Day 220: Robot Tuneage

originally published August 7, 2012

Some would claim that music in the 1980s was the ultimate combination of electronic sound and visual spectacle. They might attest that the popularization of music videos, combined with the synthesizer’s mightily shoving of the guitar out of the spotlight is the perfect illustration of this claim. I would disagree. I would make the argument that this marriage of electro-spectacle can best be observed in the laser harp.

Invented by Bernard Szajner in 1981, the laser harp is a great thing to install front and center on your stage in order to let your fans know, “Hey, this is the 80s. We’re in the future, man. Bodacious!” It fires laser lights into the air, which are programmed to correspond with a note. When the performer’s hand blocks a light beam, its corresponding note blares through the speakers.

Sure, it’s just a synth sound, and you can probably achieve the same results for a lot less money by picking up a used Roland Jupiter-8 or even a keytar if you want to incorporate some dance moves. But where’s the wow-factor?

French new-age and electronic music pioneer Jean Michael Jarre appears to be the name most solidly tied to the laser harp. He still uses it at most of his shows, though I can’t help but wonder if it’s time to one-up this act. Maybe if he could invite Hologram-Tupac on stage to swipe his hands at the lasers, then we’d have a show.

If the laser harp fails to propel your feet onto the dance floor, perhaps you’d be better served by listening to something from the robot flatulence genre. For that I’d recommend the kraakdoos, or Cracklebox. It’s a box with six metal contacts on top, which can be connected to wires and played by contact with human skin. Here’s a sampling.

If you didn’t follow the link, what you missed was a series of electronic cracks, gloops, and squeaks, similar to what you’d imagine R2D2’s debut experimental free-form jazz album might sound like. The catch with the Cracklebox is that its sounds are dependent on the electronic circuit being formed when a human touches the wires. This means that different people will produce different sounds. That’s fascinating, but it kills any chance of covering “Freebird” on the thing, so let’s move on.

You’re probably familiar with the theremin. That’s the stick-shaped electronic instrument that makes a tone with continuous pitch, varied by the proximity of the player’s hand to the instrument. You’ve heard a theremin in virtually every sci-fi movie pre-Star Wars, as well as in the chorus of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”. But you’ve probably never heard the Croix Sonore.

Developed by avant-garde Russian composer Nikolai Obukhov and constructed in France, the Croix Sonore is very similar in concept to the theremin, except it’s in a cross-shape, and its internal electro-guts are contained within a glass ball at the base. The funky star design at the center of the cross is, I assume, merely an aesthetic enhancement to make the instrument look less Jesus-died-on-one-of-these-ish.

Obukhov came up with the instrument in 1918, six years before Leon Theremin’s demonstration of his toy. The Russian composed a number of duet and ensemble pieces for the Croix Sonore, but I couldn’t find much of it on Youtube. Here’s a piece concocted by Obukhov; I’m sure the Croix Sonore is scattered throughout the entire thing, but you can really pick it out about 30 minutes in. Unless you’re a huge fan of mostly atonal experimental Russian opera (and really, who isn’t?), you might want to skip ahead.

What looks like a newfangled ergonomic computer keyboard from the set of Battlefield: Earth is actually an electronic instrument called the Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee. Its inventor, Leon Gruenbaum, explains it much more thoroughly than I plan to.

The difference between the Samchillian and a regular synthesizer is that a standard keyboard’s keys correspond to a single, pre-set note. The Samchillian’s keys correspond to intervals. So where you’d have a ‘C-sharp’ and a ‘B-flat’ key on a normal keyboard, on the Samchillian a single key would move you up one interval from your previous note, while another would move you down two intervals, and so on.

In short, you need to be a master of ear-training to play this instrument with any degree of success, which is why it has only found a degree of minor popularity among a small group of incredibly gifted jazz musicians. This is not an instrument for amateurs.

What disappoints me most about the Wikipedia article, as well as the official Samchillian page, is that I can’t find an explanation for the bizarre full name of the thing. Maybe it’s somewhere in that 13-minute video. I only have so much time to dig.

The instruments I’ve listed so far have generally played to limited audiences. For a shining example of electro-wow success, look no further than John Lazelle’s Blaster Beam. The Blaster Beam is 12 to 18 feet long, made up of a long metal beam adorned with numerous electric guitar pickups underneath a series of tensed wires.

The Blaster Beam was improved by a guy named Craig Huxley. Huxley has been a child actor – he had played Captain Kirk’s nephew Peter on an episode of the original Star Trek series. After studying music and developing his own version of the Blaster Beam, he was tapped to perform the instrument on the soundtrack of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This was a good launch to Huxley’s music career; he later played most of the keyboards on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.

The Blaster Beam found its way onto a number of sci-fi soundtracks, including Star Trek II (the original one, not the one they’re working on now), 2010, and The Black Hole. More recently it served as the sound of the seismic charge used by Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II.

If sci-fi score permeation doesn’t impress you, perhaps you could flip back a couple days when I wrote about masturbation and see if this instrument can help set the mood. A concert in New York’s Central Park sometime in the early 1990s featured a Blaster Beam, and several women claimed to have been sexually stimulated by the growling bass notes of the Beam. An Australian radio station tried to simulate this effect, but had no luck. I strongly encourage my readers to do the same, and let me know what happens.

Me, I’ll be in my basement, working on my keytar moves.

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