Made On Earth — Gravity Harps for Björk

Craft & Design

gravity harps

I had tried to stop making musical machines but kept getting offers I couldn’t refuse. I thought I’d quit this crazy business if I could just pull off one last job — the big one. Then I met Björk at the MIT Media Lab. She needed some musical robots. This was big.

Björk had an amazing vision. She wanted to create technologies that harness forces of nature to play music. She wanted to use gravity to play a new song, “Solstice,” preferably with a giant pendulum. “Solstice” has unusual time signatures and a nonrepeating structure. I couldn’t play it with one big metronome, but maybe I could use a few pendulums and deconstruct the patterns like a Fourier transform. How hard could it be?

Hard enough, it turns out. Then the project changed from a film into a live tour. There were so many prototypes and complete redesigns. It expanded to 30 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall — a 38-pendulum behemoth with 152 computer-controlled motors. The graceful jellyfish design was becoming coldly industrial. Menacing. Literally dangerous. Björk and I were both having bad dreams about it, and we finally told each other.

With only 30 days left, we started over from scratch. I drew a new, simpler design: four synchronized pendulums with four cylindrical harps that could rotate to play different notes. Our small crew worked around the clock to build four complete, iterative prototypes. On the 30th day, we shipped my final musical machine across the sea to debut with Björk’s new album, Biophilia, at the Manchester International Festival.

So, this was the big one. But instead of being my swan song, it filled me with ideas and excitement for more musical machines. Maybe I was never serious about quitting.

Sweet Sound of Gravity:

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