Anyone who’s paid attention to your earlier electronic/violin work may or may not find your debut as an instrument designer to be a real surprise. Of course, since we know you through your work more than spectating on your life, I expect that the change seems quite different to you. How did you become an instrument maker?
Well, we can start waaaay back when I was 3 years old and I had my first musical instrument obsession. I really liked the violin, so grabbed a shoebox and put rubber bands over it, plucking it under my neck and tromping around the house. Flash forward a couple decades, after many violin lessons, in graduate school I decided to deconstruct the instrument once again when I created the “Self-Oscillating Violin” (2005). Here’s a little bit about it:
A second-hand violin is transformed into a self-oscillating system by the use of electromagnetism and a computer running Max. Motion detectors excite long tones of oscillation. The audio vibrations of each string are transduced into surface waves of a thin layer of water on a concave mirror. The shadows of waves reflect onto the ceiling by a suspended blue flashlight.
Then I decided to lose the violin form altogether, and, I created another instrument “String TV” (2009):
A long string “self-oscillates” or has no visible performer. The oscillations of a long string are visually manifested on a TV monitor. The monitor is hanging from above, shining down on the string.
Each of my iterations of instruments have focused on visual elements and transduction of sound into light in some way. And, having come from a classical music background, I’m also still deconstructing my assumptions about what an ‘Instrument’ might be. There have been two versions of the Macro-Cymatic Instrument, the first one was made of wood, and had a string on top, and so resembled more of a classical instrument concept. The newest version is more sculptural, made of epoxy resin and acrylic.
Can you talk a little bit about the act of using your instrument? What would we find it plugged into, were we to go see you live?
When I’m using the instrument, the first question to answer is – am I designing the sound for a specific visual effect, or am I shaping a pre-existing sound idea to create a visual representation of it? I’ve worked both ways, for example with my piece “Recognition: for Sine Waves, Prepared Piano, and Macro-Cymatic Instrument” (2015). I consider this the first piece that the sound was composed specifically for how they created fluid motion at the macro-photographic scale. I had the instrument set up with a Max patch where I could create different overtone scales and modulations of sine waves. These sine waves mixed together with the prepared piano, was being fed into the Macro-Cymatic Instrument’s audio driver, creating the fluid motion. This liquid is captured at the macro-photographic scale, and the live video projected onto a screen.
In the newest version of the instrument, there is also data running to the LED light arrays, running from the Arduino. Right now this is set up as one program per piece, and I will program the lighting to fit the tonal hue of the music, and synchronize with a BPM. The result is an immersive audiovisual experience – where the light and patterns are derived from the music, but in an abstracted way.
More info, demonstration video, and a music video from my new record Star Core from the Creator’s Project here.
Instrument building is always some kind of dialogue between intention and materials. Common instruments tend to represent a kind of consensus over a long amount of time about the most efficient ways to transduce small motor behavior or breath (or both) to make sound. Inventing an instrument can circumvent that entirely – you’re finding new ways to actuate things, wondering about the best materials without the benefit of history, and so on. Can you talk a little about the process of developing your instrument?
At first, I developed the instrument in the tradition of classic music instruments with the classic musical instrument material: wood. I carved it by hand, and studied its resonances. I created a sound board with sounding body and iteration was based on creating a balanced frequency response as well and the best transduction of vibration to the water. One of the most difficult elements is suspending the sound board without dampening the transduction of sound waves to water. Working with patterns of resonance and nodes and antinodes, various methods of suspension were explored. This instrument also had a string mounted on top, that could be bowed. The sound is good as in a traditional wooden instrument, but because the board needs to vibrate freely, the instrument wiggles when the string bowed, resulting in wobbling water. So, the string was one of ideas that proved less practical when translated to this new instrument.
This year while at residency at Djerassi, I was filming a lot with this first instrument, and realized that the wood was holding me back. I kept framing my shots and creating very high contrast visuals in order to avoid seeing the wood grain. So I started building new instruments made of epoxy resin casted in molds made with ceramic. The shape is similar to the original instrument, and while the resonant characteristics aren’t the same as wood, the visual and sculptural characteristics have offered me a whole new visual terrain to explore!
I guess that one of the things that building instruments has in common with writing code has to do with prototyping, and the process by which what you make suggests something that you didn’t see or think of when you started. Obviously, the situation is different when comparing code to material objects in the world, but I’m wondering whether there was any part of the process where the instrument itself suggested some change to you….
Since there is both code and material involved in the instrument I can think of aspects of both that suggest changes or new considerations. For example, the physics of light propagation and features of the camera hardware favor certain ways of programming the lights but also create unimaginable results. When I started using a 8×8 LED matrix, I had no idea what it would really look like reflecting off the water at a macro-photographic scale…. And as I started playing around with more and more subtle shifts of color I was amazed by the results. Very small shifts in hue became a whole new frontier to explore, like the shifting hues of a horizon.
Since you’re an instrument maker, it logically follows that you are the sole virtuoso on your instrument in the entire universe. What’s it like to *play* the instrument? Does the act of interacting with it drive the development of a given performance?
The instrument definitely has a mind of its own, and is very picky about the type of sounds, frequency and volume it reacts to. In assessing these, my profession as an audio engineer and designer has helped me to more rapidly adjust sounds to the visual behavior I’m seeing. Playing the instrument involves live manipulation of the audio, sometimes including the addition of pure tones via Max to amplify the lower frequency range of a composition. Then there’s the performance of the camera position, exposure, panning, zoom, shutter speed, and focus.
Being the First Virtuoso also means that you’re intimately involved with developing a repertoire, and with letting the instrument “tell you” what kind of music it delights in making. What does the process of thinking about performing with your instrument look like to you? How do you imagine the instrument as part of an ensemble, for example?
The Macro-Cymatic Instrument definitely shines with music that focuses on minutiae and delicately crafted details. It invites you to dive into the tiny details of a sound, by magnifying them. The only other music that the instrument has performed that isn’t composed by me, is Chuck Johnson’s new work for pedal steel guitar and synthesizer (from a record forthcoming 2017 on VDSQ). Chuck performed the music live while I performed the visuals live at Gray Area (SF) in June.