New Wave Music

Posted inID Mag
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If you’ve ever seen Blue Man Group perform, you know what it’s like to be entertained by a pyrotechnic extravaganza starring three humans covered in high-gloss blue paint. Among other things, they play drums while primary colors of paint rain down on the drums and splash in all directions under brilliant stage lights. They also use soft paddles to hammer on a three-man percussion instrument consisting of PVC pipes of different lengths. The shows are fun as pure spectacle, but lurking in there is something approaching a message about individuality, freedom, and art. The three identical, hairless blue personae present themselves as depersonalized worker ants, but everyone knows they are also the creative brains running the show.

This odd contradiction, in a way, lends itself to the marketing of two Blue Man Group–branded musical instruments, Keyboard Experience and Blue Man Tubes. They come packaged with slogans like “Don’t Just Listen to Music. Make It!” and with manuals emphasizing the uniqueness of the tunes your kid will soon be composing. Both toys have the odd, futuristic look of the plastic percussion instruments used on stage. Both include red LEDs similar to the Jenny Holzer–style electronic displays Blue Man Group also employs in their show.

Under the hood, however, both instruments bear at least a family resemblance to the familiar low-end Casio keyboards, with their workhorse array of electronic sounds, simple sequencing functions, and the usual bank of preset tunes that play themselves. Maybe this is somehow in line with the idea that creative geniuses are also inexpressive worker ants, but I was a little put off by the rhetoric. Does it count as self-expression when the equipment is so specifically styled and branded and the results so uniform? To paraphrase the astronauts in The Right Stuff: Are we flying the spaceship or just riding it?

My 7-year-old son Henry didn’t bother with the manuals, and after an hour or so of experimenting with the instruments, declared them “awesome.” One feature he liked, which is the basis of Blue Man Tubes but is also present on Keyboard Experience, is the row of tubes that contain motion sensors, enabling you to wave plastic drumsticks (included) over the tops of the tubes to trigger sounds. For Henry there was immediate gratification in sweeping a stick or even a hand through the air to produce a succession of unpremeditated sounds. But I found the interface crude and cumbersome—even with a little practice, I had trouble playing the instrument because the motion sensors can’t detect anything fine-grained.

The tubes also include a “riff mode,” which retriggers the note for a drumroll effect. The preset music for accompaniment spans New Age atmospheres, world music, and an electronic version of symphonic bombast—the range, I gather, reflects some of the moods one experiences in the current Blue Man show. But if the handful of ready-made backgrounds aren’t enough, one can open up the accompaniment options with Henry’s favorite feature: a jack for connecting his MP3 player, allowing him to play along to whatever song he likes.

Did Henry feel he was expressing himself in a uniquely personal way, as advertised? This probably wasn’t on his mind as he randomly pushed buttons and tried things out. The experience was probably closer to the chaotic fun of a child’s busybox than a focused musical performance. Straight out of the box the Blue Man instruments are more compelling than an ordinary Casio because they’re more mysterious and interesting in their design. But only time will tell whether Henry, looking to express himself, continues to reach for them.

John Linnell is a member, with John Flansburgh, of the band They Might Be Giants.