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Photos courtesy of Neil Mendoza

From the opening riff, 1977 disco super-hit “Stayin’ Alive” was made to be an earworm, but also born out of the gritty streets of New York, according to Bee Gees member (and co-writer and co-singer) Barry Gibbs. Its catchy beat doesn’t belie its inspiration, but did lead to starring roles in film, from Saturday Night Fever to The Electric Knife Orchestra, an art installation by Neil Mendoza at the UCLA Department of Design Media Arts in Los Angeles.

Sixteen knives (and one meat cleaver) make up the ensemble, but they’re paired with an Arduino and various other apparatus and instruments, like bells, stepper motors, a solenoid, and a triangle. A Jacob’s Ladder — suspended between two knives, of course — sings backup.

“I really enjoy taking objects out of context and making them do slightly absurd things,” says Mendoza. “Knives have lots of meaning attached to them, both from their role as weapons and as cooking implements, so they seemed like great objects to play with.”

The Electric Knife Orchestra Presents Stayin’ Alive from Neil Mendoza on Vimeo.

Two of the instruments actually rely on the stepper motors for sound, stepping them at the frequency of whatever note they’re playing. Others are percussive — like the cleaver, which strikes its pedestal. The cleaver is actuated by MOSFETs connected to solenoids and car door lock actuators. It’s similar to the mechanism he used in last year’s “The Ponytron.”

To make sure the motors were loud enough, Mendoza prototyped the machines with aluminum extrusion before laser cutting them. A single Arduino controls the whole installation, and Mendoza made the code available on Github.

“Working with knives was a new challenge,” says Mendoza. “After a couple of days of getting little cuts all over my hands I covered most of the blades with tape.”

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