2011-04-05 15.27.28

The Gravity Ring

The Gravity Ring was originally envisioned for Bjork’s Biophilia project. I met her and Michel Gondry at the MIT Media Lab when they were looking for people and inspirations for a 3D film based on Bjork’s Biophilia concepts.

Concept 1
We discussed a lot of ideas in the first meeting. The first challenge was to play one of her lovely new songs with carefully synchronized pendulums. I tried to find a simple way to play the irregular pattern of the new song Solstice. This way wouldn’t work live. But for film it would be just fine:

Concept 2
Next, it was time to make some music. It would have been easy to place instruments on the floor and pluckers on the pendulums. But I wanted each to be self-contained. The first physical prototype worked out really well.

Marina Porter came through with 11th hour help on the cigar-box instruments:

Concept 3
The song is called Solstice, so I wrapped the line of pendulums into a circle, to create patterns that echo celestial cycles.

This would have looked amazing on camera. I still hope this idea gets used someday.

At this point I thought I knew what I was doing. So I worked with Dan Paluska and Bill Washabaugh to test out a mechanical drive system for pendulums. This it the prototype that taught us that you can’t fool the eye. It was going to have to be real, free-swinging pendulums.

Bill’s early CAD drawings reflected an original, simpler design in which each pendulum could play a number of different notes. This would give the instrument musical flexibility to play the structurally complex song with as few as 16 pendulums.

Concept 4
But Björk wanted each pendulum to play only one note, so that the patterns of motion echoed the patterns of the song. An instrument shaped like a song! I liked it. So I wrote this simulator to figure out how to do it. Click the image below to open it.

Marina Porter created a series of prototype harps made from fiberglass, spruce and aluminum.

Karl Biewald created these fresh renderings from our CAD models. They show the scope and shape of the finished ring and pendulums.

We were just ramping up for final production when the parameters of the Biophilia project changed, requiring a complete redesign.

We were all still excited to use gravity and robotics to play music. So we pushed forward again to create the Gravity Harps.


Water Harp

This was a project for Björk, who had asked me to explore instruments that harness forces of nature.  I chose to start with water, or gravity and surface tension, to be more precise.

The idea was to use water’s insistent softness to create music. In this rough prototype, I dropped water droplets on the strings of a harp to set them resonating.

Trying to  aim the droplets precisely was maddening.  They left the nozzles in non-deterministic directions and drifted in the slightest breeze. I modified the nozzles with guide-needles and increased the water’s surface tension by adding various chemicals.  But the randomness remained.

I liked the result when I finally got it working.  And I had a lot of 11th-hour help from the precise and perceptive Marina Porter.

I imagined a finished version looking something like this:

In the end I decided that I didn’t want to create a future in which Björk or I needed to precisely control falling droplets in various and unpredictable environments.  So these videos are all that is left of the work.

Photos by Marina Porter

Overtones and Intervals

Minor Adventures in Harmonics

While at the MIT Media Lab I created a magneto-acoustic instrument that used electromagnets to set 31 piano strings vibrating at precise frequencies.  I found each string could be played in all of its harmonic modes, and in the unstable areas between.

Here’s a recording of one string, freely resonating while the frequency of its electromagnet changes.  Notice how rich sounds and timbres bloom in the spaces between the nodes.  It feels like scuba diving in the deep harmonics of just one string.

Like the Whirly-Bot, its upper notes all lay in the harmonic series above each string’s fundamental.  So I tuned the fundamentals in 31-tone equal temperament, which approximates patterns of the harmonic series much better than 12-tone equal temperament.  I wrote this interaction simulation to prove it to myself:

img_16321 (1)

The Whirly-Bot

The Whirly-Bot looks like a massive, trembling turbine and sounds like sniffing a thousand magic markers all at once. It creates voice-like music using a sound-producing physical phenomenon not used in any other musical instrument.

The sound is created by whipping air through corrugated plastic tubes. Each corrugated bump creates vibrating vorticies that energize a standing wave running the length of the tube.  Faster movement creates higher energies, shortening the wavelength of the standing wave.  So each carefully-tuned tube can create a scale in harmonic series.  Each tube’s fundamental note lies in standard chromatic tuning.  But each tube’s upper notes lie in the harmonic series, creating an airy/eerie tension in the tuning.

I designed the Whirly-Bot and built many prototypes in a string of frantic all-nighters with help from Bill Tremblay, Erik Nugent and many friends.

Whirly-Bot Construction

Radar Fourteen: Honey, I Shrunk Red Hook

Honey I Shrunk Red Hook

There are some invisible walls between the varied populations of Red Hook. Would those walls disappear if we shrunk everyone down?

In the summer of 2009, Laura Arena of Lucky Gallery asked Luis Blackaller and I to create an installation to bring together the diverse people living in the blocks around her Red Hook gallery.

We created a fully-populated tiny Red Hook using satellite photos, digital cameras, scrap lumber, applied extroversion and one overtaxed laser cutter.

This video tells the story best:

I fell in love with Red Hook that summer – the quiet of its wide empty streets and overgrown vacant lots full of quick, shy cats and a brick-framed slice of ocean where each street ends. I wandered with a camera and shot local characters telling stories about the neighborhood. I wove the stories into a film that we played on on the street at the closing party.

The first was 99 Cent Dreams Everything 99 Cents … or More!, a ghetto bargain store the size of a small airport.

I whipped up a crude and bumpy bike-cam before dawn one day and went for a ride.

And there aren’t too many place where you can throw up this much graffiti in peace.

The Blo-bot in full regalia

The Blo-Bot

What has 6 legs, 4 elbows, no head, and hoots as winsomely as a lovestruck pygmy?

The Blo-bot is my first robot for Ensemble Robot. It’s a tetrahedron of pneumatic cylinders and modified organ pipes that makes music as it slithers and flexes among it’s 64 (2^6) possible shapes.  I was interested in the relationship between music and geometry.

Sadly, I don’t have any audio recordings of the guy.  It had a richly nasal, winsome and harmonious tone punctuated by the percussive clacking of the air cylinders. Here’s a video of it before it found its voice.

It was featured in shows at MassMoCA, the Wired NextFest, and the Boston Museum of Science.   I’m honestly not certain where it is anymore.  If you see it out there, please send it home.


Falling off the Robot Wagon

I said I wouldn’t do it. But I couldn’t stay away. The hours, the expense, the stress of watching level-0 prototypes in high-profile performances, holding my breath waiting for them to embarrassingly malfunction onstage.

But I miss the people. So I’ve re-joined Ensemble Robot!

This summer I’m building a control system for musical robot for musical robots. My group at the MIT Media Lab needs it. By sharing it with Ensemble Robot, I can field-test it for the Media Lab folks.

Scholarly gentlemen toasting to a fresh robot.

And I must confess, I miss the bots too.