Technology has enabled a new chapter in music. A musician can access nearly any sounds and combine them in an infinite number of ways. This has created an incredibly rich and mesmerizing aural landscape, while the same use of technology has removed the visual connection between the music creation (the musician is often seen huddling over their laptop) and the audience. For electronic music to be a compelling live experience, it requires spectacle and a physical connection to the sound.
This was the impetus for my Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Master's thesis, under the supervision of Prof. Joseph Paradiso at the MIT Media Lab in the Responsive Environments group. I conceptualized an interface that brought together spectacle and a new way of playing electronic music, then designed and implemented the mechanical system, optics, hardware, and firmware.
My inspiration was the Theremin, created by Leon Theremin in 1928; it was the first electronic instrument ever created and is an example of a free-gesture musical interface. The player moves their hands near antennae - the distance from the person's hand to the antennae results in a change in pitch or volume. Despite being such a simple instrument, the theremin is notoriously difficult to play well, often requiring perfect pitch and a high degree of musical acumen. For the Termenova (which means "daughter of Theremin"), a set of motorized laser guides have been developed that serve as a set of visual aids in performing with such instruments. The lasers are mounted on robotic carriages, which can be dynamically moved along their track as the tuning of the piece changes. As well as providing a visual guide to assist in positioning one's hands, sensors in the carriages will detect the hand above the laser, quantizing the pitch if desired (while still allowing articulation about the center frequency). In addition, optical sensors looking along each laser beam can determine the continuous distance of the hand from the laser source, allowing other degrees of control when the hand intersects a laser.
Quicktime video clip (11.6 meg) showing a simple musical mapping of the Terminova in action written by Responsive Environments graduate student Nicholas Yu. The servos move to their reference positions at the start of the clip.
Quicktime video clip (31.2 meg) showing a more complex mapping of the Terminova in action written by Responsive Environments graduate student Nicholas Yu. This mapping was demonstrated at the NIME 2002 Conference in Dublin
The Termenova: A Hybrid Free-Gesture Interface Leila Hasan, Nicholas Yu, Joseph A. Paradiso. In Proceedings of the New Interfaces for Musical Expression 2002 (NIME-02) Conference, Dublin Ireland, May 24-26, 2002, pp. 122-127.
Leila Hasan -- Visual Frets for a Free-Gesture Musical Interface (pdf) June 2001.
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