Perseid Nocture

In August I was invited by Dundee Contemporary Arts to participate in their brand-new arts festival called Blue Skies – “Kite Flying, Rainbow Chasing, Star Gazing”.

My involvement was in the last part of that, since the festival was timed to coincide with a meteor shower – the Perseid Shower, to be precise. I designed an audio/musical performance for the Mills Observatory which would react the the visible meteors. A camera pointed at the sky would see the meteors, triggering different sounds.

Unfortunately, it was cloudy (in Scotland?!) and no meteors were visible at all on the evening! It was too bad, but the sold-out audience did not let that get in the way of having a brilliant time, enjoying a dance performance by Small Petit Klein, a “guerrilla rainbow” installation by Alistair McClymont, and a lecture on the Perseids by astronomer Brian Kelly, before my performance.

Despite the missing meteors I was still able to perform my piece, which I did in two parts (I was in the observatory itself, in the photo above, with the speakers and the the audience). The first section is entitled “Strange and Wonderfull Apparitions” after a beautiful broadside poster that you can see on the National Library of Scotland website, which describes a meteor shower in the 18th century that was witnessed around Scotland and Europe.
In the leadup to the show I got people from around DCA and Mills Observatory to read sections of the broadsheet out loud, which I then edited together, mixing it along with recordings I made of the previous events (the dance piece, the rainbow machine, the sound of the observatory structure, the crowd mingling, chatting and applauding…).

The second section, “Good, occasionally poor” was constructed out of the shipping forecast from BBC Radio 4. I find the rhythms, vocal melodies, and structure of the shipping forecast fascinating, and it certainly seemed to match well with the theme of the night!

I’ve now finally gotten around to rendering a shortened version of this piece, which you can listen to now. Enjoy! I’d like to thank Clive Gillman at DCA for inviting me to do this performance, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and of course the whole team (Annette Davison, Kristina Johansen, and many others) who worked so hard to make Blue Skies such a success.

Perseid Nocture

As I write this, I’m listening to some sounds that I’m rendering for my performance tomorrow night at the Mills Observatory in Dundee. I’m really excited to be a part of the wonderful Blue Skies Festival, an event led by DCA which started last night with a brilliant ZoĆ« Irvine piece in the Olympia Pool last night and continues today and tomorrow.

My performance is called Perseid Nocturne, and is inspired by the Perseid meteor shower, which is happening this weekend. If the weather complies, I’ll be pointing a camera at the sky to look for meteors, which will trigger and control my sound performance – the majority of the audio will be recorded on the day, using the sounds of the observatory, the crowd, and the other events happening for Blue Skies.

Hopefully the clouds will stay away! In any case, I’m really looking forward to using the Observatory as a stage, it’s an amazing place for a performance. The event is sold out, I’m afraid, but I’ll be posting documentation here of course. Maybe see you there…details can be found on the Blue Skies website.

Pecha Kucha Dundee

Category : Amazing Rolo, Dundee

Tonight I’ll be giving a short presentation at the Pecha Kucha Night in Dundee. Organized by the wonderful folks over at Creative Dundee, it promises to be a fascinating night of rapid-fire unrelated talks. My presentation will be about the History of the Branding of Lothian Buses (very similar to the Pecha Kucha Edinburgh I did in February). For the non-Scots in the audience, Lothian Buses is one of the main bus operators in the Edinburgh area.

On the surface, my talk has nothing to do with any of my current projects. However, I would argue that it is about interface, audience, and history, which are three things that I try and approach in all of my work.

The event is at 7pm tonight, 22 May, at Chamber East in Dundee. See you there!

One Pig on the road

Over the last few weeks, in addition to doing some exciting things at Lucky Frame, I’ve been on the road with Matthew Herbert for his One Pig tour. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve built an interactive musical pig sty for his show, and I’m performing it onstage with him (and an incredible band made up of Sam Beste, Tom Skinner, and Hugh Jones).
We’ve only done three shows in the past few weeks, but they have all been brilliant. The first was in Bolzano, Italy, for Transart. We played in a giant abandoned aluminium factory on the outskirts of town. It was a packed show, and the chef on stage (fittingly named Hannes Pignater) made some amazing bacon with leek and apple. The venue also provided us with a recently butchered pig’s head, which was…um…interesting…

A couple of photos of you, which show Matthew testing out the styharp during the soundcheck and a picture from the show:

After a quick stop back in Scotland, where I spent the day working on the Man High Mixer project that you can read about over on the Lucky Frame website, I headed off to Japan with the band for two shows in Tokyo. It was an incredible trip (despite the giant typhoon that hit the day we arrived). The crowds were great, the staff at Liquid Room was brilliant, and the food was delicious.
We have a few more gigs scheduled, and more are being booked all of the time. For the moment it looks like the next three gigs will be:
17 November, Berlin
18 November, Eindhoven (STRP Festival)
25 November, Brussels

And there are more to come!

The StyHarp for Matthew Herbert

A few months ago I was very lucky to meet musician/producer extraordinaire Matthew Herbert in person and learn about his exciting One Pig project. For this album Matthew recorded a single pig’s life “from birth to plate” and constructed an album out of the resultant sounds.

The Independent recently published an article about the album, read it here to learn all about the concept and motivation behind it all.

I’m extremely excited to now be a part of the live show for this album. Over the next few months I’ll be touring with Matthew as part of a five-piece band, playing a brand new controller/instrument built especially for the show – the StyHarp!
StyHarp Rehearsal 1
As the name suggests, the StyHarp is designed to mimic a pig sty, and is used in the show to trigger, control, and effect sounds in real time by pulling, plucking, and twisting the strings. It’s a very physical thing to play, which is part of the fun. I don’t have any great video footage of it in action, so you’ll have to make do with this hilarious video of me jamming with the band during rehearsals:

Our first show is this Friday September 2nd in London, at the Royal Opera House as part of the Deloitte Ignite Festival. As of this writing there are about 30 tickets remaining, so if you’d like to come you should book quickly! Otherwise we’ll be playing shows in the following weeks and months in Bolzano Italy, Tokyo, Eindhoven, Brussels, possibly Germany and Poland, and maybe more. I will post when I get more details, of course.

If you’re interested in the background and building of the StyHarp, keep on reading! Some technical details ahead…

When Matthew and I first started thinking about what we wanted to make for his show, we were certain that we wanted something physical, something with resistance and response, something that looked strange, perhaps even frightening, and evoked the themes present in the One Pig album. We wanted to be able to have direct control over sound, but also wanted something with a life of its own. The musicality and the theatrics had to be on equal footing. All of these things led me to want to make something with strings, something big and something that would take effort to play.

The main component of the StyHarp is the string sensors, which are ripped from Gametrak controllers. These gadgets are a sort of proto-Kinect, designed for PCs and game consoles. They were marketed as 3D motion trackers, and packaged mostly with golf games (with comical miniature golf clubs) and sold only in the UK from 2000-2006 or so. To use a Gametrak the player wears a pair of gloves which are connected to a base station with some wire (which looks suspiciously like orange fishing line). Inside the base station these two lines each go into a spool, which is connected by a few gears to a standard potentiometer. The potentiometer thus turns as the wire is pulled in and out. The wire is also fed through an X-Y joystick-style potentiometer. The result is that the distance and location relative to the base station can be tracked with startling accuracy, all using technology that has been around for over a hundred years. Pretty great, huh? It’s a wonder no one thought of designing a controller like this for the Atari or the Binatone TV Master.

Many thanks to Jung In Jung and Martin Parker for introducing me to the Gametrak and for helping me track down a few extra for this project!
gametrak stack
So the design we settled on for the StyHarp called for 12 Gametrak strings (four per side, three sides), thus six Gametraks. Each Gametrak has a USB output, but it turns out that only the XBox and PC versions of the Gametrak can be used as a HI Device (and the XBox version requires a little hacking even to do that), so it quickly became apparent that I would not be able to just plug them all into my computer. However, Jon (aka Lucky Frame partner in crime) suggested I tap into the outputs directly from the potentiometers, and plug them into an Arduino, thus bypassing the Gametrak’s USB circuitry altogether. That worked great! However….each Gametrak has six parameters (x, y, and distance for each), which means I needed 36 analog inputs, and the Arduino only supports 6. Even the Arduino Mega only supports 16! So I decided to use the Arduino Mux Shield from Mayhew Labs. This lets me have up to 48 analog inputs, which are multiplexed through the digital pins in some way that I don’t understand.

During the early stages of development (i.e., three weeks ago) I was planning on using the Gametraks in a fairly un-hacked form. This was because the models that I had bought did not seem all that conducive to hacking – the gearing was more or less separated from the wire spools, and it seemed like a headache. Some people have done it (including this guy, who used it to build a Gametrak-based Ondes Martenot), but it didn’t seem worth it to me. However, I ended up finding a few later model Gametraks, apparently released in 2006, which use a slightly different construction which lends itself to hacking – in fact, the whole reel, gearing, and potentiometer setup is tightly packaged into individual and completely separate little boxes! It’s amazing. So I found a bunch of these and ripped them apart, and I had all the sensors I needed. I was even able to hack out the little connector wires that they use. If this interests you, be sure to find the ones that have rounded ends like this.
Hacked out Gametrak sensors
To connect everything to the Arduino I’m using 1/4″ stereo jack cables. This is partially because I had a loom kicking about my studio, but also because it is an affordable and robust connector, and venues are generally guaranteed to have a bunch of them just in case. I therefore attached two female connectors to each set of wires which connect to the Gametrak sensors, and I built a patchbay box for my Arduino.
StyHarp Construction 2
On the software end, the Arduino is communicating through USB using a serial data system built by Jon in Processing. This is much more robust than the software provided by Mayhew Labs, which kept on crashing because of the load of data coming through…Jon implemented a brilliant call-response system which eliminated all crashing. Go go Lucky Frame! So Jon’s utility is sending all the data via OSC into Max/MSP, where I’ve built a flexible patch for sending MIDI notes and controls to Ableton Live, where all of the sound processing and triggering is going on. The sounds are all original recordings from the One Pig album, and they are triggered by pulling or plucking the strings. Twisting and pulling the strings then control other effects like delays, filters, and so on.
Gametrak software screenshot
The Gametraks are all connected to stands using plumbing fixtures, and the strings are pulled out to connect across and create the fence. I’ll be inside the sty for much of the show, playing the strings, and I’ll be joined at one point by the rest of the band…but I won’t give away the ending.
gametrak fixtures
It’s loads of fun to play, and I’m really looking forward to the shows. Come by if you can, and as usual get in touch if you have any questions.
StyHarp Rehearsal 3

The Weather Gage

The Weather Gage, Bangor WalesA few months back I was invited down to Wales to build a sound sculpture for Bangor Sound City. I hand built a series of solenoid-triggered glockenspiel notes mounted onto cherry wood from the Hicksville Planing Mill in western Maryland. These hung from an alcove on the Garth Pier in Bangor, North Wales. Small propellors mounted outside the alcove were designed to spin in the wind, and control the rate of playback. Here are a few photos from the building phase:
Building The Weather Gage Building The Weather Gage Building The Weather Gage
The only problem was that I overestimated how much wind there would be! The propellors didn’t spin like they were meant to. The hanging notes worked really well, though, and the opening day was blessed with glorious sunshine. Here’s a video I’ve made showing it in situ:

The installation was up for several days, and I had a wonderful week in and around Bangor, Llanrwst, and Nebo. I played a super awesome gig in Conwy, spoke to some wonderful students at a school outside of Bangor, and I even managed to catch a very exciting Llanrwst United FC match. Many thanks to northern bloc and Datrys for supporting this project. A very special thanks also to Dominic Chennell and his beautiful family who hosted me during my time there and to Jacqui Banks who drove me all around the countryside!

Break dancing robot synth drum machine noises

Photo by Colin Chipcase

A few weeks ago I had some involvement in a residency at Dance Base in Edinburgh with dancer and choreographer Skye Reynolds. She has been collaborating for a long time with sound designer Jung In Jung (whose awesome work includes the SonicBella) in order to develop performances and systems that use different types of technology to allow dancers to generate and control sound and music in real time through their movements.

For this residency I helped Skye and Jung In start using Wiimotes strapped to the dancers’ limbs, much in the same way I did for Exercise Magic!!. Jung In was then able to use some the data to trigger sounds developed by herself and composer Pippa Murphy.

During my short involvement in the residency I worked with one of the dancers, David Aing, to make a special performance tailored to his crazy amazing robot breakdance routine. I made a set of custom software to let him control two different types of synthesizers, as well as a pulsing drum machine. I was super happy with how it turned out, I felt it really matched his style. We got to show this at a (very well attended) presentation at the end of the residency. Check out the video!

Thanks to everyone who came by! I thought the whole thing went really well. If all goes well I hope to work with David and Skye more in the future to develop the work a bit further.

Jung In has many more pictures and videos of the other performances from that presentation up on her blog, in addition to loads of information about the development of the whole project.

Secret Sounds of Spores Installation

This blog has seen many many posts about my Secret Sounds of Spores project over the past nine months or so. It’s been an incredible journey and I certainly hope we’ll be able to take it even further in the near future.

In the mean time, here is one more video showing the installation as it happened at Inspace in Edinburgh in January. I thought it worked really well in the gallery space, and we got extremely positive feedback. We’d love to show it at other galleries or shows, so please get in touch if you’ve been looking for a fungi-based sound installation.

Amazing Rolo Gig!

Category : Amazing Rolo, Music

Welsh Gig Poster

Hello from the plush offices of Ciafaic/Datrys in beautiful Llanrwst, North Wales! I’ve had a brilliant time over the past few days, the Weather Gage is busy twinkling away on the Bangor Pier, I had a fun workshop at a school this morning, and tomorrow night I will be playing a gig at the Conwy Falls Cafe.

I’ll be playing a mix of electronic and acoustic songs, some meticulously prepared and some hugely improvised. I’ve got some solenoid jars, wii remotes, microphones that will be placed around the cafe, and I’ve been promised an acoustic guitar.

Come on down if you’re in the area – it’s free! Starts at 8pm. I’ve heard there’s good food there, too. I’m really looking forward to it.

Spores at Maker Faire UK

Category : Amazing Rolo, Spores

Tomorrow, bright and early, I will be heading off to Newcastle to show the Secret Sounds of Spores at the Maker Faire UK! apologies for the extremely late announcement…

I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll be bringing this somewhat hilarious looking box of arduinos, black walnut solenoid glockenspiels, lasers, wires, and mushrooms on the train with me at 7am. I imagine I may spy some others carrying similarly bizarre boxes down to the Maker Faire too…

This will be my third Faire, after an amazing adventure in San Francisco in 2009 and a wonderful trip to Cardiff for a Micro Maker Faire.

Speaking of Cardiff, I’ll be heading to Wales on Monday for a bunch of fun things, which I’ll be explaining more in the coming days. Fore now, a heads up – if you live in North Wales be sure to check back for more info!

In any case, if you’re in northeast England be sure to drop by Newcastle, it’s bound to be fantastic. Check the website for details – I’ll be in the Centre For Life near the train station, please drop by and say hello if you’re around! I’m afraid I won’t be there on Sunday, apologies in advance!

Rolo for Sale

Category : Amazing Rolo, Music

The Amazing Rolo - Relatively Paradox Free

Ever since my song Soaked Downtown was used by Mr Charlie Bucket for his Fluid Sculpture video I’ve received several requests for the song to be available for download. This motivated me to do something I’d been meaning to do for ages, so I’m now happy to announce that a short EP of my music entitled “Relatively Paradox Free” is now available to purchase from iTunes and Amazon.

Soaked Downtown is on there of course, as well as five other more recent songs, some of which you may have heard on this blog.


Click here to purchase Relatively Paradox Free on iTunes

Click here to purchase Relatively Paradox Free on Amazon mp3