Pendular is a collaborative piece that I developed with Marcel Wang as part of the ITP's NIME class.
We are naturally drawn to observing movements such as a balloon flying into the sky, or a pendulum swinging in perfect time. These motions give us a glimpse into the infinite interconnected variables that make up our reality. They captivate us in their seeming randomness (when there are too many variables to model) or their predictability (when the system can be accurately represented with mathematical functions). Observing such phenomena provides us with a moment of meditative peace and contemplation, not unlike the feeling you get when listening to music you love. In our interactive musical system Pendular, we draw a connection between these two sensibilities. The work introduces a method of translating the invisible forces around us into the sonic realm, in an effort to inspire imagination and memory through movement and sound.
Pendular's interface consists of two objects — a circle and a cube — suspended from above. As they swing and spin through the air, their movements are tracked by sensors and interpreted as sonic transformations. The geometric primitives — differing in material and weight — highlight the range of expression allowed by the system while also visually representing how sound can be decomposed into simple waveforms. A custom Max/MSP program allows the performer(s) to dynamically map the incoming data to parameters in Ableton Live. We designed the technology to be as non-intrusive as possible, allowing both performer and audience to focus on the interaction.
Our performance with the interface is structured around the delicate power dynamic between human and natural forces. The musical arrangement reflects this relationship in its combination of organic and inorganic sounds: the disc modulates effects on live vocals while the cube affects the timbre of a synthesizer. We begin by establishing the link between motion and sound: we manipulate the two objects in a predictable manner: pushing, rotating, and shining lights on them in dialogue with the music. We speak lyrics inspired by laws of physics such as Newton's First Law (An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion…) and the Law of Conservation of Energy (The total energy in an isolated system remains constant…).
As the performance progresses, we relinquish control and allow natural forces to dictate the narrative. We start using a fan to move the objects. As we adjust the source, direction, and strength of the wind, the trajectory of each object becomes increasingly random and unpredictable. We also activate hanging light sources that shine on the objects as they move in the wind. As our voices — each speaking a different language — blend into an abstract soundscape and the synth sound becomes wild and atonal, our performance then becomes more about responding to the motion than triggering it.
Through this exchange of roles, Pendular describes not just the natural movement that we see, but also how our mind oscillates between different states, and how the relationships between people, technology, and nature are constantly changing in response to each other.
Poem by Zairan Liu