An electrifying spectacle

Creating visual music using wireless energy has sparked the enthusiasm of staff and students across Victoria.

Tesla coils

On ongoing collaborative project between Victoria University’s School of Design, School of Engineering and Computer Science and Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music is investigating the sonic properties of Tesla coils and robotic instruments.

Tesla coils, invented by Serbian-American Nickola Tesla in the 1890s, produce highvoltage electricity and have inspired many kinds of research. In 2012, media artist Anne Niemetz, engineer Josh Bailey and sonic artist Dugal McKinnon—who are all Victoria staff members—brought musicians and engineers together to create performances with a Tesla coil known as Pyramider.

Built by Josh and Patrick Herd, an engineering colleague at Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, Pyramider uses a watercooled, computer-controlled, high-voltage transistor to pump out musical two-metre arcs of electricity.

The system rapidly heats the air around the arc; the air moving is what is heard as sound.

“What’s interesting is that the air around the arc is constantly changing, so the sound you hear is slightly different each time—even if the same note is played,” says Josh.

“We are exploring musical compositions specifically intended to be played on a coil—taking advantage of the coil sound, rather than just playing a cover of an existing composition.”

The project has grown into an experimental playground for science and arts, and now includes engineers, contemporary composers, designers and artists.

Made up of lecturers and students with an interest in industrial arts and high voltage, the group is one of only a few worldwide exploring the Tesla coil as an instrument for producing contemporary music.

Blake Johnston, a sonic arts student, developed a customised interface for Pyramider as part of a summer research project, allowing the Tesla coil to be controlled like a music instrument.

Musicians are able to press a key on a synthesizer keyboard and have thecorresponding note play on the coil.

In addition to the Tesla coil, the group has been exploring the sonic properties of robotic instruments such as MechBass—a robotic bass guitar resulting from an Honours project by engineering student James McVay—capable of playing faster than any human on the planet.

The exciting results of these interdisciplinary collaborations were shared with the public at ‘Forks in Sockets’, an annual event organised by the University in September.

“Nikola Tesla may have had other things in mind when he came up with a Tesla coil, but it provides us with an exciting platform for this kind of experimentation and cross-disciplinary collaboration,” says Anne.