“Exhibition, collaboration and improvisation filled the halls of Custom House for the Room to Play showcase. This year’s cohort displayed a series of innovative and interactive installations with typical Room to Play eclecticism! Visitor spent the morning and early afternoon engaging with the individual works. From Nick Harbourne’s sometimes delicate, sometimes booming, feedback system which mixed sculpture with sound-world; to Eve King and Rhona Sword’s interactive visuals and soundscape; and Dominika Jackowska’s Rorschach paintings-come-light filters which upon viewing magically altered the accompanying soundscape. Later, stuffed toys refitted with accelerometers that detect movement and playback sound- joyous and playful inventions that had entertained and engaged all ages, by Liam Dempsey- featured as solo instruments, played by the audience, in a collaborative performance with the Tinderbox Orchestra. The same treatment was given to the light controlled instrument by Catriona Smith, made out of a recycled harp frame. The artists did an amazing job engaging creatively with the technologies they had come across, often for the first time, in the Room to Play course. The results were a polished and professional showcase that offered something inspiring and playful to the people of Leith.” –Martin Disley, Room to Play Artist.
Room To Play
“Have you ever wondered what it was like to see the world through a bat’s eyes? Mostly darkness and misty shapes, rather akin to me sans glasses. A rather better question is: What does it mean to hear the world like a bat?
Working with the mildly baffling and eternally frightening software that is Pure Data* (PD), this week’s Room to Play focused on programming an ultrasonic sensor to do our musical bidding. The sensor is plugged into a breadboard into which a Teensy board is slotted, providing the link between computer and hardware. In order to hear what it’s outputting, you must then turn to software to interpret the data. Max MSP does the job absolutely fine, and I’m pretty sure if you worked hard enough any software would work, even Audacity, though I shudder at the thought. The wonderful thing about PD is that is it a free, flexible piece of software which apes much of Max MSP’s workflow with rather less hand-holding, being perfect for myriad purposes including the one we’ll be using it for today.
Transforming the data from the sensor into something usable in PD takes a small while to figure out. Scaling issues, Arduino code confusion, and incorrectly constructed breadboards are among the problems (note how there’s always one common factor: myself). However it’s very easy to use to quickly alter parameters such as sample start and end times. This is the first step towards a controllable granular synthesiser, which is precisely what I failed to create in the session. Rapidly retriggering a recorded sample allows you to work within miniscule time scales, something that’s great for granulation – though hard on the ears. The challenge is working out effective enveloping in order to reduce zero-point crossing, why you get unpleasant glitches, and then how to make sure those envelopes don’t get totally mangled in the process.
All of these challenges aside, it’s mildly amusing and vaguely effective to simply programme the data in order to trigger random parameters for an aleatoric outcome and then ‘perform’ it, similarly to how one would perform a theremin. Cue several minutes of hand waving and general wizardy-looking performance.
One of the issues in using an ultrasonic sensor is that the data isn’t very pure. Because of the way the sensor works – emitting a sound from a speaker, recording the reverberation from a surface with a microphone, and then calculating the distant based on travel time – you end up with a lot of interference from different surfaces. Therefore, its use should be very carefully thought out, or used for something that doesn’t care about inaccurate data. However, when building an unpredictable and quite frankly crazy sounding PD patch, I don’t think the accuracy of data really matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. Somehow, being wrong only makes it feel more right.
Except when it stops working entirely, at which point you throw the entire system out of the window.
As a continuation of our exploration in working with different types of sensors, the ultrasonic sensor ended up being interesting but a little hard to make work predictably. As a tool to create controlled chaos it was certainly effective. The important question though is, did we end up hearing what a bat hears? I certainly hope not, lest I mourn for the unfortunate fate of our local bat population, periodically flying into nearby chimneys at the behest of their faulty sensors. “
*Colloquially known as What-Is-That-Why-Is-It-Beeping-Oh-God-I-Think-It’s-On-Fire Data, or the catchy WITWIIBOGITIOFD.
– Nick Harbourne (Room To Play Artist)
“On the morning of week 3 we were split into pairs and each pair was given a different type of microphone. We were then given 30 minutes to gather field recordings which could be looped. After lunch we built mini synthesisers in pairs, which we hooked up to light sensors. We experimented with different ways of manipulating the light and therefore manipulating the sound. As someone who has minimal experience in electrical engineering, this was a very rewarding exercise as I had never done anything like this before and was surprised at how easy it was to do. Yann gave great step by step instructions and offered assistance when ever it was needed.
Week 4 started with an activity which had been developed by the previous RoomTo Play students. We used copper tape and wires to turn trampolines into massive buttons and recorded sounds for them to make when jumped on. We then took turns jumping and creating beats. During this session we began to explore ideas for our individual projects, with much help and encouragement from Yann and Luci. They offered great suggestions for the development of my idea and showed me how to use appropriate programmes such as Max. We also made midi controllers which we controlled with touch sensors and light sensors.This activity involved coding which was a great introduction to coding for those who did not have previous experience.
On the morning of week 5, Yann asked us to write short plans for our personal projects. We then each shared our ideas to the group, brain storming together.This was a great way of developing the project ideas and was really helpful to hear the expertise of the other group members. After this we focused on learning how to use the programme Pure Data. Using Pure Data, we made a synth and a sound player. Every one got quite sucked into this and there was a great symphony of bleeps and bloops coming from everyone’s laptops for most of the day.”
-Eve King (Room To Play Artist).
“After starting the room the play sessions the week before, I was really excited to go back to Custom House now that I felt settled in and completely at ease with everyone. Working with the loveliest and most enthusiastic, inspiring group of people is really helping me to find the motivation to make stuff and it was brilliant to immediately get stuck in and not feel shy about it.
This week Yann focussed more on sound and we started off the day doing some group work based on conceptual works by composers such as John Cage. Our group ended up creating a piece where everyone listened to a 4:33 recording of the inside of a bathroom whilst staring at the Water of Leith. Though a very strange experience, it really helped me to open up and find the confidence to try stuff out, regardless of whether or not I knew it would work.
The afternoon however is when I really got into it and got excited about making. Despite the fact the it’s possibly one of the fiddliest tasks I think I’ve ever done, learning how to make cassette tape loops was the most fun I’ve had in ages. Odd as it sounds, it’s a very addictive process! Everyone got really interesting results and a big though lot of the time they didn’t work, it was always the experiments and the times when things did go wrong that people got the most exciting sounds happening. Even when we tried to build an installation from it and it didn’t exactly go to plan, the unexpected results just left me wanting to make more.
As someone coming from a visual arts background I’ve never really tried, or felt like I was able to have the confidence, to work with sound, and I’ve certainly never known how to approach the technicalities of disrupting and distorting sounds. Learning this week how easy it was to do with charity shop cassette tapes and cheap Walkmans just made me want to go home and keep trying and experimenting and seeing what would happen. My work in the studio at the minute is playing around with the abstraction and distortion of information and I’m really motivated to take the skills I learnt and ideas inspired by everyone in the group back to my own work and see what happens.
I was also really lucky this week that the experimental process didn’t stop for me with the Room to Play workshop as I was also able to attend the Tinderbox Orchestra Session on Sunday and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone that plays an instrument and just wants to have fun with it. I’ve always played the violin, and whilst I’ll always love the sorts of classical orchestras I grew up playing in, I’d become slightly tired of the sameness of amateur symphony orchestras and I was looking for an opportunity to fall in love with playing again and this was the most incredible experience to achieve that. I continued learning skills, here in improvisation and new types of music, and it kept up my excitement for trying new stuff out, giving things a go and not being so scared. It was the most amazing thing to just hear an orchestra listening to each other and everyone working together and that Sunday afternoon session has kept a smile on my face all week”.
-Rhona Sword (Room To Play Artist).
“The first week of the Room to Play project was a very exciting and engaging session with an eclectic group of artistically inclined people, each with a uniquely keen interest into the potentially eccentric work ahead.
We spent the first portion of our day taking the phrase “room to play” quite literally. An afternoon was spent experimenting with collections of toys and board games in an attempt to understand what defines games. After some thought, it seemed as if the most common answer was rules. By establishing rules upon toys, we can turn them into games. By understanding the rules of a game, we can bend them; make a game more than it is. It seems simple (perhaps it was) but the core idea behind it seemed to be to encourage us to think differently. If we challenge the norms of games such as Twister or Dominoes, perhaps we can create something new and exciting; if not at least original and interesting. Ultimately, it was a lot of good fun and a great way to get to know the team we were working with.
After lunch we gathered again within the studio. Yann pulled out a laptop, set up a projector, and a unicorn illuminated the wall — wonderful. The unicorn was the main character of the video game CLOP, where the main objective was to get the unicorn from one end of the track to the other using four buttons that control each leg independently. The game is primarily intended for one player but by using four giant controllers, each with one big button on them, the game became a more collaborative process. Therefore the group playing had to create a shared sense of rhythm in order to complete the game.
We ended the afternoon by making our own little controllers with a mix of buttons and copper tape, which we then combined together to create one giant instrument in which we each controlled a separate pitch. In the multiplayer version of CLOP, if the players don’t communicate then the unicorn inevitably crumbles to the ground. In a similar fashion, without communicating how to play our giant collaborative instrument the sounds cluster and stumble over each other. However, by working together we could create an array of delectable melodies and a shared sense of rhythm.
I really like this idea of an exhibit that creates a sense of community around it and I’ll bear that in mind throughout the following weeks. Also as a complete novice to simple electronics, I found this to be the most rewarding aspect of the day. Already I feel a bit more confident with it all I’m feeling eager to do more with it in these sessions.”
–Liam Dempsey (Room To Play Artist).