On March 3, 2016, the Center for Music Technology program at Georgia Tech (the Georgia Insitute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia), held the finals of its eighth-annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, as a public performance. This event is both international and world-renowned. Designers of musical instruments compete for cash prizes and recognition by going through an extensive multi-day interview process with a panel of judges, culminating in the evening concert for the finalists.
This was my first time attending this event, world-famous among those who develop new musical instruments. Several instruments that have appeared in the competition over the years have gone on to become mass-produced, commercial products. On the other hand, many instruments and their creators are in it for something entirely different — they hand-build one instrument for their own use. And this leads to the Guthman competition’s multiple-personality problem.
Is this an event to foster technological innovation, or is it a competition for individual performers to show off their unorthodox skills using impractical instruments that you couldn’t imagine anybody else wanting to play? It’s both. The range of instruments and performers were so wide that I cannot understand how the judges could select winners. Regardless, this dichotomy made for a great evening of avant-garde musical entertainment.
One instrument was entirely acoustic, others acoustic with simple pickups or contact microphones. Other instruments made use of digital sounds and cutting-edge computer software in artificial intelligence, algorithmic composition and the like, in combination with novel implementations of hardware such as motion-capture cameras, wireless controllers, lasers and optical sensors.
The judges for the competition were the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, American music journalist Allan Kozinn, and Marcelo Wanderley, professor of music technology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
The Ferst Center seats over 1,000; the hall was full of curious Georgia Tech students, who cheered on and warmly encouraged this very motley crew of inventor-musician-madmen, some of whom must have spent their last €0.10 to get here from the four corners of the globe. Everybody felt entertained and enlightened.
Now on to the amazing instruments and performances, most of which inspired a well-deserved sense of wonderment from the audience.
A general comment: You can find information about each of these instruments online, but even recent photos and videos you see may not reflect the state that the instrument was in at Georgia Tech. I get the impression that each of these inventors was constantly modifying and tweaking their prototypes right up to performance time.
Yaybahar, Görkem Şen, Turkey
Second Place Award
Audience Award: Best Instrument
This imposing instrument, which is entirely acoustic, creates its own deep reverberation, while the performer plays it both as a pair of bass drums and as a fretted, bowed instrument with about the dimensions and range of a Turkish bağlama or saz. The neck of the stringed instrument is coupled through two long, loose springs to the two bass drums which provide both resonating chambers and acoustic spring reverb. Görkem Şen spun out enchanting, haunting, wistful melodies that set the stage for the evening.
The Sound Space, Greg Beller, France
Judges’ Award: Technical Excellence
Greg Beller performed as a human beat box. He created percussive and melodic sounds with his voice into a head-mounted microphone, sampling, triggering and modulating the sounds in real time using his body’s gestures in three-dimensional space. This was sensed by a motion-capture camera and triggered by controller buttons on gloves on each hand, with computer software that handles all this behind the scenes. His performance was entertaining and humorous and warmly received.
Claudeatron Mk IV, Claude Woodward, Australia
Claude Woodward is a veteran tinkerer with the soul of a street busker. His enigmatic clear Plexiglas hand-held instrument enables him to perform expressive melodies by manipulating wheels and buttons, controlling parameters in virtual instruments in Apple’s MainStage program for the Macintosh. He was really into the performing shtick, cranking out a medley of show tunes and operatic themes with a wild, wooly vibrato on what might be called an information-age theremin. He explains it all in his demo video above.
Kalichord Strum, Dan Moses Schlessinger, California
Dan Moses Schlessinger is an engineer with the Sennheiser microphone company. The Kalichord is his home-brew array of piezoelectric sensors that can be plucked and strummed by one hand while notes are played on a keyboard with the other hand. The latest prototype is in a wooden box that sits on a table. Behind the scenes is a computer-based physical modeling virtual instrument which creates string sounds, processed through the Max/MSP music programming environment. The Kalichord could enable a keyboardist to mimic the performance of a guitar, but he went beyond that, starting out with New-Age harp and zither sounds and ending with an endearing attempt to crank out a classic 70s Motown riff.
Stimulierte Emissionen Klingen, Leo Bettinelli, Argentina and Austria
Third Place Award
Leo Bettinelli came from the Andes and crossed the Alps. His instrument (it means “stimulated emission sounds” in English, but that takes us no closer to understanding its function) is a two-meter-square vertical two-dimensional array of laser beams and photo sensors creating a grid of eight beams on a side, which define 80 different sensor points. It is played by a performer waving his hands, feet or any other part of his body inside the grid to trigger sounds and musical phrases. The laser grid is interfaced to an Arduino microcontroller kit and thence to computer-based sound generation. Playing it seems to be as much of a dance as a musical performance.
La Diantenne, Dianne Verdonk, Netherlands
Possibly the simplest instrument in the competition was played by Dianne Verdonk, who is also a cellist and bass player. Her latest prototype is simply a sheet of metal with a contact microphone which Verdonk plays by striking the center with her hand or with a mallet while warping the shape of the sheet. This is a variation on the old “musical saw” or the device used in theater sound effects for centuries to simulate the sound of thunder. Verdonk, however, uses her instrument to skillfully produce slow, sonorous bass lines with deep, sweeping portamento and mysterious overtones. Verdonk was the only performer in the competition to sing while playing, making her own statement about do-it-yourself instrument building for a singer-songwriter. She won no award, but I cast my ballot for her in the category of audience award for best performer.
Electric Mbira, Josh and Wes Keegan, Colorado
The mbira, also known as the African thumb piano or the kalimba, is a folk instrument with a long history. The Keegans, doing business as Colorado Soundscapes, were the only finalists with an instrument which they manufacture and sell, rather than the one-offs or prototypes every other participant was playing. But the format of the live concert presentation let them down. For eight minutes one of the Keegans stood on stage and played his mbira held motionless in his hands, which is not a visually exciting thing to do, and the audience was at a loss to understand why this instrument was significant. But when I looked them up afterwards, I realized that they have re-designed and re-engineered this folk instrument, crafting every component in unique ways to make it more professional and reliable. They have carved a wooden soundboard that acts like tuned speaker cone; they have designed and custom-machined an original mechanism for precision-tuning the tone bars which seems to be innovative. Many craftsmen make mbiras, but the Guthman competition recognized the Keegans for their refinement of the design. I suppose you could call it the Fender Stratocaster of mbiras.
MotionComposer, Andreas Bergsland and Robert Wechsler, Norway
Special Recognition Award
Robert Wechsler is a dancer from New York who got his start with Merce Cunningham. Andreas Bergsland is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. As they say, “The MotionComposer is a hardware-software device being developed for persons with disabilities. It allows anyone a clear sense of musical expression through creative gesture and movement.” Wechsler added, “We even work with people who can only move their eyes.” To demonstrate their system, they brought out a “local kid” named Eirc Naindouba. Eirc appears to be about twelve years old and lives with a condition that I am guessing is cerebral palsy. Eirc performed from his wheelchair. I gather that he and his family are immigrants from an African nation who live in Atlanta. Details are scant, but from what I can gather, the MotionComposer operates using motion capture from a single camera box, with three-dimensional range, without the need for any physical sensors attached to the performer. The performer’s gestures trigger what I gather to be a computer-based real-time algorithmic composition system with pre-determined musical phrases mapped to different kinds of gestures that the performer can trigger. It also seems to take its tempo and rhythmic phrasing from cues in the performer’s gestures. I think MotionComposer was truly inspiring and empowering; it was given special recognition by the judges.
Golf club sitar/tabla and associated hybrid instruments, Ken Butler, New York
First Place Award
People’s Choice “Most Unusual”
People’s Choice “Best Performance”
Ken Butler closed the show and blew everybody away. I was amazed but also baffled by every minute of his performance, which largely defies description. He was certainly the most interesting performer, to the point that his instruments seemed to be an incidental detail compared to his musicianship. He swept the awards. His performance was howlingly funny and, well, baffling. What he did was to rapidly work through short performances on a series of instruments which he crudely home-made from found items, literally junk with strings and contact microphones attached, in the finest American tradition of the gut-bucket bass or the homemade slide guitar. He played astonishing melodies and percussion interludes, running everything through a Fender vacuum-tube guitar amplifier and grungy guitar pedals for that essential lo-fi vibe. This culminated in a percussion solo played on an ordinary toothbrush with a contact microphone scrubbed across his teeth, and then clamping down on the contact microphone inside his mouth and drumming out a solo with his fingers on his balding head. Forget all the computer software and the motion capture technology. Country-rocker Mack Davis had a song in the 70s that went, “Poor boy don’t need electronics to make no rock and roll. Poor boy got boogie woogie born right in his soul.” The Guthman judges agreed.
Semi-finalists (not performing in concert)
Contriverb, Ed Potokar, New York — Judges’ Recognition Award
The BladeAxe, Romain Michon, California
Pocket Operators, Teenage Engineering, Sweden
Kinefy, Federico Visi et al, England
The Big-Eared Scrambler, Greg Hendler and Mark Crowley, Georgia Tech
Reflexive Looper, François Pachet et al, France
Exp.Inst.Rain, Balam Soto, Connecticut
mi.mu gloves, Imogen Heap et al, England
The Spiral of Fifths, Ruben Dax, Massachusetts
The SolidNoise Ensemble, Jiffer Harriman et al, Colorado
ShohamMX, Amit Shoman, USA
Acoustic Additive Synth, Krzysztof Cybulski, Poland
ACPAD, Robin Sukroso, India
Instrument 1, Artiphon, unspecified location
Comments and criticisms
There were things about the event that I found frustrating.
My biggest problem is that the judges and the organizers knew all about the competitors and their instruments, but the audience had to scrabble for clues. For instance, what is the most basic thing you would want to know about a performer at an international musical event? Where that person is from. But this information was not made obvious to the audience. The printed program gave short “Entrant Biographies” but each one was free-form and there was no editing for consistency in the information provided. I was interested in the instrument “La Diantenne” played by musician Dianne Verdonk, but neither the program nor anything said on stage revealed what I was only able to infer by listening to her accent as she spoke briefly in English: she is from the Netherlands.
The most annoying thing about the event, for me, was the moderation by John Biggs, New York-based journalist for TechCrunch, who approached the entire event as a stand-up comedian who made endless little jokes but couldn’t be consistent in imparting useful information about each instrument and performer.
Each of the nine finalists gave an eight-minute performance on their instrument. Each one was amazing and beautiful, but during each performance I had a nagging what-the-heck-is-that-thing-and-what-am-I-listening-to? feeling. Then the moderator would come out and ask the performer to sum up in one or two sentences what it was we had just heard and how the instrument worked. This was always inadequate. I’m telling you that I had to go home and look up further information about each of these instruments on the Internet the next day in order to adequately understand myself what it was that I saw and heard the night before.
There was no good reason for this. The event organizers could have provided a proper introduction for each performer and instrument, printed in the program or presented verbally and with slides on the numerous projection screens on stage. They could have succinctly explained the principles involved and pointed out the innovations before the performance took place. This would have increased the audience’s appreciation for what they were hearing, and it need not have been tedious.
Setting aside my complaints, this was an exciting evening of the wild and wonderful, showing us the possibilities in the future of musical performance. People travel from across the nation and across the world to participate and to observe. I would recommend that you check out next year’s competition if you are able.