Instrument-making and physics – aka physics is our dance partner.

For various reasons, I (Amy) have been thinking a lot lately about instrument-making. Although some musical instruments are more difficult than others, most traditional instruments seem to have been designed with at least the intention of facilitating performance as much as possible. With the advent of computer-based instruments – auditory or visual – things have gotten a bit more complicated: the sound/image isn’t directly made by the gesture, and interfaces have been inherited from paradigms of business, etc. But still the intention seems to be to facilitate performance.

With Discotrope, I’m working to design a visual instrument that is performable in “cooperation” with physics. Because the ball is powered by solar cells, brighter projected images generate more energy and make the ball move faster; darker images slow it down. This changes the speed at which the images “dance” around the space and how readable vs. abstract the images are – so it changes the flow of the performance. (More about that here.) We can change the overall brightness of the images by swapping out different videos, by changing the brightness of the videos themselves, or by adding effects (e.g. white/black/colored flashes). How we do this and the speed at which we do this changes the look of the videos themselves as well as the way the rotation speed changes. But – we have to also take into account inertia, which has a very big impact on the ball’s motion. Because of inertia, the ball doesn’t respond directly to the changes we make to image brightness, so we have to intuit this behavior as we perform. In other words – physics is our dance partner. This makes for an interesting situation – there’s a known external factor that makes performance difficult. On one level this seems to be a fool’s errand. But the point of building the instrument isn’t to facilitate playing it, but to incorporate the solar-induced physics into the way the instrument is played.

So this has me wondering: what other endeavors have their been in designing instruments to be performed in collaboration with an ornery external force? Thanks to Jaime Oliver, I’ve recently learned that there was quite some controversy surrounding the introduction of the Theremin. Apparently not everyone was convinced that performing an electromagnetic field was a viable way to perform music… but it turned out Theremin’s were suited to a different kind of music entirely.  Then their were early electronic instrument builders like Don Buchla and Raymond Scott who designed their instruments to have a degree of agency. Scott for example, wrote in a patent disclosure for the Electronium, “The entire system is based on the concept of Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine.” And of course more recent computer music and visual artists who have designed instruments to have some agency, or some chaotic properties for the performer to work with. I even did quite a bit of that in developing the CyberSpaceLand software. But in that case, it was software – I still had some degree of control as to how out of control I’d allow the instrument to go. I don’t seem to have the same degree of influence over physics…

Anybody have ideas of other endeavors into designing instruments that are knowingly ornery? (For now we’re not set up to take comments on the site, so if you have thoughts, we’d be happy if you let us know here.)