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Thursday, 10 October 2013

Bruno Zamborlin's invention, Mogees, turns everyday objects into musical instruments

Picture this. 

It is a warm night, and on an island in Mexico an orchestra in white tie sits playing Stravinsky under the stars. Across the lake, which is carrying the sound, an audience in neat, seated rows is absorbed by the music and by the spectacular lights that are playing across the island's trees - lumiere for the son. But the evening is about to become even more magical... For when a break comes between movements, the orchestra quietly puts down its traditional musical instruments - the clarinets go back on their stands, the cellos balance on their sides - and continues the symphony by playing the trees instead. 

This is one of several projects - this one potentially to be sponsored by a bank - that have been suggested to Bruno Zamborlin, a 29-year-old Italian drummer who is completing a computer science PhD at Goldsmith's College and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, since his TEDx talk (below) about Mogees.

In essence the technology is a microphone that can be attached to any hard surface, which can then be played in a variety of ways: it detects all movement around it. The output can be programmed, using related software, by the player in advance and what can be produced is, therefore, bounded only by the player's imagination.

The TEDx talk has been watched more than 8,000 times on YouTube but judging by the number of commissions that have come Zamborlin's way, it's likely that a large number of these views were by people working in the creative industries. For this is a technology with a million potential applications.

The last time I saw Zamborlin he was too busy to talk because he was doing a demonstration at an evening organised by MC Saatchi ad agency to promote Peroni beer by association with the work of world-beating Italian expats - of whom there are a great number for reasons he explained succinctly, if sadly. "Nothing in Italy works. People leave."

But when asked about Mogees' applications, the first thing Zamborlin mentioned was music teaching. "There is usually a gap between starting to play music and enjoying it, simply because it doesn't sound good. During that period a lot of children give up or come to the conclusion that they'll never be able to do it. But Mogees is really nice to play even if you don't really know how to - it allows you to improve your skills without making any terrible sounds."The hope is that Mogees will encourage musical confidence, building music into the lives of those it touches.

Accordingly, the EU has provided a grant to manufacture the system for classroom use, at a cost of around £1 per microphone. That's one above, attached to a railing that temporarily became an instrument for demo purposes, along with the iPhone that is running the software.

There was also an installation for the Italian kitchenware company Alessi, which had Zamborlin turn some of their products into a musical instrument for promotional purposes, much as he does with the bicycle in the video above.

And then there are the wider applications of the technology, which is known as EAVI - "embodied audio visual interaction" - for the group of talented researchers working in the same field. One of Zamborlin's colleagues, Mick Grierson, has been working with handicapped children and told me: "I've been working with some boys aged 12-14 at Whitefield School and Centre, who are very seriously affected by their autism: they are non-verbal, sometimes violent and with extreme repetitive behaviour.

"I worked with them to develop a sound and music system for the iPad called "Sonic Scrapbook" and an interactive squeezable interface for sound recording and manipulation. I developed the interface because although most people find iPad touch screens easy to use, the people we were working with didn't always get along with it.

"These new interfaces [can't] make them less autistic, I think it's pretty clear that this is impossible. What you can do is make them feel that their choice is important, and that whatever they do can have an impact on the world. From talking to teachers and carers, this is a good thing you can try and do for people who have autism."

There is also talk that the EAVI technology has been used by researchers in the US for military purposes connected with the sighting of tank guns: as I say when you can programme the output of a device to be anything you would like it to be, the practical uses to which it can be put are limited only by the user's imagination.

* Bruno Zamborlin will be producing an installation at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green High Road at the beginning of May 2014. In the mean time you can contact him here and follow him on Twitter @brunozamborlin

* If you enjoyed this post, would you also be interested in reading about how music is a political force in Afghanistan?

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