Rise of the machines

Music lecturer Jim Murphy creates mechatronic and robotic instruments that expand the universe of musical possibilities.

New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī Lecturer Dr Jim Murphy’s zeal for exploring new frontiers in the sonic arts can be dated back to his childhood growing up in New Mexico in the United States.

Along with a musical apprenticeship of classical piano lessons (“looking back on it I was this 12-year-old who was really into music theory”), Dr Murphy enjoyed playing around with computers and building radios and other electronic devices.

“I built this shortwave radio kit,” he says. “I discovered the most interesting part of listening to it was finding the stations that weren’t quite there and you got these beautiful distortions. That led to me being interested in how to make those weird electronic sounds myself.”

He is a member of the Sonic Engineering Lab for Creative Technology, an interdisciplinary group of staff and students whose work bridges the School of Music and the School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Dr Murphy creates instruments that variously—and sometimes simultaneously—expand the sonic palette available to composers, offer new performance possibilities to musicians and contain kinetic visual elements that make them as much sound sculptures as instruments.

Sometimes working alone, sometimes with collaborators (inside and outside the University), he has been involved in projects for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Orchestra Wellington and the capital’s annual Lux Light Festival, among others.

His instruments include a mechatronic drum beater, a robotic slide guitar (built with University Master’s graduate and staff member James McVay) and a mechatronic harmonium (built with Sonic Engineering Lab Co-Director and Senior Lecturer Dr Ajay Kapur).

Dr Murphy also contributed to Mr McVay’s undergraduate fourth-year Honours project, a ‘MechBass’ robotic bass guitar, a video clip of which on YouTube in 2012 attracted nearly 500,000 views in just two weeks.

Mechatronics combines electronics and mechanical engineering.

Dr Murphy first encountered its sonic arts applications while studying Music Technology at the Herb Albert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, having transferred after two years of a geology degree.

At CalArts, he studied and collaborated with Trimpin, Dr Kapur and other leading sonic artists.

“I went there being purely in that electronic/synthesiser/computer composition paradigm and then I started seeing all these mechanical things kicking around. What I found immediately was I could build things that would produce these sounds that would be frankly just too difficult for me at my skill level to make on a computer.”

Dr Kapur divides his time between CalArts, where he is Director of the Music Technology programme, and Victoria University of Wellington, where he teaches part-time and supervises PhD students.

In 2010, Dr Murphy followed him to the University for his own PhD, particularly liking the interdisciplinary relationship between the University’s School of Music and School of Engineering and Computer Science. “The more I look around internationally, I see that’s the exception rather than the rule,” he says.

For his PhD, Dr Murphy identified areas where mechatronic instruments might be improved and—alone or in collaboration—built four new ones.

He also researched the history of automatic instruments, going back to water organs during the golden age of early Islamic science in the eighth century, through the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the player pianos of the late nineteenth century, their decline with the arrival of recording technology, and their revival and transformation since the 1970s among composers attracted to the kind of precision and sustained sequencing a human musician cannot achieve, but in a physical rather than purely electronic setting.

Dr Murphy explains that purely electronic music can be created with a synthesiser or computer but will have to be channelled through a speaker, which will cause variance, even if it is only subtle; a mechatronic drum beater, say, is physically there with you when you listen to it and the timbre you hear is truer to the original sound source. You can also see it being operated, adding a sound sculpture element.

By marrying the mechanical with the electronic in a mechatronic instrument, Dr Murphy and other sonic artists can make automatic instruments more expressive. “Player pianos and other automatic instruments are definitely the ancestors of these instruments, but now we can programme them. We can make them change their tuning scheme, be a little bit imprecise if we want or map a musician’s gesture and respond to that gesture, different things like that.”

Mechatronic instruments present new freedoms, says Dr Murphy. “Existing musical instruments have been designed to interface with a human. So the violin is shaped the way it is so you can hold it. Once we start doing this, we begin to optimise shapes of things and explore different ways of positioning and mounting them, different sizes of resonating bodies and actuating them from areas a human couldn’t reach. For composers interested in exploring space or the timbre of an instrument, that’s pretty exciting.”

However, Dr Murphy is not out to replace musicians, he says. “What I’m interested in doing is providing almost extra appendages to musicians. There’s a lot of theory in this field called transhumanism, where the idea is that through technology you can extend a human body out. And I think that’s what’s really happening here: we’re creating almost these prosthetic affordances that give musicians extra limbs, so that instead of five fingers to fret a guitar now they suddenly might have an extra 10 so they can play much more complicated chord structures.”

At the same time, Dr Murphy’s research has given him renewed respect for musicians and the human body. “One of the big things I’ve really come to appreciate from this work is how amazing the human body is at controlling things, playing instruments, making music. When you try to do that with motors and gears and pulleys and stuff, you are humbled. Shifting pitch on a stringed instrument, for instance, easily moving up and down the neck—that’s so quiet and fast for us as humans, but try building a mechanism that does the same thing!”