Underfoot Show - Threeways School, Bath

 Last week we had the "AboutNOWish" team come in to perform their interactive sound and movement piece "Underfoot" at Threeways. They took over the Sensory Studio for three days and worked with several students and I can not praise their work highly enough. Not only were the students inspired and very obviously joyfully engaged, but the staff too. Since the departure of the team the school has been buzzing with people collaborating to build on that creative energy and replicate some of the fantastic work that went on. 

 The piece made use of 3 large pieces of layered textural matting (grass, pink squashy matts and blue fluff), 3 dancers, a musician/technician, some underfloor bespoke pressure sensors and custom built software (made in Supercollider). Each texture had its own sound/music and movements and between each the flooring was rolled back to reveal the next layer. The dancers used intensive interaction techniques with plenty of individual attention and eye/body contact to encourage the students to join in with the movements, no talking was used. The students responded magnificently, even some with quite challenging behaviour, and were obviously very engaged. The musician/technician supported with large whistle and saxophone accompanied by a subtle electronic soundtrack managed by the software and a discrete controller. Some electronic sounds triggered by the sensors provided a nice random element to the sound too. The instrument playing also became part of the performance as the musician moved onto the mat and interacted with students and did a very good job of playing with a child's arm down the front of the saxophone on several occasions. This type of use of resonant surfaces for tactile sensations often has a great effect on several of our students. 

 The technology employed was inspired in its subtlety, effectiveness and flexibility. Although the sensors provided a great element to the piece, the students were mostly unaware of their existence. The electronic music was subtle and provided a great backing, mood and depth for the live playing that was going on and I felt that had the technology crashed then the piece could have still carried on without major issue. The team seemed well practiced in getting in and out of installations and the kit seems robust and quick to set up.  For its use at Threeways in the Studio we decided to patch it into the lighting so that the pressure sensors could also control spots of light over the sensors which was nice to explore. 

 The team were a lovely bunch of people and very sensitive to the needs of the school, I would highly recommend this performance and indeed we hope to find another opportunity to work with them again. We have received many testimonials from staff and parents as to the effectiveness of the sessions. 

Designing electronic instruments

At Dotlib we are always looking for new and interesting ways to interact with sound. We have been developing some ideas for new instruments for the electronic orchestra at Threeways School that allow people to play with sound whilst following a few design rules, what we want is:

  • A focus on natural interaction, i.e. form affirms function and in this vein we talked about the opening and closing of a box to control a filter
  • Instruments that do not involve pressing on flat glass like a tablet screen, we want something more tangible
  • Preferably some local feedback in the form of vibration
  • Objects that are nice to hold and feel, perhaps finished in wood with a nice varnish like a traditional stringed instrument
  • As we need to focus on accessibility we need to consider not depending on finger dexterity
  • We want to provide an instrument that really offers a chance for the player to express them self
  • We need to tread the line with offering the user control over the creative process, whilst enabling the orchestra as a whole to play cohesively - the real challenge!  

We have been looking at a couple of initial ideas for development in terms of the outer casing of the instruments and the inner gubbins that make it work. They are the ‘filter box’ and the ‘pressure box’.

 

Filter Box

 A box that can sense how much it is open and link to a filter in an electronic instrument. 

A nice wooden box with a hinged lid that operates very smoothly. We have been looking at what type of box might be suitable and hinges that are robust and pleasing to open, and also what kind of sensor components would give the right kind of response. Thoughts so far include:

  • LDR (light dependent resistor) on the inside so that as the lid is opened, the amount of light hitting the sensor changes the filter, this is a affordable option as this component is cheap to purchase but the problem comes when trying to calibrate the sensor as ambient light levels can change  during a performance and in different environments. 
  • Flex sensor against the inside of the lid so that as the lid is closed the flex sensor is compressed. Flex sensors cost around £7 each so not as affordable as the LDR but does not have to be calibrated as they should always give the same reading. Homemade flex sensors can be made extremely cheaply as seen in this instructable, we have some ready made from a previous project that we will trial in this instrument which follow a similar set-up but use anti-static foam at the centre.
  • Stretch sensor attached between the bottom and the lid of the box, this would give readings when stretched open and could be used as a nice string to pull the lid closed to give tactile feedback. 
  • Magnet on the lid and hall effect sensor inside so that as the magnet moves away the sensor returns to the base value. 

We will have to do some small prototypes to figure out the cheapest and best way to create this box!

 

Pressure Box

A deformable surface, think tambourine but with a stretchy skin that can then be pushed into to create or manipulate sound. There are a couple of places the inspiration for this has come from, the first is the pads on the Alphasphere and the second is the Firewall. We are still looking to have the wooden outer to hold but perhaps in a circular shape. Options for the sensor include:

  • Electronic force sensor
  • Air pressure sensor (this would require a sealed box)
  • Cheap DIY force sensor
  • Distance sensor placed underneath the skin

We will be developing and testing from these initial ideas and will connect those blog posts related to that to here so you can keep up to date with the progress on these new instruments for musical expression!

The Musii - Threeways School, Bath

Threeways purchased a Musii a little while back now and have had some great sessions with it. It has 3 inflatable prongs with built in distance sensors and LED lighting and makes musical sounds as you press them in. The software runs on a little built in Linux machine and it is all self contained with an amp and speaker inside meaning it also vibrates. I always find that sound needs to be local like this for a meaningful experience, rather than coming out of a speaker over there on a wall which can be a little abstract. Since we have had the unit it has been updated to make the sounds less discordant which has helped, but the only other issue we have had is access. Wheelchairs can not get very close to it, but the company are very open to critique and they are apparently looking at something more lap based. Personally, I'd love these to be coming directly out of the floor or the wall!

OpenUp Youth Orchestra Project - Threeways School, Bath

Today at Threeways we met with Doug Bott from MUSE regarding the second phase of the OpenUp Youth Orchestra: http://www.museproject.co.uk/portfolio/openup-youth-orchestras/

Last year Threeways worked with Barry Farrimond and Katrin Reimers to form a 12 piece orchestra using a variety of acoustic, electronic and bespoke accessible instruments. In the summer our students performed along with others from Claremont School in Bristol and National Star College in Cheltenham at the Colston Hall in Bristol. The project was a great success and greatly enjoyed by all.

This year Threeways hope to work a bit more independently with a couple of 4 piece orchestras and may again perform in the summer, watch this space...