I’ve always been fascinated with the evolution of species. Ever seen those bizarre, short-lived organisms in textbooks, the ones that look like they have twelve eyes and a hundred really tall legs and a spindly tail that serves no purpose? I feel the same way about new instruments, interfaces, and music software. Sometimes it’s the evolutionary aberrations — whether practical or not — that are the most interesting, and that perhaps tell us the most about the more dominant species. (Hello, guitars.) And with an open door policy for DIY instruments, we’ve seen some wonderfully unusual experiments at the Handmade Music event series along just these lines.
Continuing our performance series, with assistance from Make Magazine and Etsy.com, we had some special guests last Sunday at openhousegallery in SoHo, New York: the Mister Resistor Ensemble. Headed by Ranjit Bhatnagar, the inventive sound artist who brought us robotic Theremins and MIDI ironing boards, this group of students from Parsons is lucky enough to spend a whole semester building fun instruments with hardware and software. The results are clearly experimental, but that’s the point. Some informal video clips:
In this case, students and far more to do than simply show off a nifty gadget, science fair-style. They had to turn them into music. Divided into smaller groups, they came up with various inventive approaches covering a range of sounds. (I can imagine, given time, people finding ways to play jazz covers of Caravan or re-orchestrations of Mozart, given enough effort and musicianship.) The lineup:
D.V. Caputo: percussion-controlled speech synthesizer, and homemade video synthesizer
Ji Yeon Choi: microcontroller-based synthesizer controlled by optical proximity sensor; circuit bent toy keyboard
Daniel Herskowitz: tape bow "violin": cassette tape loops attached to a violin-like bow to be played by hand
Hsiang Ju Hung: vocals, modified vocals (singing through voice-changing toys), homemade slide guitar
Glendon Jones: homemade overtone "cello"
Kan Yang Li: mobile robot with optical sensor to play tunes; conductive socks linked to microcontroller synth
Meha Pande: homemade drums. Meha is a trained tabla player
Michael Perkins: sine wave interference synthesizer made from 1960s electric guessing game, microprocessor, electronics
Elie Stevenson: toy robots, circuit-bent
Ramsay Stirling: miked plucked strings and rainstick
Samuel Strick: the Beat Grinder: crank-operated mechanical MIDI sequencer
Ohal Wofford: electronic synthesizer with optical controls
Yelena Avanesova: modified cassette walkmans and homemade tape loops
Ranjit shares some details on how the class was put together and some of the juicier projects that students made:
Yelena was actually "scratching" cassette tape by applying finger pressure to motors and pulleys in her vivisected walkmans.
Glendon’s overtone cello had the pickups (an old humbucker, I believe) on the opposite side of the bridge from the bow, and fingered and bowed the strings to emphasize the overtones rather than the fundamental. The two strings (piano strings! because the instrument is too long for guitar or bass strings) were usually tuned to within a few cents of each other to produce beats.
One of Elie’s circuit-bent robots bit the dust just before the performance, but he put the other robot to fine use.
Sam’s Beat Grinder was partly inspired by a book of simple mechanical automata I lent him: <http://www.cabaret.co.uk/education/book.htm> I need to remind him to bring it back to me! By the way, Beat Grinder is the best name ever.
Speaking of books, we did a lot of exercises in class from Nic Collins’ excellent book Handmade Electronic Music: <http://emusician.com/tutorials/emusic_routledge_handmade/> Ohal’s optical synth and my electric bassoon and one of D.V.’s tone generators were all based partly on Collins’ circuits.
It was interesting to me that circuit bending didn’t end up being a big part of the students’ final performance. They enjoyed the circuit-bending labs in the class but most of them went on to make stuff from scratch, whether acoustic, microcontroller (arduino in every case), or discrete circuitry. I also liked that good old magnetic tape showed up in several designs. (Glendon was also working on a tape-based instrument but ended up concentrating on the overtone cello.) The class was originally advertised as a circuit-bending class but I tried to encourage experimentation with (miked) acoustic instruments by devoting a few labs to that kind of stuff.
Parsons Students Rock Out at Handmade Music Event [Matrixsynth]
Mister Resistor [Networked Music Review]