At the Guthman Competition, innovative instruments just might predict the future of music

Inventors travel from all over the world for Georgia Tech’s annual event, playing instruments made of everything from toys to lightbulbs
Caleb Byerly
Caleb Byerly and his Salimbaa

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Whispers float in the darkness of an empty auditorium. Feet and metal chair legs scuffle across a wooden stage. The din subsides in a moment of anticipation.

Suddenly, the blackness is sliced open by a short bar of white light emitting a deep, otherworldly buzzing, like an ignited lightsaber. The floating horizontal line dips vertically to the right; the sound’s pitch intensifies. As the bar swings to the left, the tone climbs higher, completing a sort of electronic scale. The shadow of a gloved hand appears to strum the rod, sounding a single, flashing note. Then, a series of notes creates a strobe effect that, to adjusting eyes, barely illuminates a man in a dark hoodie who appears to play the beam like a broomstick guitar. White radiance turns to green to purple to blinking blue and red in a laser-show dance to an alien rock solo of robotic tones. After a frenetic crescendo of beeps, tweets, and bops, the light fizzles and withdraws into darkness.

The house lights go up to a smattering of applause from the two dozen or so people seated onstage in front of Chet Udell, a professor of biological and ecological engineering from Oregon, who has a seemingly ordinary fluorescent bulb hanging from a guitar strap over his shoulder. Udell explains that by using LEDs, some customized software, and more than a little imagination, he converted a shop light into the Optron, the novel musical instrument they just heard. At least 16 members of the gallery appreciate the difficulty of this achievement—as well as its creativity. They, along with Udell, are semifinalists in Georgia Tech’s ninth annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, a Star Wars cantina band-meets-science fair contest that attracts inventors from all over the globe. Participants battle for a $5,000 first prize while providing glimpses of what music might sound like in the future.

“We focus on pushing the envelope of what music can be.”

The annual contest actually began with student performances on a more traditional instrument: the piano. Originally called the Margaret A. Guthman Keyboard Competition, it was launched in 1998 by Tech alum Richard Guthman and named after his wife, a gifted pianist. In 2009, Georgia Tech opened its Center for Music Technology, one of the first of its kind in the world, and the faculty sought a flagship event that could showcase the center’s innovative mission. “We looked at the mirror and asked, ‘Who are we?’” said Gil Weinberg, contest organizer, CMT founding director, and himself a pioneer in the field of robotic musicianship. “We focus on pushing the envelope of what music can be.”

Tech rolled out the rebooted Guthman in 2009. Since then, it has grown to attract submissions from engineers, musicians, students, artisans, and designers in dozens of countries. In 2017, 85 applicants submitted presentations, videos, audio recordings, and schematics of inventions. The faculty then invited 20 semifinalists to come to Atlanta (three were eliminated for visa issues) and demonstrate their instruments before three judges, recruited from different realms of the music industry—performers, academics, and tech-company executives. The panel watching Udell and company consisted of Mike Adams, CEO of Moog Music; Elaine Chew, a professor of digital media from Queen Mary University in London; and Daedelus, a producer and electronic musician.

Each year, the judges observe and query contestants and even try playing the inventions. Then, they winnow the field to seven to nine finalists who perform in a public concert at the Ferst Center. (The 2018 performance will be held March 8 at 7 p.m.) After the show, first, second, and third place divide $10,000 in prize money. A lucky few might even find buyers for their ideas. Previous finalists like the OP-1 portable synthesizer, the Roli Seaboard electric-acoustic keyboard, and the Guitarbot interactive instructional app have all gone on to commercial success.

The judges have an unenviable puzzle to solve. The only entry criteria is crafting a virtual or physical instrument that generates sound acoustically or electronically, an infinite orchestra of possibilities. Udell’s Optron demonstration was followed by fellow semifinalists playing everything from the “Track It/Zip It” vest, wired with sensors that trigger electronic notes and melodic loops, to the primitive, 10-foot-tall Trombo Moderna that was merely wood and two strings modeled after an ancient Scandinavian harp. Amid that cacophony, the judges evaluated three factors—engineering, design, and musicality—and picked the winners.

“You would imagine that the mandate for those three principles would make it kind of easy, especially since there are so many approaches,” Daedelus said. “But if anything, all these different methodologies toward music make it really hard. Plus, you have to balance out what these makers are capable of on their instruments. It’s a musical instrument competition, not a performance competition.”

That distinction proved to be key during the 2017 final concert. The show moved briskly, with all nine finalists staking out risers on the broad Ferst stage, awaiting the spotlight for a few minutes each—a rapid fire variety show emceed by Atlanta radio host Mara Davis, featuring a medley of industrial sounds, techno beats, and Metallica covers. The flow was interrupted when Germany’s Subhraag Singh encountered a software problem with his Infinitone, a futuristic-looking woodwind played partially through an iPad. After some shuffling, he worked out the bugs, skipped his informative spiel, and jumped right into a meditative performance. At the end of the show, despite the snafu, Singh and his sax emerged victorious. “What he didn’t have time to tell everyone was that his instrument has 256 different notes in a scale,” Daedelus said after the show was over and the crowd cleared. “It opens up a realm of possibility that is really significant.”

The auditorium emptied except for the inventors onstage, who gathered to congratulate one another, exchange contact info, and get the address for the after-party. Udell wound up his cables and put away his laptop. The Optron didn’t finish in the money, but Udell’s sci-fi ballet won the audience’s vote for Best Performance. “I feel wonderful,” Udell said. “I’m relieved it’s over. And sad.”

The house lights went off, the stage lights down—the Optron buzzing and glowing in a yellow-green hue until Udell bent down to pull the plug, leaving the stage in shadow.

Meet the 2017 winners:

Akito Van Troyer
Akito Van Troyer and his MM-RT

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Akito Van Troyer: MM-RT

From: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Contest Finish: People’s Choice: Most Unusual

Specs
The Material and Magnet—Rhythm and Timbre (MM-RT) uses magnets and actuators to vibrate circular pads on a console. Van Troyer places small objects or containers of cardboard, glass, or tin filled with knick-knacks on the pulsating pads to create a vast array of rumbling, jangling sounds. Like a DJ, he rotates combinations of jars and boxes to lay out textural percussion using everything from marbles to coins to a balloon.

Backstory
Once he hatched the idea, Van Troyer says he would just walk through dollar stores and tap on items to see how they’d sound. “You can turn everyday objects into musical instruments,” he says.


Subhraag Singh
Subhraag Singh and his Infinitone

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Subhraag Singh: Infinitone

From: Stuttgart, Germany
Contest Finish: First Place

Specs
It looks like a futuristic soprano saxophone, but instead of keys, remote-controlled slides on the top and sides trigger small hobby-helicopter motors on the woodwind. This can produce a range of 256 different notes per octave, as opposed to the 12 typical of Western instruments.

Backstory
Singh says he sought to create an instrument that could enable players to “paint” with the infinite color palette of an artist—limited only by the composer’s imagination.


Somesh Ganesh, Hanoi Hantrakul, and Zachary Kondak
Somesh Ganesh, Hanoi Hantrakul, and Zachary Kondak with their Moog’s Greatest Hits

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Somesh Ganesh, Hanoi Hantrakul, and Zachary Kondak: Moog’s Greatest Hits

From: Atlanta
Contest Finish: Special Award for Most Collaborative Music Making

Specs
A wooden drum box is rigged with a Moog synthesizer that is placed in a cardboard box, which is lifted, lowered, swung, and even tossed between musicians to create a range of sounds that accompany the beat.

Backstory
This entry is the first-place winner from another Tech event, the 2017 Moog Hackathon, in which teams of students are given identical Moog synthesizers and 48 hours to conceive, design, and fabricate the most innovative instrument.


Ly Yang and Zak Seipel
Ly Yang and Zak Seipel with their Lyharp

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Ly Yang and Zak Seipel: Lyharp

From: Platteville, Wisconsin
Contest Finish: People’s Choice: Best Overall Instrument

Specs
A 23-string acoustic-electric harp that is played horizontally with two frets

Backstory
Lyharp has a tuning mechanism that enables it to play all the notes in the chromatic scale, making it especially versatile. Special pickups also trigger preprogrammed accompaniment.


Caleb Byerly
Caleb Byerly and his Salimbaa

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Caleb Byerly: Salimbaa

From: High Point, North Carolina
Contest Finish: Third Place

Specs
The primitive appearance of strings stretched across a wood-topped steel bowl is deceptive. The 36 strings are doubled up, with half the strings played by a mallet while the other half resonate in harmony beneath. Plus, the Salimbaa is chromatically tuned, which means that the player need only turn the instrument a few degrees to change key.

Backstory
Byerly says that the idea of the Salimbaa came to him in a dream while he was doing mission work with the indigenous Manobo in the Philippines. As it turns out, his vision closely resembles an ancient Philippine instrument that had been lost to time. Now, Byerly runs a nonprofit that works with tribal peoples to “redeem” long-forgotten flutes, drums, and stringed instruments.


Takumi Ogata
Takumi Ogata and his Rib Cage

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Takumi Ogata: Rib Cage

From: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Contest Finish: Second place

Specs
An electro-acoustic instrument, the Rib Cage is just that: a spine of aluminum bars lined with 3D-printed plastic “ribs” that can be struck with a mallet or sawed with a violin bow or even a comb to create a range of acoustic sounds.

Backstory
Appropriately, the Rib Cage’s electronics also produce a heartbeat pulse that quickens and subsides with the intensity of the percussion—resulting in a deeply primal musical experience.


Yoshihito Nakanishi
Yoshihito Nakanishi and his Cell Music Gear

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Yoshihito Nakanishi: Cell Music Gear

From: Tokyo, Japan
Contest Finish: Finalist

Specs
A pair of soft 3D trackpads respond to touch and pressure and translate those signals into sound.

Backstory
The instrument can play any genre but is best exemplified when Nakanishi “DJs”—producing a mix of electronic and techno beats.


Erich Netherton
Erich Netherton and the Netherbox

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Erich Netherton: The Netherbox

From: Atlanta
Contest Finish: Finalist

Specs
A wooden acoustic box contains a contact microphone that captures the sounds of the long screws and springs that are plucked, strummed, and struck on top. Netherton creates the percussive sound, records it, and loops it to create a complex piece of music.

Backstory
Netherton is a percussionist, fascinated by all things that can be struck to make a sound. “I walked into Home Depot, bought a bunch of stuff, cut it up, and hit it,” he says.


Chet Udell
Chet Udell and his Optron

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Chet Udell: Optron

From: Albany, Oregon
Contest Finish: People’s Choice: Best Performance

Specs
A shop light, some multicolored LEDs, a complex array of electronics (including a webcam equipped with a motion detector), and a laptop create this straight-out-of-sci-fi instrument that can be played by waving it around, running fingers up and down a sensor, or strumming it like an air guitar.

Backstory
Japanese noise artist Atsuhiro Ito created the first Optron, which was a buzzing fluorescent tube. Udell’s device reminded almost everyone, young and old, of phantom duels with Darth Vader.

This article appears in our March 2018 issue.

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