Improv Sequencer

New Version of the Improv Sequencer

The new improv / performance interface for the Gravity Harps is functional, if not polished. It’s like sequencing musical DNA. I hope you like it. Let me know what you think.

disclaimers:  The visual design looks like a programmer did it. Fixed soon.  It works fine in Chrome and Safari. Ditto.  The other three tabs are blank b/c they’re only useful when connected to the Gravity Harps

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Gravity Harps

The Gravity Harps are the final version of the pendulum instrument and are featured in Bjork’s current Biophilia show in Manchester UK.

The idea was born during a slightly tense meeting after the Manchester parameters had changed. The Pendulum Ring was out for now. We needed a new idea. We had about 4 weeks and the clock was ticking. I drew this idea on a scrap of paper:

How this plays a complex song took a lot of explaining, and still does.

Prototype 0:
I went back to the workshop with Marina and we built an ugly mock-up with PVC pipe and cardboard to check if the size and proportions made any aesthetic sense. They didn’t. But we banged away at it until we felt better about it.

Prototype 1:
The next prototype was used to test whether the combination of swinging and rotation worked at all, mechanically and aesthetically. And James Patten needed to start testing a control system that was smart about the physics of pendulums. Here’s some of the slow video we shot of the tests:

Prototype 2:
The next version needed to make some music. That meant Marina and I needed to finish prototyping the harps. Our 2nd prototype harp was made of fiberglass, walnut, spruce and all the epoxy we could find. This is the harp Bjork used on the new album. Here is Marina putting the strings on for the first time.

And here is it under computer control:

I think this still tells the story pretty well:

It was finally starting to look like a win. So we pressed onward through weeks of 18-hour days.

Prototype 2:
There were so many parts to figure out. And Karl Biewald And Doug Ruuska machined some great mechanical solutions.

Our new harps would have larger shells of a home-made walnut veneer composite:

And the new stands would be cantilevers, hanging from the building’s columns:

James and I finished troubleshooting at 5AM on the day of a 9AM demo for Bjork.

The demo went really well! Our final prototype setup looked much like this nice photo by James Patten:

Manchester
I needed a robo-sitter in Manchester. Ryan Wistort was by far the best choice. I’m not sure how much I should be saying yet about the installation in Manchester. But these random bootleg videos are already out in the wild. It’s not good documentation, but it does feature Bjork!

Special thanks to (chronologically):
Marina Porter
Karl Biewald
Doug Ruuska
James Patten
Ryan Wistort

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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.

Weaver and Music Box

Weavers and Music Boxes (early Biophilia idea)

This machine has 2 or 3 main parts.
The Music Box – which may contain other instruments, like a trompong or tuned strings.
The Music Sheet – which contains music encoded into it by weaving, punched holes, or interwoven beads.
The Weaver – which we can see weaving or knitting the music in real-time.

The weaver conveys a sense of care and mindfulness, but also an unknowable intelligence, like watching the careful mandibles of an insect.
Weaver and Music Box
Weaver (left) and Music Box (right) with trompong.

Weaver and Music Box w/ Trompong

Music Box and Weaver hanging vertically (needs a better drawing)


Example of a tiny music box playing a modified Moon Song

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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: