Arts + Design

Who needs a bass guitar when you’ve got a … gravity harp?

Jun 26, 2014 /

The violin has been around since the 16th century; the guitar since the 15th; and the flute since, oh, about 42,000 years ago. But while most of the instruments we know and love have been around for a very, very long time, people are still making new ones. They tend to be electronic … and just a little weird.

Case in point: Ge Wang, who in today’s TED Talk, The DIY orchestra of the future, shares how he is building instruments that convert computer music from code-written beeps and blips to something beautifully expressive. He shows us one of about 200 instruments created so far for the Stanford Laptop Orchestra: “Twilight.” To build it, he took a wooden Ikea salad bowl, car speaker components and a laptop and linked them to a gloved device originally intended to analyze a golfer’s swing. It’s played by pulling and twisting its strings through space. After his gleeful demo of this instrument, hacked together from bits and bobs, it’s actually quite moving to hear what the players in the laptop orchestra can make of it, with dramatic moves and gestures creating a swell of sound.

Others are innovating in this space, too. Composer Mark Applebaum (TED Talk: The mad scientist of music) also prefers to make his own instruments rather than to play conventional ones. His invention: the “Mouseketeer,” an instrument that would make a junkyard proud. It includes doorstops, combs, chopsticks, electronic tuners and much more — and it sounds like a film studio’s entire sound effects department shrunk down into one device.

Then there’s TED Fellow James Patten (TED Talk: The best computer interface? Maybe … your hands?), who helped design the electronics for a new instrument in Björk’s Biophilia tour: the Gravity Harp. This instrument, which you can hear best on the song “Solstice,” stands 30 feet tall and has four robotic pendulums that are each attached to an 11-string harp. Somehow, computer-programmed instrument ends up sounding perfect for a baby’s lullaby.

And yes — sometimes these new instruments sound … funny. Let’s be honest. But sometimes, they can give expression to people who’ve been waiting for the right tool to let their creativity shine. Take Tod Machover’s musical inventions (TED Talk: Inventing instruments that unlock new music) which helped musician and composer Dan Ellsey express the music he couldn’t share any other way.

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Featured image: iStock.