Daily Bow: Scarf-Powered Piano



Daily Bow LogoToday’s Daily Bow is kind of hard to wrap your head around, but try to picture this: instruments controlled by the movements of an scarf knitted with electronic materials. If your first reaction is “huh?”, you’re not alone. Electronic music composer Jeff Bryant hatched this zany but very much real scheme in response to a challenge from his design interface instructor at the California Institute for the Arts. The challenge? Build a non-boring MIDI controller device. Bryant’s response? Knitting.

Bryant’s wildly creative idea was this: weave conductive material into red yarn and knit it into a wearable scarf. As the wearer of the scarf bends and moves, the conductive material bends and moves with him or her, transmitting wireless signals to an electric piano to creative a piece of music literally composed by the movement. Bryant created the scarves using a circular knitting machine, tiny wireless radios, conductive silver thread, and regular yarn. “The conductive thread, used with regular yarn, makes a big, stretchy variable resistor,” Bryant explains. “If it’s twisted, pulled or compressed, more of the conductive thread is touching itself and that distortion affects the amount of voltage that we can read.” The product looks like this in action:

Bryant’s brainchild was a big project, and it required its own engineering process. The gearheads at Wired.com explain a little of the trouble Bryant went to to bring his project to fruition:

In order to transform the voltage produced by the scarves into music, Bryant designed an elaborate rig. He programmed a score-generator to transform the signals into musical notation that was then fed through software that activated an antique Vorsetzer device. The Vorsetzer, in turn, directed the plunking of keys on the Disklavier automatic piano.

Of the project, Bryant says, “the great thing about using wireless technology is that you can’t see that the performers and the piano are connected.”  Bryant apprenticed for two years with Seattle-based pioneering instrument maker/programmer Trimpin, and he sees his invention as a natural extension of electronic instrument-making. “It’s like when John Cage prepared the piano for the first time — he liberated the piano from what had gone on for hundreds of years before that.”

The fruits of Bryant’s labor are on display in his new piece “push_push.” It combines two wearable scarves, one dancer, and the electronic piano set-up, creating a seamless interface between all of the elements. Until the technology became accessible, though, “push_push” would have remained a distant dream for Bryant. “This idea of wearable computing has become accessible to artists so they can do cool things” says Bryant’s mentor Ajay Kapur, director of CalArts’ Music Technology program. “When I first learned about sensors at Princeton, my professor had to gang up with other schools to afford sensors…. A student can now buy a sensor for $5 that used to cost $3,000.” The union of all of these elements has created something new for Bryant out of familiar elements. He says, “It’s like having your first kiss all over again.”




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