Updated: Mar 17
By Jayson Kerr Dobney
Every musical instrument starts as an idea. Someone has a creative spark to make a new sound or improve on an old one and this can lead in many directions. It seems obvious, but some instruments become such a part of our daily life that it can be forgotten that they all start with someone's creativity. I was reminded of this fundamental truth recently when I attended the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta on March 6th and 7th.
First held in 2009, this competition has become enormously successful, with some past entrants having gone on to become commercial products. This year, more than one hundred inventors from twenty countries applied to the competition in hopes of becoming a finalist that got to travel to Atlanta to present their instruments to a panel of judges and compete for three cash prizes. On March 7th, nine finalists presented their instruments in a showcase performance in front of a packed auditorium of more than 1500 spectators on the campus of Georgia Tech. Here are some of my notes and thoughts about the finalists presented there.
First Prize: ElectroSpit
Instrument Inventor Bosko demonstrates the neck-worn ElectroSpit activated by his iPhone
The 2020 First Prize winner, as well as the audience favorite (voted on by attendees at the event itself) was the ElectroSpit Mobile Talkbox. Those familiar with a traditional talkbox know that it is an effect that allows a performer to modify the sound of an electric guitar or keyboard with effects from the human voice. The first instrument of this type was used by the pioneering electric guitarist Alvino Rey in 1939. Later examples that were more widely available included a tube that had to be inserted into a player's mouth. Due to this awkwardness, the instrument was more commonly found in recording studios than on stages. The inventors of the ElectroSpit, have created an updated talk box with a device that can be comfortably worn around the neck (No Tubes) and shared. It is also wireless and can be used with an electric guitar, keyboard, or directly from an iPhone as was demonstrated at the event. To have a better understanding of the ElectroSpit check out this video promotion of the instrument.
Second Prize: MEMO/MOVE Second prize was awarded to Krzysztof Cybulski of Warsaw, Poland and his musical instrument named MEMO/MOVE. The instrument uses three motorized faders that allow a performer to easily create loops and to visually see the sequences of those loops. As the faders function as midi-controllers, there are endless possibilities for the types of sounds that MEMO/MOVE can create. Here is a video that shows how the instrument can be used:
Third Prize: the Svampolin
Third place was awarded to Laurel S. Purdue from Belfast and her instrument the Svampolin. The instrument has a traditional acoustic violin body, giving it the sound of an acoustic violin. The instrument is augmented with digital sound capabilities (there is a computer inside the body) allowing for the effects capable with an electric violin.
The instrument also has an auto tune function that is intended for young violinists to use as they develop their ability to play with good intonation.
Other Finalists (in no particular order):
Ork. 1 The largest instrument was actually a set of instruments that were all powered by a single person at an electric keyboard with a computer. Invented by Alexandre Berthaud of Rennes, France, the instrument includes a metal idiophone, a hang drum, with several pitches. A set of plucked strings (essentially a harpsichord) and a two-note tubulum (tubes with the end struck to create a pitch). Berthaud wowed the crowd when he switched from using a computer keyboard to using an infrared reader to power his small orchestra by waving his hands in the air.
The Skoog One recurring theme of the competition were instruments that had been developed in order to empower those of different abilities to make music. The Skoog, presented by its co-creator Dr. Benjamin Schogler of Edinburgh, is a "squishy" box with five large buttons that produce the pitches. The instrument can be tuned to a wide variety of scales and with a computer to different instruments and octaves. Most impressively, when connected to Apple Music the instrument will switch keys automatically so that a player can make music along with the music as they listen.
Galaxy Electric Harp
Musician Joe LoSchiavo of Medford, New York is an electric guitarist. He invented this instrument after growing frustrated at hearing electric keyboards try and mimic harp sounds in theater pits. He thought that the guitar, already a plucked stringed instrument, was better suited to creating harp sounds. The result was a twelve-string electric harp that combines the effects of an electric guitar with the true sustain power of a harp. It can be combined with any effects pedal used by guitarists.
The Jamboxx David Whalen of Albany, New York was paralyzed in a skiing accident when he was 19 years old. A passionate lover of music, he found that he was able to play the harmonica, but it lacked the variety of sounds that he desired. The Jamboxx is a breath controlled midi device that provides a performer with the ability to play with any scale and sound they want.
Stretchi Hugh Aynsley of London presented his invention called Stretchi. The construction is similar to a trough zither from eastern Africa. Stretched across the trough are five rubber "strings" that are midi devices that control sounds when fed through a computer. The strings can be plucked, pulled, or even held to create sound. The instrument was developed to support those with limited dexterity in order to allow them to become music makers.
The e-Trombone The Guthman competition has grown to encompass a whole range of activities. There is now a music, art, and technology fair in the afternoon of the finalists showcase that allows many participants to present their new instruments, or their research about technology and art. Two weeks before the final showcase, there is also a Hackathon sponsored by Moog also at Georgia Tech. During the Hackathon, students are given 48 to build a musical instrument that must incorporate Moog technology. The winner automatically becomes a finalist in the Guthman Competition.
The Hackathon winner in 2020 was an e-Trombone developed by three students all originally from China. The group included Ruhan Yang now in school in Boulder, Colorado, and Jiewen Wang and Xiangyi Li who are enrolled at Georgia Tech. Their instrument uses wind sensors to activate a Moog Werkstatt. The instrument is made from PVC pipe and other recycled materials and pitch is controlled using a slide, like a trombone, that pulls a sensor attached to fishing line.
I am looking forward to seeing more musical inventions at the Guthman Competition in the future and hope that more AMIS members will start to pay attention to this extraordinary event.
Jayson Kerr Dobney is the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and currently serves as the President of the American Musical Instrument Society.