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  • PLAY!:Sound Toys for Non-Musicians
  • Dominic Robson

This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

—John Cage, "Experimental Music"

In his 1958 essay "Experimental Music," included in the book Silence (Cage 1961), John Cage talks about the transcendent qualities of creating and enjoying music. As we grow up, we lose serious pursuit of play, the important activity through which children explore and understand the world around us. This is particularly true of music, the appreciation of which has tended to become more convenient but more passive through the increased availability of recorded music.

Digital technologies offer a rich potential to fulfill the ideas that Cage envisaged for creating and manipulating sound and music in new and different ways. The present article describes work that attempts to exploit these possibilities through interfaces that are not intended to be musical instruments, but that allow the kind of "purposeful purposelessness" that Cage refers to in "Experimental Music"—a type of playing with music and sound that is in turn explorative and engaging, intuitive and enjoyable. Some established notions of musical instruments have been ignored or challenged. Conventional musical instruments generally suggest traditions and a seriousness that quickly precludes non-musicians from using them. A number of new musical interfaces for musicians have been developed (Paradiso 1997 offers an historical review), but I wanted to work on projects designed for everybody, with a particular focus on those who do not perceive themselves as musicians.

The effort to develop interfaces that are simple, playful, and enjoyable situates these projects in an arena similar to that of the Iamascope (Fels and Mase 1999) and Musikalscope (Fels, Nishimoto, and Mase 1998). Other related work includes the Jam-O-Drum (Blaine and Perkis 2000), which takes the idea of a drum circle as a starting point for developing a rich and intuitive interactive space for collaborative music play. The Squeezables (Weinberg and Gan 2001) work toward new means for musical interaction and collaboration with a series of objects that offer a simple gestural interface. The sound interactions have been designed to give novice users an intuitive and responsive instrument. Another collaborative environment, Augmented Groove (Poupyrev 2000), allows players to manipulate and mix pieces of musical content and pre-composed sequences of notes to motivate the notion of "computer-supported improvisation." Finally, for his ability to appropriate and re-map the everyday object (as well as traditional musical ones) to create a musical interface seemingly out of anything, Perry Cook remains an inspiration (e.g., Cook 2001).

My work was conducted while studying the Computer Related Design Masters course at the Royal College of Art in London. I outline four projects, broadly considering some of the contributing elements of interaction design, sound design, and system development. By examining the development process, the article attempts to reveal some important issues and to reach some generally useful conclusions about creating new interactive sound and musical interfaces. This article will be largely descriptive. As Perry Cook has pointed out, in many cases "musical interface construction proceeds as more art than science, and possibly this is the only way that it can be done" (2001).

Piano Cubes

This Way Up

The original aim of the Piano Cubes project (see Figure 1) was to create a simple physical interface [End Page 50] using very basic sensor technology, and then to design some form of sonic interaction to work with the interface. I wanted to explore this as a prototype process for creating sound objects and to uncover some of the issues involved in their design. It was decided to use a number of tilt switches to create the interface. The operation of the tilt switch is very simple: sealed inside a small metal cylinder is a ball bearing or drop of mercury. At one end of the cylinder are two contacts. Depending on the orientation of the cylinder...


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