A Dance Party for One:
Responsive light structure
The proposal I submitted at the begining of the course was a reaction to the visceral works of a New York City ensemble Hess Is More. Earning critical acclaim as “[the 2014] album-of-the-year candidate” by The Lowbrow Reader, the octet creates experimental dance music rooted in jazz, krautrock, and afrobeat.
While the apparatus was conceived to accompany a live performance by the band, it was also meant to be versatile enough to function as a stand-alone installation. In concept the logic seemed simple – with key ingredients being multifaceted pieces of glass, a microphone, a light source, as well as reflective and transmissive gratings, pairing to generate a series of prismatic images.
The aesthetic was not precisely defined, yet it was important for the piece to be evocative of the band’s emblem – a constellation-like pattern encased in a circle. To illustrate this idea succinctly I thought to apply a scaled version of the acousto-optic effect – relying more on physics and less on technology. Simultaneously translating the environment and reacting to it, light would thus pair with sound.
After experimenting with glass, I found that in order to fulfill my wish for prismatic images I would have to commission a custom piece, which would be cost prohibitive, amongst other things. Dan Oran, a classmate of mine recommended polycarbonate – a material with fantastic optic properties. The most intriguing of which is its reaction to heat. When parched, polycarbonate fractures internally and refracts. To elaborate on this effect, I lined the bottom of my structure with reflective film.
To house the wiring, I made the base out of sheet metal steel. The process was much smoother than my first attempt at working with the medium.
When it became apparent that the acousto-optic effect would not work given my material and resource constraints, I resorted to mechanics. Sound is vibration – the two are indistinguishable and intertwined. In maintaining a certain sense of integrity to my low-tech notions, I sought to incorporate water into the light fixture to capture an equally instant and perhaps more nuanced sequence – the liquid would gently reverberate to the beat via a solenoid [or a series of]. After making the solenoid, I realized that the “revised” design, still took on too many variables. With morale at all-time low and the deadline fast approaching, I adapted Neil's LED array onto a large piece of foam core. Having had established a serial connection in the weeks prior I was able to program the array to communicate with my microphone board with relative ease.
The question of what aspect of music I wanted to illustrate loomed over me for the majority of the semester. Is it amplitude, pitch, frequency? My original intent was to have a algorithm in place that tracks the more subtle audio qualities thus implying a certain pattern without fully disclosing it. Much like with other aspects of the project, my vision altered with time. And the answer to the aforementioned question became: rhythm. The decision was a very subjective one – beat is the aspect of music I am most sensitive to, it is what makes hearts throb and hips swing. To capture this quality I programmed my microphone board with a beat detection algorithm – more on the implementation can be found here.
I am slightly disappointed with the outcome of my project, there is something about the aesthetics that's amiss and it is not as eloquent from a technological standpoint. This is a good lesson to take on projects that are more manageable in scope and fulfill a single criteria rather than many, i.e. either making light modulation piece with a sophisticated technical underpinning or an art object – trying to do everything at once results in mediocracy.
After taking Physics 123 with Tom Hayes at Harvard, I decided to revist this project but do it using analog components. An approach that is not only more economic in terms of $$$ but also seemed more intuitive to me. Sound is an analog phenomenon so it makes sense to analyze it using analog parts. Moreover, for a novice, a simpler approach is less dizzying and intimidating, thus going further in terms of academic purposes.
Some notes on the schematic: the signal is picked up by a microphone and amplified using an op-amp. It is then fed into a comparator directly (a potentiometer can be used to tweak the voltage level) and through a “leaky peak” detector (See pg 19) comprised of a diode, two resistors, and a capacitor. The output of the comparator then turns an LED on or off, thus flickering with the beat.