Alex Nowitz > The Strophonion – Instrument Development (2010-2011)

The Strophonion is an electronic instrument which was developed and built by STEIM from 2010 until 2011. It belongs to the instrument group, that is usually subsumed under the term live-electronics using gestural controllers. The following blog gives an insight into the entire process of developing and building the Strophonion from the beginning.

The Strophonion (left and right hand controller), 2011
© Frank Baldé
Since fall 2007 I was invited by STEIM on a regular basis in order to develop my first electronic instrument, mainly with Daniel Schorno, a setup which is controlled by two Wii-remotes and which I call Stimmflieger. (The literate translation would be voice kite). During the second half of 2009 the staff at STEIM and I were discussing various approaches towards building a new instrument. At the end of 2009 Dick Rijken, director of STEIM, and Frank Baldé, head of the software department, officially invited me to focus on doing so with full financial and tech support by STEIM. I don’t want to miss saying how happy, enthusiastic and thankful I was and still am about this extraordinary offer and opportunity. In fall 2011 the Strophonion was finished and premiered on November 5, 2011 during the Sound Triangle festival at the LIG Art Hall in Seoul/Korea.

Nowitz with Strophonion, 2011

A) Initial and conceptual thoughts

At first, I was collecting all kinds of ideas for developing, designing and creating an electronic instrument. Here are some keywords which shall outline the most important categories:
1) The instrument should be gestural and expressive. Movements of arms and hands should have a considerable impact on the actual way of playing the instrument as well as the overall appearance of musician and instrument during a performance.
2) Other achievements should be: virtuosity in playing the instrument, using the musician’s fine-motoric, tactile and sensual skills, involving all five fingers to control and play the instrument.
3) On top of this, the concept of playing the instrument in a conventional way, playing accurate pitches from a keypad (of any sort) on a chromatic and/or quarter-tone basis, should be an integral part of the instrument as well.
4) Last but not least, the instrument should be wireless. In other words, no wires  should be applied to connect the controllers to the computer.

B) Experimenting, learning, exploring

Frank Baldé provided newly created software configurations (junXion, LiSa) for me. Experimenting with those I experienced various new ways of processing the voice via LiSa. On the hardware level I explored different continuous controller components, such as bending sensors, pressure sensors, joy-sticks, 3-axis accelerometers, different switches and buttons. Byungjun Kwon provided all these and he built a glove which was a great experience to play with.

Glove by Byungjun Kwon, 2010
© Byungjun Kwon
Another important instrument which I could experiment with was the MIDI Conductor which was built some years ago at STEIM, designed by Michel Waisvisz, and which uses ultrasound to measure distance. This specific way of controlling continuous data seemed to be very precise, accurate and easy to define, which is important to get the best possible control of musical parameters such as volume or pitch bending. The most important aspect to me, though, was the fact that the ultrasound measurement method works in a straight line as opposed to the 3-axis accelerometer whose characteristic is rotation around each axis. Eventually it turned out that both combined and each for one hand, the ultrasound for the left and the 3-axis accelerometer for the right hand, should be the two main components regarding the integration of continuous controllers. At some later point, Byungjun suggested to also install a little joy-stick for the left hand. In addition, a pressure sensor was also installed as being the fifth continuous controller built into the instrument. (The 3-axis accelerometer counts as two, since, at the time of writing this blog, I’m using the x- and y-axis of the 3-axis accelerometer, but not the z-axis.)

Backside of the right hand controller of the Strophonion, 2011
© Alex Nowitz

Backside of the left hand controller of the Strophonion, 2011
© Alex Nowitz

C) Developing the ideas

A main issue during the very early stage of development was: how do I get across my ideas, how should the instrument look like and, more important, how should it be played. For this reasons I made sketches and even moulded some mock-ups out of clay:

Nowitz’ “Hand in the spoon” sketch, 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Nowitz’ “Shell” sketch (1), 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Nowitz’ “Shell” sketch (2), 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Nowitz’ “Shell” sketch (3), 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Nowitz’ “Skull Shell” sketch, 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Nowitz’ sketch and mockups of the Shells made out of clay, 2010
© Alex Nowitz

D) Creating and shaping the prototype: the Shells

Florian Goettke, visual artist, used to be a professional violin maker. He shaped the final version as well as the prototype, constantly adjusting and improving it. His work began by creating mock-ups for me to experiment with.

Florian Goettke at his workshop creating the first mock-ups, 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Florian Goettke’s 1st mockup (side perspective), 2010
© Florian Goettke

Florian Goettke’s 1st mockup (the keypad), 2010
© Florian Goettke
During this period of trying out different mockups created by Florian, it gradually became clear to me how we should approach the shape of the instrument and its parts. The controller devices for the hands, at least the one for the right hand, should look like a shell. That’s also about the time when the prototype received a name: the Shells.

The Shells – Prototype development of right hand controller (1-6)
© Alex Nowitz
While Florian worked on the wooden shape of the Shells Byungjun ordered the electronic parts and did a lot of soldering and firmware programming. Once Byungjun and/or Florian attached the electronic parts onto the wooden shape, Frank started testing the devices. If the result was as expected he started to define the data coming into junXion and prepared these so that I was able to play-test the Shells from an artistic and musical standpoint. A lot of adjustments needed to be made all along the way of developing and building the instrument. Therefore, the Shells became a typical example for a work-in-progress that was handed back and forth between Frank, Byungjun, Florian and me. It goes without saying that all of us, working in completely different fields, had to collaborate very closely.

Shells (front/on top), 2010,
© Alex Nowitz
At some point during this procedure, we seemed to have reached an impasse. Every time Byungjun or Frank were testing the prototype in their offices it seemed to work just great; every time I was testing it I got unintentional responses from the instrument until the three of us met in my rehearsal space where we detected interferences between the XBee based wireless data network being used in the Shells and the wireless microphone system from Shure which I was using to amplify and live-record my voice. After we found the issue, Byungjun increased the power for the XBee network and the problem was solved. I’m mentioning this specific issue just to give one little, but crucial example out of many others that needed to be solved along the way. And it demonstrates perfectly how closely the four of us had to collaborate during the entire development process in order to solve problems and to take it a step forward.

XBee Pro on XBee board (XBee Explorer USB), 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Ultrasound Module (built into the left hand controller), 2010
© Alex Nowitz

Shells (right hand controller) at an early stage, Ultrasound (transmitter and receiver) and XBee Pro, MIDI Conductor (in the back of the picture), 2010
© Alex Nowitz
In fact, we were constantly re-adjusting and enhancing the prototype on all levels – ergonomics, shape, hardware and software – and, at the same time, learning to play the instrument. Finally, on April 12, 2011 I premiered the prototype during a solo concert at the Radialsystem in Berlin hosted by Gerhardt Müller-Goldboom who is the director of the so-called ensemble ‘work-in-progress’. Incidentally, Frank came to Berlin, too, in order to make sure that the instrument was working the way as supposed to. In fact – it happened to work out great! Various other public presentations, mainly as being part of my solo show Homo Ludens followed: Bratislava (multiplace festival), Rotterdam (Hocus Pocus commissioned by dePlayer/Operadagen Rotterdam), NIME in Oslo, Nyksund, Trondheim and Kristiansand (all Norway), Lisbon (Music Viva), Amsterdam (Steim’s Pattern and Pleasure). During this period of extensive practice and showings I developed a good sense for playing the instrument so that I could tell what details need to be changed in order to improve the playability and to gain accurate, precise musical control. Due to Frank’s experiences in this entire field of instrument development, he always made great suggestions for improvements as Florian did so, too. In other words, we continued re-programming and re-shaping the instrument.

Shells (alongside/underneath, final stage), 2011
© Alex Nowitz

Shells (front/on top, final stage), 2011
© Alex Nowitz

Shells (right hand controller, final stage), 2011
© Alex Nowitz

E) The final version: the Strophonion

After Byungjun has left Amsterdam during summer 2011 to get settled back home in Seoul, STEIM hired Mr. Stock to make an exact copy of the prototype. Once he had finished the electronic parts, Florian took them and built them into the final shape which was also based on the prototype. Florian’s final work did bring out a fantastic instrument with a great look and ‘handy’ shapes.

Nowitz’ Strophonion (complete) on a stand, 2011
© Alex Nowitz
Admittedly, the initial idea was to emulate the shape of a shell. And indeed, one may recall a shell looking at the prototype. But when the final version of the instrument was finished in fall 2011, I felt I must give it another name, since neither the right hand nor the left hand controller makes you think of a shell anymore. Therefore I took the chance to rename the instrument emphasizing the way it’s being played, namely with two hands in combination with the voice. There are three syllables which, put together, give the instrument its name: the Strophonion.
1.) strophé (Greek), which means rotating, turning, spinning or twisting, is the beginning of the term. Musical parameters, such as pitch, volume, frequency filtering, sample lengths and sample position and many others, are controlled by the rotation of the right hand (using the 3-axis accelerometer).
2.) phon (Greek) means voice and/or sound. This syllable forms the middle part.
3.) The ending of the term, ion (Greek), is an atom or molecule, that gives electrical charge, and means: ‘going’. But, as being part of the neologism Strophonion, it shall also allude to the way of playing the left hand device (distance measurement via ultrasound), which may recall the way of playing an accord-ion.
List of all components of the Strophonion:
Right hand controller device:
– 12 buttons (3 rows, 4 buttons each)
– modifier switch
– pressure sensor
– 3-axis accelerometer
Left hand controller device:
– 6 buttons
– modifier switch
– joy-stick
– ultrasound (receiver)
– ultrasound (transmitter)
Software components:
– JunXion v4.6 (2011)
– LiSa XC(ore) v1.37 (2011)
Computer components:
– Mac Mini (2,26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)
– Mac OS X v10.6.2

Patterns+Pleasure Festival: Alex Nowitz from STEIM Amsterdam on Vimeo.

Voice and Strophonion by Alex Nowitz from Netsildna Kool on Vimeo.

I would like to thank all of those who were responsible for developing and building the instrument:
Frank Baldé – software, programming
Florian Goettke – ergonomics, shape, design
Byungjun Kwon – electronics (prototype development: Shells)
Mr. Stock – electronics (final instrument: Strophonion)
Heather MacCrimmon – waistbelt
Also, many thanks to all the people who were and are involved in other ways:
Dick Rijken – director
Takuro Mizuta Lippit – artistic director
Wouter Overgauuw – financial director
Jonathan Reus – project manager (Strophonion)
Robert van Heumen – project manager (Shells)
Joel Ryan – artistic advisor
Daniel Schorno – artistic advisor
Marije Baalman – maintenance
Nico Bes – bestman, troubleshooter of all kinds
Esther Roschar – bestwoman, travel manager
Vivian Wenli Lin – video documentation
December 23, 2011
Alex Nowitz

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