ContinuuCon 2016: Notes From First Haken Continuum Conference

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This past weekend, Asheville, North Carolina, hosted the first international Haken Continuum Fingerboard conference. If you play the Continuum or aspire to play, you were either in Asheville or you wished you were here on June 9–11. Key to ContinuuCon’s success was the participation of Dr. Lippold Haken, the Continuum’s inventor, and Edmund Eagan, who developed the Continuum’s internal sound engine EaganMatrix in cooperation with Professor Haken.

When the four members of my electronic music ensemble Waveformation began planning the event a few months ago, we had no idea how successful it would be. Ultimately, everyone involved was thrilled with its outcome. “ContinuuCon exceeded my expectations.” I heard this sentiment expressed over and over again. One participant called it “life changing,” and another went so far as to say, “This is a dream come true for me.” Enthusiasm was rampant among the attendees.

More than 30 participants converged on the Blue Ridge Mountains from as far away as India, France, and Portugal and from every corner of the United States. Randy George drove solo all the way from Los Angeles, and Keith Handy endured a 30-hour, one-way bus trip, and neither of them even owns a Continuum yet. By the end of the weekend, without exception, everyone who attended agreed that it was worth whatever it took to get here.

Two full days of seminars, workshops, and presentations took up most of the event, which began on Thursday night with a reception at Make Noise Music’s modular synth factory. On Friday morning, Lippold detailed the Continuum’s history before and since it first went on sale 15 years ago, describing his struggles to create an instrumental controller capable of the nuance, expressivity, and versatility that would make it at least equal to any acoustic instrument you could name. He also gave us a thorough explanation of his construction process and design philosophy.

Ed Eagan was the next to speak, with Lippold interjecting comments along the way. Hailing from Canada, Ed was Lippold’s very first customer. In his talk, he gave us insight on EaganMatrix and its algorithmic constituents. Around the turn of the century, Lippold and Ed began collaborating on a SHARC-based modular synthesizer that took full advantage of the controller’s unique abilities. Since then, the Continuum and EaganMatrix have undergone steady progress and development. In fact, Ed later told me that he still spends at least two hours a day, seven days a week, pursuing his passion for perfecting and advancing the world’s most capable DSP-based instrument.

Next up were Tony Rolando’s talk on the development of modular synthesizers and a panel discussion of Continuum playing techniques. Lippold and iOS developer Christophe Duquesne discussed interfacing the Continuum with iPads and other external hardware, and Mark Smart demonstrated Reaktor ensembles he designed specifically for the Continuum.

Friday’s headline event, however, was the ContinuuConcert, a two-hour performance open to the public by some of the best Continuum players on Earth. The night began with a trio comprising A-list multi-instrumentalist Rob Schwimmer, fellow conference organizer Sally Sparks, and Ed Eagan playing music by Lennon & McCartney, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and French composer Olivier Messiaen. We also heard outstanding solo performances by Rob and Ed, followed by Pallav Pandya, who traveled from Mumbai specifically to attend and perform at ContinuuCon. Pallav’s enthralling variations on Indian ragas were later accompanied by Rob’s breathtaking piano gymnastics. The concert finished with a performance by Dr. Wayne Kirby, music department chair at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, and his trio.

We all returned on Saturday morning, when ThumbJam developer Jesse Chappell joined Christophe to discuss the challenges and benefits of creating Continuum-compatible apps for iOS. Next was a fascinating history of continuous-pitch electronic instruments by former Keyboard columnist Dr. Tom Rhea, who teaches at Berklee College of Music and was instrumental in helping develop synthesizers with Bob Moog in the 1970s. Because the Continuum doesn’t force you to play fixed pitches in Western temperament, Wayne presented a class in alternative tuning systems. Pallav demonstrated performance techniques he developed for playing and emulating traditional musical styles from India, for which a traditional black-and-white keyboard is too rigid. Most of the afternoon, however, was consumed by instruction in programming EaganMatrix, courtesy of Lippold and Ed.

Saturday evening we all had a catered dinner at Sally’s beautiful mountain home, with plenty of good food, drink, and a jam session that almost certainly broke the world record for the number of Continuums being played. My favorite part of the evening was a slide show by the Bob Moog Foundation’s Michelle Moog-Koussa, who showed us personal family photos and told stories revealing the private life of pioneering synth designer Bob Moog and contrasting it with his public persona. The next morning, several of us returned to Sally’s to continue the camaraderie, say our goodbyes, and begin making plans for the next ContinuuCon.