Traquitanas Musicais

Traquitanas
plural noun in Portuguese originally meaning "old car", that has been incorporated into Brazilian slang to describe any weird looking, and tipically ingenious, hand-made device, machine, or makeshift apparatus
Musicais
plural adjective in Portuguese, meaning "musical"

 

Traquitanas Musicais was originally conceived by Eiko DoEspiritosanto in 1995, when she realized that most art installations did not take accessibility issues into account. It would be pointless for art galleries and museums to be accessible to the disabled if interactive art pieces were not. At the same time, new developments in digital music instruments had largely expanded the possibility of building instruments around human body characteristics. More specifically, music instruments could be built in a way to accomodate a wider range of human characteristics and needs, including physical disabilities.

Eiko DoEspiritosanto decided to focus her MFA thesis project on those very issues, and Traquitanas Musicais was born. She assembled the hardware necessary to convert electric signals to MIDI signals and with invaluable help from Paul DeMarinis, she wrote a program to interpret the signals generated by custom designed musical instruments. To actually build the instruments, it was necessary to solve some industrial design problems, as well as give them a visual and tactile personality that would be intriguing and friendly at the same time. Eiko's husband, Rivaldo DoEspiritosanto, a visual artist and designer, collaborated in the project initially as an art director. After the first instruments had been built and presented during the SoundCulture Festival, the artists realized there were still many design problems to be solved before the instruments could be considered fully accessible. To get all the physical interface issues nailed, Rivaldo DoEspiritosanto became a partner in Traquitanas Musicais, this time not only working as a sculptor, but also concentrating harder on the industrial design aspect of the project to insure the instruments become accessible to the widest possible public, regardless of age and physical ability.

Today, Eiko DoEspiritosanto creates the musical/gestural logic and develops the hardware and software behind Traquitanas Musicais, while Rivaldo DoEspiritosanto designs the physical/sculptural counterpart of the instruments.

Below is an adapted version of Eiko's thesis, where details on the origin of the project are more clearly explained.

 

Traquitanas Musicais

Concept
©1996 by Eiko DoEspiritosanto
(This text has been adapted from the thesis by the author for the degree of MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media; Mills College, 1996.)

 

 

The Project

 
Listening actively to music enriches any person's life, regardless of his or her musical training. By actively, I mean actually participating in the process of creating music. It is an enriching experience for children and adults, whatever their physical abilities. With this idea in mind I have designed a system that does not require any previous musical practice and is also accessible to disabled persons, who are frequently challenged not only by their physical disabilities but by the non-functional design of many products, including art forms.

Traquitanas Musicais is an interactive music installation and is designed for people with and without physical disabilities. It consists of three sets of toy-like instruments which interface with the music system: Pat Table, Polyps and Pendulum. They are MIDI triggers or controllers that when played change parameter values of the music programmed in a microprocessor. The instruments are displayed at different heights and angles to insure accessibility to people with different kinds of mobility impairments.

 

 

 

The Process

1. Including the concept of Universal Design in the piece

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in January of 1993, I noticed a great number of disabled people living here. I thought, innocently: "why are there so many disabled people in this country?" After a short while I realized that this country might have as many disabled as any other, but here those disabled persons are much more integrated into the society. I started to pay more attention to those persons with disabilities living among us and was deeply touched by their dedication, effort and joyfulness in simply living their lives, even if it might look like a struggle for an able-bodied person like me. The more I got involved with them, the more I learned about the lack of accessible products for the disabled. As I have always been looking for a way to incorporate practical use by the public into my art work, I naturally became engaged with the project of designing instruments accessible to those with physical disabilities. However, to me, designing an accessible instrument has never meant designing an adaptive device for an already existing instrument, nor designing an instrument exclusively for the disabled. The importance of making a product that is inclusive rather than exclusively for a special segment of the public was clear to me since the beginning of this project. I learned about Universal Design later on and its concept matched my views exactly. Having an apt name for my idea made it easier to explain it to others. Universal Design means design that ensures easy accessibility to everyone, including disabled persons, from the early stage of a product's creation: this eliminates any need to retrofit it with adaptive technology afterwards.

 

 

2. Getting acquainted with electronics and assembling the hardware

At the same time I began a closer relationship with the disabled community, I was looking for new possibilities in my performances, such as playing homemade instruments instead of the usual instruments (in my case any MIDI gear available in the market). At the time I drew my first sketch of an accessible instrument, I had already made a MIDI controller using ultrasonic transducers for my own performances. That experience provided me with a basic knowledge of electronics, and was the only piece of electronics I had built before this project.

Electronics was something completely unfamiliar to me until the beginning of the Spring semester of 1994. Although there was no electronics class specifically in the curriculum, I started the process of learning about it on my own by getting help from many people: faculty, professors, friends and alumni of the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, my husband and even some attendants of an electronics store. Because of that, my learning was always centered around the difficulties I was going through while actually assembling circuits. I learned the color code to buy the resistors, I learned symbols to mount the circuit, I learned how to use the soldering iron to finally solder my circuit in a nice board, not to mention everything else I had to learn in order to fix a circuit that did not quite work. In fact, that was the most important thing I learned: homemade electronics often do not work in the way you expect them to. As in any other creative work, the piece you are creating starts to take its own path; you can either try to fix it or let it go its own way and take advantage of the features the circuit is offering you.

Assembling the hardware was the next step waiting for me. Since I was designing instruments for those with physical disabilities, the accessibility issue was my first concern. At the same time, I had to keep in my mind that those instruments were to be exhibited in a gallery space. It was necessary to treat them as sculptures as well as make them sturdy enough so they would last at least for the length of the show, even if they were exposed to a fairly high amount of stress while being played by the public. I spent much time visiting flea markets and garage sales looking for something suitable to hold my triggers and controllers. However, I ended up finding the best choices at Home Depot and other hardware stores. I visited the stores many times, investigating every piece of hardware available and imagining how one piece could combine with another. Inside that noisy and dusty environment, amongst a flood of funny inspirations sometimes verging on the absurd, I decided which instruments to build from the many sketches I had made.

 

 

3. Exploring a different way of presenting my work

My other interest as a composer was to work out the relationship between artist and public in a different way than I usually did in my concerts. Typically, the artist is the one who sets the date of the concert, defines the length of the concert and not only composes but also performs the music. Even though a concert is a cultural and intellectual offering to the public and is considered an important social event, the audience is usually expected to observe it passively. These conventions have made me wonder if I could present my music in a different manner. By doing this installation I could explore different settings for a musical event other than a concert. The public chose the time and the number of times to check my work out, had control over the length of their appreciation of my piece and performed the music using the structures I had presented to them as pieces of a puzzle.

 

 

 

The Piece

1. The system

This installation does not require any previous musical knowledge from the player; it is very intuitive and easy to play. A set of three sculptures--in effect, MIDI controllers--interface with the music system: they total eight triggers and two continuous controllers. A F68HC11 CPU card (New Micro's NMIS-0021B) converts the analog input from the sculptures into a digital signal, processes it, and sends out MIDI events. Two FM synthesizers (both Yamaha TX81Zs) generate the sound and play the MIDI events. A small line mixer (Mackie 1202) mixes the synthesizers' output. A small amplifier and a pair of book shelf speakers do the amplification and transduction of the sound.

 

 

 

 

2. The instruments

The realization of this piece involved not only musical considerations--how accessible the music should be--but also the interface design of this system. I had designed these instruments to be displayed at different heights and angles to insure accessibility to people with various mobility impairments. However, I am aware that they might not be fully accessible to every person, as it is very difficult to foresee and solve all problems related to physical disabilities.

 

 

 

 

Pat Table

Pat Table is a small table with five large, round lit buttons that play percussive sounds. To create the buttons I used HEMCO's MoonLight(TM) lanterns, which I found at Home Depot. The body of a MoonLight(TM) lantern is itself a round toggle switch. I have adapted the lanterns into momentary push buttons so I could use them as triggers. They turned into quite big buttons--51/2" diameter--making it easier for people with mobility impairments to play them.

 

 

 

The lanterns came with three springs inside, whose function was to make the lampshade bounce and work as a switch. I substituted foam for the springs in order to reduce the amount of pressure necessary to activate the switch and make it playable for those with little strength in their arms. However, it still is not the best solution for severely disabled persons.

Even though I turned the lanterns into buttons, they could still be lit independently of their function as triggers. I changed the wiring to connect the lamp bulbs to a voltage controlled by a motion detector. When someone approaches the installation the lights turn on, making it easier for the partially blind to spot the buttons.

 

 

 

Polyps

Polyps is a set of three lit pedals that play continuous notes. It is installed on the floor and its design allows one to play it using the feet. For the pedals I have used the same lanterns I have used for Pat Table, except in this case I did not substitute foam for the springs because the pedals should be capable of absorbing the impact of the feet, which usually is stronger than that of the hands. I did, however, substitute softer springs for the original ones. Polyps produces continuous sounds in counterpoint to the rhythm created by the other two sculptures. As in Pat Table, I changed the wiring to connect the lamp bulbs to a motion detector, making it easier for the partially blind to spot the pedals.

 

 

 

 

Pendulum

Pendulum is a long flexible fiberglass rod, with a small plastic ball at the lower end: in effect, the pendulum is a huge upside-down joystick. I had bought a small joystick from an electronics surplus store, then I attached the fiberglass rod to the joystick so as to extend it. By fastening the extended joystick on the ceiling, I created a pendulum with two electrical outputs that I could combine to read the pendulum's position in space and translate it into music. By swinging the pendulum one creates scales; moving the pendulum randomly produces melodies. Since the rod is flexible, one can make it undulate and swing at the same time, producing melodic patterns.

 

 

 

Since the pendulum's end is only two feet above the floor, it is easy to touch with any part of the body. Thanks to lightweight and flexible materials, one can move the pendulum without using the hands, pushing it with either the chest or the shoulder or the knees. This allows a person in a wheelchair to play with the pendulum as well.

 

 

 

Adaptive or assistive technology is often interpreted as something clumsy, made exclusively for persons with disabilities. To address this issue, I have conceived the sculptures using forms and materials familiar to us in our daily life. Pat Table was created as a furniture-like piece. Polyps got its final form when I found a PVC elbow that worked perfectly as the base for the pedals, resulting in objects that look "industrial" and "organic" at the same time. Its name comes from the fact that each pedal looks like a sea polyp. Pendulum was the simplest design from the very beginning. Since I have designed it to play with any part of the body, I have kept its design as lean as possible to let the public realize how lightweight it is, and to concentrate more on its movement rather than on its shape.

 

 

 

3. The ambiance

I conceived the installation as a whole composed of three parts: I designed those parts--the musical instruments--as sculptures visually related to each other. The appearance of the instruments was designed to invite interactivity. However, I had to take a minimalist approach to allow the public to concentrate on the instruments' functions and how they could control those functions. The sculptures needed to be visually attractive but not to the point of looking like something created only to be seen. I wanted to create sculptures that ask to be touched, that invite the public to play with them, as toys invite children to play. I tried to create an ambiance that would bring up one's childhood memories. For this reason I composed a pulsing, "visceral" music and chose bright flat colors for Pat Table and Polyps.

 

 

 

4. The music

Composing music suitable for an installation was a challenge. Unlike music composed for concerts, it would not be played in a concert hall, neither would it be performed by trained musicians. Also, the person who just walked into the gallery would not necessarily realize that it was an interactive music installation. As a computer music composer, I approached the music as I usually do: planning a quite complex musical relationship among each instrument's parts, elaborating algorithms that would conduct the whole music structure and choosing the most appropriate music application to use. However, this idea did not work out very well, especially since my goal was to create a user-friendly and easy-to-understand musical context, no matter how acoustically wanting or even chaotic the environment. It was very important that people would feel a direct relationship between their movements and the changes they were causing in the music. When the music was too complex, the feeling I got when playing my instruments was as if I was just pushing the play button of a tape recorder, completely losing the feedback as to which actions were causing what. For this reason i decided to keep the music simpler. I achieved good results by using a very simple program in the Forth board (NMIS-0021B) instead of using a more complex program in a desktop computer, as was my original intention. By eliminating the need of a personal computer in my system, this installation became less expensive and simpler to transport.

The most complex algorithm operating in the current version of the installation ties Pat Table's output to the data stream coming from Pendulum, which causes pitch variations in four of five triggers on the table. The static note played by the fifth trigger surprisingly serves as an anchor for the continuously varying melody produced by both the pendulum and the table. This helps Pat Table's player not to lose the continuity of his performance, even when the pitch variations in the other four triggers threaten to get out of control.

The table plays a timpani sound on the TX81Z. However, it sounds like a more complex timbre as a result of detuning and because it sometimes plays notes out of a timpani's usual range. Every time a trigger is depressed it keeps playing short notes in a row until it is released. The audience creates melody by combining different triggers in different sequences and velocities. The pendulum plays two percussive sounds. The pitch of one is controlled by the rod's position on the "x" axis, the other by the rod's position on the "y" axis. By mixing both sounds, I created a palette that has not only four distinct zones but also many micro textures in between. Each polyp plays a single, continuous, aquatic-like sound, filling the space "chopped" by the persistent pulse produced by the other two instruments. The internal clock of the Forth board guides all MIDI note events of the composition, resulting in a note never being played off-beat. The installation generates a constant pulse, the basis of the music, even when no one was in proximity to the exhibit. This static pulse works as a blank canvas, inviting the public to play with it. Even a shy person, who would never touch an art piece in a gallery, realizes that there is more than just three sculptures in the space. When someone hit the pendulum, by curiosity or by an accident, the installation reaches its full dimensions.

 

 

 

The Results

At the beginning of this project, I had a misconception about designing an accessible instrument. The first instrument I had designed was intended to be played with subtle body movements. As I learned more about mobility impairments I realized that the dificulty was not in dealing with a lack of body movements but rather in handling the lack of strength and lack of precision of those movements. There were three major disability access features that I tried to incorporate into the design of the instruments: the buttons had to be big enough to be capable of being contacted using large and imprecise body movements, the switches had to have weak resistance in order to be capable of being activated by light pressure, and the switches also had to be sturdy enough to withstand heavy or sudden contact. The sculptures made for Traquitanas Musicais were tested by persons with severe mobility impairments and the results were satisfactory. The pendulum was considered the most accessible of all. Pat Table and Polyps proved to be accessible, however the bodies of the instruments were not wheelchair bumping-proof; I was advised to make them sturdier next time.

Traquitanas Musicais was exhibited at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, CA, from March 13 through April 20, 1996, as part of SoundCulture 96, the third trans-Pacific festival of sonic art and contemporary sound practice. Because of the extended time of the show, I could experience a new relationship with the public. It gave the piece much more exposure than if it had been a concert. The audience got to see changes taking place in my work in progress. The audience got to test how sturdy and well-elaborated my art work was. The maintenance of the piece required much energy: I worked on the instruments many times, even after the opening, not only to make improvements but also to ensure their performance, appearance and the public's safety. Nevertheless, I was very satisfied with the results, and I received a very good reaction from the audience. It was such a pleasure to watch the public playing the sculptures and having fun! I saw a lone player running back and forth among instruments and exploring different interpretations. I saw groups of players playing together, paying attention to each other and making a very tuned jam session. I saw a little boy wanting to bring those instruments to his home. I received a note from a person who wished to install the pendulum over his bed. I saw a severely disabled person laughing while playing the pendulum by moving it with her wheelchair. The whole process, from the learning (especially electronics and technology for the disabled--both started from the basics) to the actual accomplishment of this very first piece, took two years and three months of dedication. I had been advised from the beginning that it would be a long, slow process. It really was. Indeed, I have no feeling that it is over. Now that I have three custom designed instruments squeezed in my small apartment (I can really plug and play!), all I desire is to move to a bigger place in order to keep designing accessible instruments and making them available to the public either in a public space or in people's homes.

 

 

 



Reference List

The Alliance for Technology Access. Computer Resources for People with Disabilities. Alameda, CA: Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 1994.

Brett, Arlene and Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. Adaptive Technology for Special Human Needs. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

California State University, Northridge. Proceedings of Virtual Reality Conference. Newport Beach, CA: RapidText, 1995. (Available on floppy disk.)

Katz, Elias and Florence Ludins-Katz. Art & Disabilities. Brookline Books, 1990.

Paciello, Mike. WebABLE! Web site: http://www.webable.com. WebABLE! Solutions, 1996.

The Trace Center. The Cooperative Electronic Library on Disability (Co-Net). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Available on CD-ROM.)

The Trace Center. Trace Research and Development Center. Web site: http://www.trace.wisc.edu. University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

 

 



Many thanks to Paul DeMarinis for his collaboration with the electronics.

Special thanks to Chris Brown, my advisor at Mills College Center for Contemporary Music.

 

 

 


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