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Archive of posts tagged with Art

Making light of music: week two

May 23, 2011


It’s been a reasonably unproductive first week in all honestly. Health got in the way a bit as I’ve had a festering cold which has sapped by energy big time. My noob status means I am missing some vital equipment to get even the basic tests going. I have to wait for some header pins to arrive to connect my midi shield to my arduino properly so I can do an end-to-end test.

In better news I have been working through the tutorials my arduino kit from the lovely chaps at oomlaut came with and finding that building circuits has come back to me very quickly, and programming in c is something I’m not afraid of either, so it’s been going really well. My soldering iron turned up and, after a fairly painstaking hour of making test joints and worrying about the smoke coming out of the iron itself (I’m assuming it was just dust as it stopped after about 5 mins) I managed to solder all the components on to my midi shield.

I can’t test it all works yet but I diligently watched a few soldering tutorials online to refresh my memory, and although it took a few goes to get the technique right, by the end I was soldering super quickly. Most importantly the joints look good.

I also came across a couple of projects along the way which have helped me think a bit more about how to structure the thing. First via Ben, this midi rainbow which is a much simplified version of what I’d like to do but a great starting point and all the circuitry involved is included.

MIDI Rainbow from SuLuLab on Vimeo.

I’ve also been in discussion with Mark Lottor, artist and creator of the Cubatrons (which I was lucky enough to experience in the flesh at Burning Man 2010). He’s pointed me in the direction of some vaguely affordable strings of LEDs.

Former housemate and occasional blog co-conspirator, other Ben has pointed me in the direction of hall effect sensors which may be an inexpensive way to generate note on / note off information (after all, I don’t need velocity).

Help in the lights and diffusers department comes courtesy of Jake who is also tinkering with multi-coloured LED circuits.

So things are happening – perhaps not as quickly as I’d like.

Last but not least there’s the question of name. Daniel Haynes, a green-fingered friend who also performs at Duckie, pointed me in the direction of Thomas Wilfred, an american musician and inventor who was particularly interested in the idea of painting light through an instrument. He originally called it his ‘color organ’, but not comfortable with this term he coined the word ‘Clavilux‘. The picture to the right is the man himself with his Clavilux circa 1928.

“A Wilfred Lumia work is a composition of light, color, and form which changes slowly with time. It exhibits a very wide range of light intensity and a broad spectrum of delicate colors and shapes. These are extremely difficult to record and impossible to “play back” with fidelity, even using a high quality monitor. Thus you cannot experience the full, almost visceral, impact of his work unless you see it in person.”

You can get a sense of what his instrument produced by looking at the animations, and Yale University have a treasure trove of incredible images created using the Clavilux, as well as describing the projectors used to make the light itself, including this fantastic one below. It’s well worth a browse.

A fascinating man indeed, about which more can be found here and here. I do feel however that his work was about creating an instrument from scratch, and it would be overreaching by some way to call what I’m planning a whole new instrument. It’s more about the surprise of the unexpected light emanating from something otherwise seemingly familiar. About actions causing surprising unexpected reactions. So I’m not quite there with a name yet. Suggestions welcome!

A new project: making light of music

May 11, 2011


This May I’ve decided to embark upon a project to create a piano which makes light out of situations. And I might need your help / expertise!

My parents are moving house and my piano which was in North Wales is now sitting in my front room in London, having been bumbled across some cobbles and hauled up the stairs by some very triangular muscled men from Kent. It’s very exciting. But it got me to thinking that I’d like to do more than learn new music, brush up on pieces I haven’t touched for years and give the odd lesson here and there.

I’d like to make a piano which spews light, cleverly, depending on what keys are pressed. It should be fairly seamless and not overt, so the workings need to hide inside, but the basic premise is:

Someone plays the keys -> Some magic processing happens -> The music is interpreted, tastefully, in light form and slips out from above the keybed, over the top of the piano and beyond. Here’s a crap drawing of what it might look like:

Not only would it be a fun project but it would also be a great thing to contribute to Burning Man festival in Nevada, which I’m hoping to attend for the third time either this August or next. We camp with Illumination Village, a group of talented like-minded souls who bring joy to the festival through incredible fire art, beautiful photography and unicorn stampedes, among other things.

Back to the piano. There are some major logistic challenges ahead, and I think the key things are:

How to sense what keys are being pressed?

My early research shows there are a number of ways to do this. Using either pressure sensors or vibration sensors. I’m not sure if the latter would be suitable due to string cross-vibrations but the latter would certainly be cheaper. Then there’s the issue of there being 88 inputs and ideally it’d be great to be able to sense them individually so these would need to be processed in some way.

There are systems such as PNOScan and TFT midi record which can be fitted to a piano – they are an array of sensors and a strip which sits in the keybed. it takes a little time to do but it’s by no means impossible. They also provide a controller box which spews midi out, and my music geek education means I’m on safe ground when it comes to midi data and how to process it, which is a good thing. The downside is cost: the PNOScan system is available in the UK for a whopping £750 which feels a bit steep. Especially when there are other bits to consider…

How will the processing work?

I already have an arduino and have just got an midi shield for it which will allow me to process midi in, however it’s a little board with none of the pots or connectors soldered on. I’m also getting my electronics foo back on early in the process :) The first step will be to plug my midi keyboard into this module, attach it to my arduino and laptop and start doing some basic processing with a simple LED array, which brings me on to…

How will the lights work?

This is the bit I’m least sure about. There are plenty of LED rope lights and multi-colour LED ribbons but I don’t yet know exactly how to control them or whether they are individually controllable. Ideally there would be a way to address the lights individually via a controller to allow some funky processing, eg if someone plays an F# then that one light would come on, then the next in the series, then the next, so the effect would be of the note emanating from the top of the chain through to the bottom. This will be the biggest challenge for me. At the moment I’m thinking of building a string of say 20 of multi-coloured LEDs wrapped in ping pong balls, attached to a controller, and repeating that a number of times (possibly 88, possibly only one per octave)

How much will this thing cost?! And what are the other constraints?

I’m beginning to realise how much art projects on the playa can set people back. It’s going to cost a pretty penny. I think I’m setting my budget at about £2k but that will have to cover:

  • Electronics to provide note on / off information from each key
  • Arduino kit & midi shield
  • Array of multi-colour LEDs
  • LED controllers (DMX?)
  • A second-hand upright piano to be located in San Francisco
  • Hire of van with tail lift and ropes for securing
  • Paint and decoration
  • Tools to make modifications to piano
  • Potential post-festival storage of equipment and/or piano

There’s also the small matter of being able to get the electronics from London to a little north of Gerlach which means the eletronics and piano fittings need to be robust and fit into something no larger than a suitcase (and I’ll probably have some ‘splainin to do at customs), and it will need to be able to withstand getting somewhat dusty. OK, very dusty.

What should it be called?

This project needs a name. That’s one of the first things to sort.

What’s happening this week?

  1. With the midi shield here and my soldering kit on the way I’m going to create a little prototype which goes all the way from receiving midi. This will give me a good idea of:

    • Whether I should be trusted with a soldering iron
    • Whether arduino is good enough to be able to process the midi and do simple and more complex light manipulation
  2. Come up with some names

Are you still reading this?

If so you might have some useful knowledge which I’ll definitely need to get this thing going! Get in touch in the comments or email simon at this domain name.

Belated thoughts on my second trip to Glastonbury

July 1, 2007

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What’s brown and sticky? A stick. Oh, and also British music festivals in the summer. Aah Glastonbury and the British weather. You can’t beat it.

The wishing tree

So some aspects of this year’s festival were no better than my last experience: planning and successfully executing toilet trips was a thankless task; the food ranged from the sublime to the revolting (never again shall I have a yorkshire pudding at a festival – it’ll be made of discarded flip-flop); the crowd was fairly homogenous despite the “multi-cultural” vibe; good music was plentiful yet people still insisted on playing Zombie Nation at 4am on ghetto blasters; and the mud – which oddly was at its worst and welly-stealingly gloopy when the rain stopped which made me secretly glad of extra rain.

But there was so much good stuff – art for art’s sake, impromptu jam sessions, random acts of generosity, a sense of suspended reality, random encounters with long-lost friends.

Opposite the Other stage before Arcade Fire

And then there’s the music – the sweet music! We tried to avoid the main stages a bit so as not to miss the dodgem diner, the space bar, the rabbit hole and all manner of weird and wonderful tiny things. We saw and heard, in rough order, and with fairly meaningless marks out of 10: Rod Thomas (7), Lana (4), Modest Mouse (4), !!!, Bloc Party (6), Rufus Wainwright (9), Arcade Fire (9), Bjork (8), Andi Neate, Guillemots (4), CSS (7), New Pornographers (8), Calvin Harris (6), The Maccabees, Patrick Wolf (10), Rodrigo y Gabriela (4), David Saw (6), Andy Parsons (9), Bill Bailey (8), Dame Shirley Bassey (10), Manic Street Preachers (6), The Go! Team (9), Radio Luxembourg (9), Gruff Rhys (9).

Two other things I should mention: firstly the guy in the next tent who snored ferociously in a slightly tuneful way (other tenty neighbours referred to him as Dinasour Man), and secondly Giles’ storming impression of the Bassey in a pink blanket when we were in the never-ending queue to leave the site in sideways sheets of rain. Priceless.

John Peel tent

Simply the best…

December 4, 2006

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Last Wednesday we decided to be all poncey and visit the Tate Britain to see the Turner Prize nominees. It feels quite exciting to engage with present-tense art – you almost feel like you might be able to contribute something to dialogue. Of course, we couldn’t. We had a little man in our ear telling us why the artwork was so worthy, prompting a string of ‘aaaahs’ and ‘oh THAT’S why there’s a pube on top of the cupboard’.

If I had to add tags to each of the nominees, this is what I would’ve written:

  • Mark Titchner: powerful, disjointed, afraid, confused, and is that blood on the spinny things?
  • Rebecca Warren: messy, lifeless attempt at postmodernism
  • Tomma Abts: poky, modest, quiet, meticulous, finished, surprisingly affecting
  • Phil Collins: on the other bus, disjointed, compelling nonetheless

One of the most amusing things about the whole exhibition was the comments boards they have at the end, one of which simply said ^-^. Those l33t kids, they get everywhere…

Anyhow, well done to Tomma Abts for winning, and also having an awesome name.

Chalking it up

August 14, 2006

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Recently someone asked if they could do a pastel drawing of one of my flickr pictures – of a slightly lovely glass cup of tea on an underlit tabletop. Naturally I obliged as I’m not one to fuss over what happens to my half-baked attempts at photography. The resulting pastel drawing is, I’m sure you’ll agree, pretty stunning.


August 9, 2006

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Sombrero with people attached!, on Flickr.

Mesmerising deathtraps. Beautiful to watch but too terrifying to contemplating riding on: I chickened out on Saturday in Brighton, fearing that my chains would snap through fatigue and I’d be catapulted butt-first into a poor unsuspecting family.

Still, pretty fascinating. I tried to dig around a bit for more information about the first chairoplanes on wikipedia but it’s late and I’m tired and I couldn’t find anything. Does anyone else know a bit more about these fairground wonders?


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