Albena Baeva > Orientation #109

It was several years ago when I first learned about STEIM from Rene Beekman, one of our lecturers at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia. Over the last two years he kept asking me: “When are you going to apply for a workshop at STEIM?”. In the beginning I wasn’t sure that this was for me, because I’m not a musician. Anyway, this January I finally applied for the workshop and now I am really happy that I did. I had the opportunity to meet the wonderful team at STEIM, and to see, touch and explore their musical instruments. And of course to enjoy the STEIM guesthouse and Amsterdam.
The reason I was reluctant to take part in a workshop at STEIM was because of my focus on the visual arts. Although I have built musical interfaces for audio-visual performances for some time now, I do not have the training of a musician. In the context of Runabout — the over-arching project for my audio-visual performances — I have worked with different musicians. My aim is to create interaction between sound, images and movement in performances. My latest project, called The Bergeron Experiment, features a custom-built electronic accordion and an interactive costume that provide a twofold channel for audio-visual interaction. By playing on the accordion, the musician is able to manipulate the visual parts, and vice versa through the sensors installed in the costume the actor influences the music.
The system uses a set of sensors and sliders, as well as two Arduino modules. One Arduino is built into the costume and the second one is in the accordion. The two Arduinos are connected via wireless RF modules. The sliders are used to record the most typical gesture of an accordion player; the movement of the bellows. A web camera is mounted in the body of the accordion. The camera records and streams video of the costumed, performer who is in front of the musician. A Puredata patch processes both sound and images. The sound is based on live-sampling of real-time recordings.
Lately I was a bit stuck with this project. Everything was difficult and slow, and I thought that I had done something wrong. At STEIM I understood how much all this is the essence of the process. It takes time, energy, people, discipline and a lot of passion to build a unique custom musical instrument that works.

It takes discipline not to get lost in the endless options the computer offers. Proceed by making small steps. Start with one or two inputs that are mapped to one or two software decisions. It is not possible to get it all right the first time. The simplest, most elegant solutions are the most difficult to achieve. It takes a large group of people with different skills to build one instrument; you need a hardware specialist, a designer, a builder, a programmer and then a musician who is willing to invest months into learning how to play such a unique instrument.

I was stuck in my project, but after this week I know where I got stuck. Now I know what sensors and parts should be replaced. Today, I took a blank sheet of paper and started drawing the plan again. That was the outcome of a week at STEIM.

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