At the MIT Media Lab we didn’t even ask why Björk and Michel Gondry were coming to check out our musical projects. Our excitement about meeting them crowded out all questions. I joined the long line of labbers cradling improbable sonic inventions outside the conference room. By the end of the day, I knew what I was doing after graduation.
Björk and Michel were making a wild-sounding film about the intersection of music, nature, and technology. I was hired to help develop robotic musical instruments that harness forces of nature: lightning, gravity, the Earth’s magnetic field.
Of course, all musical instruments use forces of nature in some way. At their heart, every musical instrument is an oscillator, transforming energy back and forth between two forms: the bouncy motion and compression of air in an organ pipe; the currents and tensions of an LC circuit.
Björk brought the idea of a pendulum that makes music, to play the delicate harp line in Solstice. I loved it immediately. Pendulums are natural oscillators, and the Earth’s gravitational field would set the rhythms of the music.
My plan was to choreograph an array of pendulums 20’ tall that would pluck harp-like instruments. The line of pendulums would be wrapped into a circle to create a hypnotic wave that echoes celestial cycles.
I assembled a super-team to help with production: Dr. James Patten on control systems, inventors Karl Biewald and Douglas Ruuska on mechanical design and fabrication, and artist Marina Porter, who had helped me from the beginning, on visual design, harps, and detailed fab.
Every time I spoke to Björk, her previous ideas had given birth to a generation of new ones, ever clarifying and strengthening. Keeping up was exhilarating.
Then everything changed. The movie was out, replaced by iPad apps and a multi-year tour of ‘residencies.’ Our original Pendulum Ring, designed to work for maybe three weeks of filming, needed a complete redesign to function live on tour for years. Hard metal replaced soft wood and big, simple structures divided into complex puzzle-pieces for shipping. International fire and safety codes dogged every decision. And the clock ticked.
Weight, expense, complexity. What started as challenging had gone beyond. But we were determined, working 90-hour weeks, sometimes sleeping on the warehouse floor. Complex parts we couldn’t afford, we re-invented. But our full-scale prototypes of the new metal pendulum/harps were feeling cold and industrial instead of warm and magical. Björk was sharing our doubts.
I should mention that I’d already quit this business twice before I met Björk. While audiences loved the idea of music and robots together, it contains an aesthetic dead end. If the content of music is emotion, the Jungian unconscious, the deep mystery through which our raw atoms create meaning out of the chaos of the world, then robots possess nothing of what makes us care. I could see little place for them in music beyond fleeting novelty.
I met with Björk while she was mixing the new album. We both confessed we’d been having bad dreams about the new direction. I sketched out a whole new type of pendulum instrument for touring. Smaller, simpler, warmer. She liked it and I biked straight back to the workshop to prototype the shapes with Marina.
Five sleepless weeks later, we played the four new Gravity Harps for
Björk after troubleshooting the control system all night. She smiled as she watched them weave the delicate notes of Solstice, and the dirty and exhausted crew finally exhaled after 10 tense weeks.
Soon thereafter, the Gravity Harps and I were on our way to Manchester for the first of the amazing Biophilia shows. It felt like rapture and victory.
Working with Björk got me excited again about the intersection of music, motion and sculpture. And also about the boundlessness of the world of possibilities and the power of ideas made real.
So I’m not quitting this business after all. Marina Porter and I are making our long-standing collaboration official and bringing a big bag of new ideas for sculptures, films, interventions and exhibits.
photos: james patt