A musical addition to this year’s Hannover Fair in Germany were Sound Machines, a pneumatic quintet. Roland Olbeter, a technical set designer for opera and theatre, designed the group of four one-stringed instruments and one drum, all of which are controlled by pneumatic components.
The drum has a variety of drum sticks and brushes that hit the skin in different rhythms to make percussive sounds. The one-stringed instruments are more complex. They consist of a string, a fret board, two electromagnets (one at each end of the string), a microphone, an acoustic chamber and pneumatic fingers that hold the string against the fret board. According to Olbeter, Festo provided the pneumatic pieces “and the rest we fabricated, even the electromagnet, or the microphone that picks up the sound of the string, we made this from zero.”
Without human fingers to pluck or strum the string, the string sustains its sound with the help of the electromagnet. “It’s an electromagnet that changes polarity,” says Olbeter. “For instance, for the A, the A resonates at 440 times a second, the string moves up and down 440 times; so this electromagnet changes polarity 440 times per second,” causing the vibration.
In addition to working on technical set design, Olbeter is also an installation artist, focusing his work on movement and music. The music for the Hannover installation, composed by AustralianElena Kats-Chernin, is called Fast Blue Air. The composition was programmed as a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) sequence using the audio software Cuebase. From there it is sent through a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). “We made a program for this industrial computer to understand MIDI signal, and from there we go directly, we get out electrical signals for the valves for the instruments, for the system,” says Olbeter. “All the instruments are built with industrial parts, from real industry, not from show business, because I have access to this industrial world,” he says.
Olbeter doesn’t define his instruments as electronic music instruments. “We work a lot with digital technology, but only in the controlling part; everything you hear is not digital,” he says. “It’s acoustic or electro-acoustic.” Olbeter finds an organic quality in his instruments. “They’re not lonely instruments, but they are ‘instrumentitions’; they are like fingers, they can move and they get personality and they can be in relationship with the finger – they are not static elements anymore.”
Sponsors for Olbeter’s work include Festo and Siemens, which both provide him with resources for his machines. “[Festo] started to help me before they knew the way I would represent them in Hannover in the fair; they acted without any commercial interest and when it turned out that they really liked it we got closer, and we have a closer collaboration now. They really helped me a lot.”
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