum of sounds out of the 132 keys, two strip controllers and the breath pipe.

Octaves and scales can be changed at the tap of a button. The Alpha model - aimed at professional musicians - costs £3,950. There's a smaller Pico version for £349.

Theremins and phones

Of course, dozens of electronic instruments have come and gone over the years.

Rick Wakeman in concert in 2005
Could this be the end of keyboards on stage?

Some - like the theremin or Mellotron - have been around for decades and are still in use today. Many others are gathering dust at the back of recording studios.

In an age when complex music-making applications are being made for mobile phones, isn't there a danger that technology might overtake the Eigenharp?

"No," says Lambert. "More likely our decision to make the software for the instrument run on a separate computer will pay off - we are already looking at porting the software perhaps into the PlayStation or Wii."

Lambert points out that many artists no longer make a living from record sales alone. Live tours have become a major source of revenue.

He is upbeat about the response from a wide range of performers, including those working in classical music, rock and electronica.

"The most unexpected thing for me has been the interest from drummers," he says.

Goth rock

Distant cousin: bassoon action from 1942

He says there is one high-profile musician who is about to take delivery of an Eigenharp, but won't give any names.

"Proper musicians want to take this away and learn it before they come out."

Lambert does expect some criticism from musicians, but does not think the price tag will put people off.

"They're going to say it's too expensive. This is a difficult instrument to make cheaply," he says.

"I would be really shocked not to see these out in live situations within six to 12 months.

"It's not just the sonic thing - they are visually compelling, and there's a reason for that - we've got pretty fed up with watching people twiddle knobs on stage.

"It was interesting once when we watched Kraftwerk and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark do it back in the 70s and 80s, but it's not fun in 2009."

And the big question: is the Eigenharp cool enough for a Slash-style guitar solo?

"We were demonstrating it to someone who is in a goth band," says Lambert, "and they were really up for it - so yes. We're making one in jet black. I think people are really going to rock out with these on stage."

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