Jazz Pioneer Herbie Hancock Lectures on Music and Engineering

Though jazz musician Herbie Hancock said he never was an engineer, he revealed he had the soul of a tinkerer during a public lecture Nov. 11 in Reynolds Theater.

The lecture, entitled "Digital Dolphin Dance: The Influence of Engineering Technology in the Musical Life of Herbie Hancock," was part of a two-day residency sponsored by The Duke Union OnStage Committee, the Duke University Department of Music, The Duke University Institute of the Arts and the Pratt School of Engineering. It also included a sold-out performance by the Herbie Hancock Quartet and a master class with the Duke Jazz Ensemble.

Hancock, who has played the piano since age 7, did study pre-engineering at Grinnell College before switching to major in music.

But his interest in science - in how things work - pre-dated his interest in music, he said. As a child, he took apart watches and toy trains, and put them back together again. (The train still ran after he finished with it; the watches didn’t.)

Still, it was the music that held. At age 20, Hancock began playing with trumpeter Donald Byrd, and three years later was asked by Miles Davis to join the Miles Davis Quintet. It was Davis who first showed him a synthesizer.

"I never thought there would be a way to marry my interest in science and my interest in music until synthesizers came along," Hancock said.

After that, he was always interested in the next new thing. When beta versions of music - or recording-enhancing devices were brought to him, he would ask his collaborators, "Can it do Â… this?" - invariably asking about a capability that the machine didn’t yet have. The answer always came back, "It wasn’t designed to do Â…that." So then Hancock would ask, "Well, can we make it do Â… this?"

"I’m an early adopter," he said. "I like things first."

Because of his science training, he said, he wasn’t afraid of synthesizers, or drum machines, or any new technology. It made him different among musicians, and even among sound engineers, he said.

"All along I was pushing other musicians to check out the technology," he said. "Now, everyone has a computer," even if they perform acoustically, he said. "I feel pretty good that I was on the ground floor" for a lot of that.

During a question-and-answer session following his talk, Hancock was asked whether technology, even with all its benefits, had any negative effects.

People who are building technologies are not asking enough questions about all of its repercussions, Hancock answered, and they need to do so. Technology itself never causes problems; it’s the humans who misuse it who cause problems.

And technology can be very isolating, Hancock said. Music aside, it’s possible to sit in a room and conduct your entire life - even ordering food delivered to your door - on the Internet. But humans need interaction, he said.

"Interaction - period - is very important for the human psyche," he said.