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NorthWest CyberArtists

Einar's articles from the NWCA Newsletter.

September 1993

Important Note: These articles are history, dude, and all references to upcoming meetings and contact addresses and phone numbers and other things that change with time should be ignored. I decided to leave them in for readability.

September 1993

Garage Performance Art

If you have been reading this column over the past few months you know by now that I have evolved from a closet electronic musician into a live solo performer. I have written before about building triggers to plug into the back of my PAD-8 using cheap piezo pickups from Radio Shack. Making custom drum pads was a big leap for me. Laying out parts, soldering and using my imagination to design and build the instruments that I want to play seems to put me closer to my music. Just as creating my own sounds tends to affect the song I write, so the instrument's physical appearance changes the style of the piece.

Sometimes sitting in front of a keyboard gets boring. I have to use a lot of imagination when I play the sound of glass breaking by depressing a key and still feel the action of actually breaking glass. I find that the keyboard does not allow me to get inside a song the way I can with a guitar, for example.

My little triggers are still used and are very fun, but I was limited to using only six at a time with my one PAD-8. Then I was introduced to MIDItools. The project that I use is a MIDI "brain" that allows a custom keyboard of 64 notes (expandable) to be built. The brain translates any completion of a circuit into a note-on message. This continues to fascinate me. ANYTHING that touches two wires together will become a sampled scream, or breaking glass, or a plucked string.

My goal has been to do interactive performances, allowing the audience to have input at shows. I saw the possibility of 64 independent little switches spread throughout a room, giving the audience something to play with. A photocell and a flashlight become an instrument. Mercury switches allow motion to make music. One large pipe banging into another can send a loud electronic "Clang!", An opening door shouts "Close Me!"

I have entered the world of garage performance art. A world where everything I look at becomes some strange Dr. Suess contraption that squirts water, blows bubbles, and has a MIDI out. Float switches, motion detectors, heat sensors. Suddenly I need to know how every electronic gadget that I see works. I take apart a lot of stuff with the curiosity of my three year old son.

To make the interfacing between each switch and the "brain" easy and changeable and to give me control over what notes are played at any time, I am soldering up 64 female 1/4" phone jacks into a pattern on a board that resembles the layout of a keyboard. Each switch is attached to a wire that terminates with a 1/4" male phone plug. The assembled project looks like something a telephone operator of days gone by might remember. Those of us who once used a modular synthesizer might start feeling nostalgic looking at all the wires!

At this writing I have now used the MIDItools custom instrument at two shows. The first show was two or three days after I got the brain working. I just scrounged up some old momentary switches and a few jackknife switches, mounted them on a board, and went to town!

The second show I did was the first shot at giving the audience some control. I wired two boat control levers on 29 foot cables to the MIDItools brain and let the audience play. I also had some momentary switches at the foot of the stage. All of this was interesting, but just not interesting enough. The momentaries were too close to the stage, and I didn't have the right sounds at all times for the audience to play with. Fortunately these problems are easily fixed!

If any readers are interested, MIDItools kits will soon be available. (For further information talk to Bob Moses or Steve Macatee at the next meeting). If it sounds like something you would like to do, the following information might be helpful.

  • If I really want to control a performance in the most complete manner, I use my master keyboard. These switches do nothing more than send note-on and note-off information.
  • What I choose to do with this black box is only one of many possible applications. So, keeping in mind that my main goals are to interest an audience into taking part in a performance, and to have a good time...
  • I like mercury switches. I found some at Radio Shack for a little over a dollar. Now my wife, a dancer, is wired and can play anything she wants as she moves. And for a cost of about ten dollars!
  • Photocells are also interesting. An acquaintance who saw the last show I did suggested a "garage" method of using them to make a game out of squirting light at moving sensors in order to make sound. I went home, hooked it up, and it works!

See ya,

Enough! Back to!

Einar Ask /