The history of Hatsune Miku begins in 18th-century
There’s this famous Italian dude, see, called Bartolomeo Cristofori, whose main area of skill was in making instruments. And not just any instruments—keyboards, which at the time were these horribly tinkly little things where doinky featherquills plucked at an array of strings to create a metallic jingle-jangle effect. This is known as “Baroque music.” What Cristofori did, as part acoustician and part mechanical engineer, was to develop a hammer system that could strike strings at different forces, allowing the performer to play soft (piano) or loud (forte). So everyone called it a pianoforte, in Italianese. Of course, you and I and everyone else now know Cristofori’s invention as the piano.
When Italia invented the piano, they opened the door to Japan inventing Hatsune Miku.
I’m sitting here in a tiny 150-seat theater in San Francisco, waiting for my Autumn of Idols moment. A sold-out crowd of stupid ass wotas are gathered to watch a screening of the “39[Miku][[Sankyu!]] Giving Day” concert, where the green-haired goddess of electronically generated idol-pop dances and performs on a projection screen while a live band plays at Zepp Tokyo concert hall. It’s like … partially live, but really not, the closest thing you’ll probably come to a “real” Vocaloid concert. It’s not too different, from, say, going to see Gorillaz. The music is still made by real musicians, but what the audience sees is a layer of artifice, an animated persona used to bring the music to life. It is the magic of Miku. it is the magic of make-believe.
At about the same time that Cristofori invented the piano, J.S. Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier, which basically said that if you make a bunch of mathematical compromises between the pitches of the notes on a keyboard, it suddenly becomes versatile enough to play in any key signature. In other words, instead of sounding out of tune anytime you tried to pull something weird, you could totally do 5 flats and 7 sharps and other things that annoy the crap out of beginning-to-intermediate piano students. This enabled the 18th-century keyboard to function, for the first time, as a primitive workstation where you could try different musical ideas without having to re-tune the damn thing every single time.
A few decades later, the piano finally got a price drop and became producible in large enough quantities that it wasn’t just a specialty instrument for insanely rich people anymore. Instead, it became accessible to the sanely rich as well, like Famouse Royale People, who liked to hire local composers to write music to entertain them (and their guests). One of these composers was a certain Wolfgang A. Mozart, whose specialty was making scat jokes and lusting after his female music students. But also, playing the shit out of the keyboards, and it was during Mozart’s short life that he decided he liked the piano best. His twenty-seven piano concertos (although only the last ten or so are really good; like an anime series, Mozart’s repertoire got better later on) are not just a seminal cornerstone of the concerto form, but also as a building block of piano music. Mozart’s concertos said, “THIS is what the piano can do! Not just by itself, but with an orchestra too! Why the hell would you ever go back to the harpsichord?!”
And everyone else after Mozart agreed with him. Once you had a keyboard instrument with loud-soft capabilities, no WAY would you go back to that tinkly jingle-jangle machine. This was about 230 years ago. The road to Miku is a long one.
It’s a pretty even mix of fanboys and fangirls who are here for the Miku show. About a fifth of them are in Vocaloid cosplay, naturally. Some of them even brought lightsticks for the experience. As the concert footage starts up in big-screen 1080p, with a full-theatre sound system blasting, the crowd starts to get into it—tentatively at first, but after the first several songs, the mood starts to take over. They wave the lightsticks in rhythm with the on-screen crowd, cheer in between song transitions, and applaud after each number. Who gives a crap if it’s prerecorded? Technically, the crowd at Zepp Tokyo was watching a recording as well. The only music ensembles that truly perform “live” anymore are classical orchestras and ethnic folk ensembles, and even symphony halls today are mic’ed. Everyone gets electronic help. Once I learned to accept the idea of electronic devices as musical tools, it became easier to love Teh Miku. Well, that and the arrangement of her singing an aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
By the 19th century IN EUROPE, if you weren’t a composer who knew how to play the piano, you weren’t anybody. It wasn’t just that the instrument could play loud and soft, but it was one of the few that enabled large chord structures, multi-phonic passagework, and “seeing all the notes” at the hands of a single performer. I mean, without the piano, some dude would’ve been like, “I gotta scrounge up two violinists, a viola and a cello player to see if this melodic line works.” And of course the cellist would quit on you after an hour because the whole time you’d been asking him to play “DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN” on the same note OVER and OVER and OVER.
At least on the piano, you could go DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN without annoying anyone but your little finger.
So basically, by the 1800′s, the piano was a central compositional tool. And at the same time, the middle classes of society had evolved to the point where they had leisure time and crap, and if they weren’t inventing sports and games, they wanted to play music or something, and you could order a piano to be brought to your house. This happened NOT ONLY in Euroland BUT ALSO in Japanland, at least after William Perry opened up the country and they started to Westernize. Basically, the piano was seen as a symbol of cultured-ness, and some famous dude called Torakusu Yamaha started making Japanese pianos FO’ REALZ.
The late 19th century and 20th century were a golden time in music making. You could “make music” in the sense of buying sheet music and playing other people’s songs—or you could “make music” by learning enough composition and theory to create your own songs—and a lot of it was happening around the piano. Power to the pianists. If you were on the keyboard, you were the star.
And then something terrible happened.
And it’s not just Miku, either. Megurine Luka and Rin and Len are there for the show too! It’s a total Vocaloid party. Their different vocal timbres, and the different ways they team up with Miku, make it quite the sonic sampler. The crowd gets pretty wild seeing the other characters show up. Despite just being mascots for different synthesizer programs, they are like friends and family to us. Inviting them into our homes through Youtube and Niconico videos. Letting their voices sing the soundtrack of our lives. Is an electronically projected anime character really a musician? Well, let me ask you this: Is a disembodied box vibrating the airwaves around you really music?
Because that’s the terrible thing that happened. Recorded sound. Recorded sound is the worst thing to happen to the history of music.
Once you had a phonograph, once you had a radio, once you had a record player, once you had a cassette player, once you had CDs, you didn’t need to “make music” to enjoy music anymore. You didn’t need to score tickets for the concert hall. You just sat there and let the electric-powered box entertain you. The piano became a marginalized tool of specialists. It was for ladies to learn skills that would make them marriageable, or for kids to take lessons on until (1) they realized they hated it (2) their parents realized they were prodigies and started piling on the pressure. If (2) happened, then you might end up using the piano as a true performance tool and compositional tool. But it was no longer the center of music-making.
Even worse was when rock music made the guitar popular. When guitar became popular, piano became dorky. If you studied keyboard it was because you were some kind of sissy who had to hang with Bach and Beethoven because you didn’t have what it took to be a Beatle. Dunno who makes up these rules, but it sucks. As a young teen, I could “sorta” impress girls because I knew how to play Top 40 songs on the piano—but the guy in class who could play them on the guitar always won. Fecker.
But, remember how I said that Italia inventing the piano opened the door to Japan inventing Hatsune Miku? This is because the piano underwent one more transformation as it came hurtling into the 21st century.
If are little electronic boxes generating music are real, then of course it’s perfectly normal to go “Encore! Encore! Encore!” at a concert recording. Has the music not moved you? Do you not wish for MOAR? And so the crowd in the theatre clamors for MOAR, and they know they’re going to get it, because the recording was designed that way. Another appreciative cheer goes up when Miku comes out one last time to finish the show. It is all artifice, but we take it as real in order to get the full enjoyment out of it. It’s like Dom Cobb [SPOILER ALERT!!!!] walking away from that spinning top at the end of Inception. Miku is a dream, a beautiful dream crafted by the hands of sound engineers and CG artists and musicians, the perfect idol who will never graduate or grow old or get caught in a scandal or ragequit the industry or disappear off the face of the planet. She is, indeed, a “projection” in more ways than one. We are all complicit in this musical make-believe—just as audiences of ages past believed in the reality of Mozart’s operas or Gershwin’s musicals or freakin’ Les Miserables. We pretend that the fake world is real just long enough to believe in something. To feel something. To feel the magic of make-believe.
The piano’s final transformation was, of course, electronics.
From vacuum tubes to transistors to labyrinthine circuit boards—if the piano keyboard was the one interface that allowed you to “see all the notes,” then it was the one interface that made the most sense for composers of the future. And so we were given the world of synthesizer keyboards and MIDI controllers and workstations where, at last, the piano transcended the idea of just being “a place to try out musical ideas.” You could, with a little waveform tweaking, try out how exactly those ideas sounded, not being limited to the hammer-and-strings mechanism. You could make up new sounds on the spot. You could record snippets of musical ideas and sequence other ideas on top of them and make the electronic keyboard your personal pretend orchestra. The piano had gone beyond piano. More than an extension of the composer’s hands, it was now an extension of the composer’s mind.
There was just one thing missing. A voice.
Well, you know, Japan being Japan, they do things like this. They do artifice better than anyone else. They make little plastic food displays because real food goes bad. They make robots for manufacturing lines because real workers are fallible. They make electronic keyboards for music arrangers to work with because getting real musicians in-house is a pain. So when the technology to sample the human voice came far enough—and collided with the idea of creating a persona for this artificial voice—it was only natural that Miku would become the 21st-century superstar of make-believe music.
While some might say that the idea of Vocaloid ruins everything for musicians—who needs humans when you can get software to do all the work now?—I think it is the great democratizer, a key that opens so many doors for musicians. In the past, if you wanted to be a composer, arranger or producer, you could only go so far writing your own music before having to seek out performers and finding out that there was no way you were going to get that 5-piece band and a 20-piece orchestra and a three-and-a-half-octave range singer to bring your masterpiece to life. Truly, SADTIEMS. But with Miku, now everyone can be a composer. Everyone can work from their home studio and, with the right equipment, create complete works of popular song using these electronic tools. Vocaloid isn’t putting musicians out of work. It’s making musicians out of people who never thought they could be one. You can see it happening every day on video and media sharing sites and in concert showings like these where people you’ve never heard of suddenly become Court Composers of the Electronic Kingdom. From handcrafted instruments in the hands of insanely rich royal people, to a green-haired goddess in the hands of commoners. That’s a hell of a three centuries.
I believe that anything where more people are making music, instead of just passively listening to it, is a good thing. I believe in the magic. I believe in Vocaloid. I believe in Miku.