A trip to one of our favourite cities, Stockholm, to take part in the MUSAiC festival: three days of lectures and concerts exploring the topic of music and artificial intelligence. The festival is organised by Bob L. T. Sturm of the Royal Institute of technology (KTH) as part of the Music at the Frontiers of Artificial Creativity and Criticism research project, funded by the European Research Commission. The project as whole is exploring how AI can disrupt artistic practice and provoke fundamental questions for philosophy, law and engineering.
A striking and exciting feature of both project and festival is a focus on the relationship between AI and traditional music making, which is where Carolan comes in. Bob’s previous work has developed an AI that can compose traditional tunes, both Irish and Swedish in style, and we’ve travelled out to Stockholm to try and play – well accompany – some of these. However, that’s a topic for a future post. Today, we’re going to talk about another unusual instrument that we met and got to duet with while at the festival.
This is the Neod and it has been designed by musician, code, composer and new media artist Erik Natanael Gustafsson. Erik has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Composition from the University of Gothenburg and a Master of Arts in Art and Technology from the University of Limerick. He regularly performs as a violinist, creates installations, and writes and produces music for short films. He is currently a Research Engineer in Software Art at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (KTH). He has also developed several digital musical instruments, not least the Neod.
You can learn all about the unusual and thoughtful design of the Neod in the video below, but in a nutshell:
- It’s a digital musical instrument, realised by embedding a Bela mini hardware platform inside a bespoke wooden physical shell.
- It is microtonal, meaning that instead of being based on the western 12 note scale, it divides the octave into 53 (yes 53!) equal parts. This tuning, called 53edo, has been known for hundreds of years and is the basis for Turkish music theory.
- The six right hand sensors use a binary mapping to trigger all 53 notes in the scale, while the extra little finger sensor can be used to raise and lower the pitch by an additional third of an edo, which actually makes possible a 159 note scale. Additional right hand sensors then make certain runs and trills easier.
- Literally on the other hand, the left hand sensors trigger drone notes.
- Eight sensors on the back spine trigger octave shifts, being accessed with the thumb by twisting the Neod in the hands. This gives the instrument a vast nine octave range which covers the full spectrum of human hearing.
- Finally, tilting the instrument from side to side controls volume (and an additional low pass filter) while tilting it forwards and backwards controls reverb (and a little distortion).
It may all sound very complicated, but it looks and sounds very natural in Erik’s trained hands. To my ears it has a wonderful pipe-like quality that is ideally suited to traditional music, with its microtonality bringing an additional exotic dimension.
Carolan (and Steve) are honoured to be asked to accompany a performance of Erik’s tune Thank You for Feedback at the festival. It’s in the style of a Polska in 9/8 timing, but with an unusual beat. Indeed, this beat is the source of its unusual name – a friend of Erik’s captured the beat from a contact microphone feeding back, thought it was interesting, and sent it to him. Initially, it took us a while to figure it out, but some extra help from Erik and a short rehearsal later, we were ready to go. We hope you like the tune as much as we did. Here’s hoping we get to accompany Erik and his wonderful Neod again in the future.