#BustOutYOW → The Laser Musicbox

It’s perhaps fitting that my last post opened the ‘#BustOutYOW’ project with an ambitious aim ‘to beam your content to the world’ and this post picks up the challenge with a tangible laser-based opportunity.

Christopher Smeenk, a researcher working between the University of Ottawa and
National Research Council within the Joint Lab for Attosecond Science answered my call. His day-to-day work may focus on other areas of laser research, but in his downtime Smeenk has been conceptually and creatively working with the incredible personnel and equipment that these facilities share on a different project.

Born from his desire to ‘merge the sensations of sight and hearing into a single experience’, Smeenk has developed ‘Laser Musicbox’, a laser system that plays music. He has used existing technology and explains that ‘…by focusing a high intensity laser pulse into air,
[he] can simultaneously create both an audible sound wave and colours spanning the entire visible spectrum.’

I encourage you all to read this short introduction to the project, by Smeenk, which explains how the music is made with the laser. It also sets this research within the fields of art and music, and demonstrates how science and art can be an intermingled creative process, aligning well with John Maeda’s ambition to change STEM(Science, Technology, Education & Mathematics) to include an ‘A’ for art and make it STEAM.

Smeenk discusses within his paper how melodies and chords are created with the laser:

‘By controlling the laser repetition frequency, the frequency of sound production can be tuned. By adjusting the laser repetition rate we can play diff erent notes; adjusting the laser intensity controls the volume. Then we can modulate the repetition frequency in time, thereby playing a melody. Modulating and focusing several pulses in parallel will create chords.’

This beautiful diagram, taken from Smeenk’s paper, illustrates how the creation of sound and light are done.

Figure by Christopher Smeenk from 'The Laser Musicbox', : The interaction of the high intensity laser pulse with air molecules simultaneously creates both sound and light. t1 { The laser pulse is be- ginning to focus onto the neutral air molecules (sketched as the coloured circles). t2 { The laser pulse ionizes a fraction of the molecules, temporarily creating a plasma, i.e. a gas of free electrons (sketched in black) and residual positive ions. t3 { The pulse exits the focus. The laser wavelength has been shifted to cover the entire visible spectrum. Meanwhile, the plasma expands away from the focus, creating a shock wave that propagates through the air as sound. Please refer to Smeenk's paper for image and concept details and attributions.

While thinking about the future applications and the creative outcomes of this project I wanted to know if Smeenk would be able to work on his project in a ‘home-made’/DIY lab? Or if he was tied to the NRC lab to develop his research?

C.S. reply/
‘For the time being the work can only be done in an organization with a large research budget. The laser systems are expensive and require a controlled environment (i.e. temperature and humidity) for stable operation.

However, I’m optimistic that will change in the future. Miniaturization is a constant goal for technology. The original lasers occupied a room and could only work a few seconds each day. 50 years later we carry around much more powerful devices in our pockets. I expect the systems used in the lasermusic project will become smaller, more stable and less expensive. Then it may be possible to incorporate such a system into a concert hall or [a] home stereo.’

Having worked within academic institutions for several years I understand the benefits of these networks for both making work and researching it. However, when individuals do not have access to these spaces or networks they are not necessarily limited. Smeenk’s work requires higly precise instruments and it is encouraging to see them being used in new creative ways. He is also right that lasers, and other equipment is becoming smaller and access to it is more achievable. For those working within the realm of physical computing – hackspaces, DIY workshops, and online forums can help to resolve projects. The reality is that Maker Culture is not about being closed off in a basement hacking away at a robot anymore than the old stereotype that artists are always battling their demons, though of course some makers and artists must be. Access to shared information over the internet expands ambition and scope for project ideas which can then lead to greater technical needs, desire for cutting edge materials, equipment and instruments that have traditionally been held within universities or businesses that can support the associated expenses.

A solution to obtaining access to equipment is to join a shared lab like Artengine’s ModLab or prototypeD, in Ottawa. These spaces also and perhaps most importantly host a social workspace similar to what Smeenk has access to, which ultimately aids in the development of work, the pushing of a concept into a new horizon of opportunity, or hosts a space for challenge and dynamic problem solving. Just like Smeenk is able to work with and draw on the knowledge of his fellow staff members the communal research and development spaces mentioned above reflect an important part in how some forms of practice are shifting to embrace collaboration.

And, while in the past perhaps the labs at the NRC have seemed beyond grasp to people who are not tied to them, actually sometimes all we need to do is ask the questions and see what comes of it. I asked to hear from makers, hackers, doers who were ‘…creatively intervening in and engaging with the architecture of our surroundings, that are discussing or revealing public stories –publicly.’ Smeenk shared his research and opened the floor to possible collaborations.

So here is the progression of the #BustOutYOW call?

If you can technically or creatively identify with Smeenk’s work and are a composer or musician who has a piece of music that you think may sound good on a laser or perhaps are creatively interested in light technology please get in touch. The word of warning, is that this may not be an easy ride, it took Smeenk several weeks to develop the work in the video above, but if you are up for a creative challenge then this may be your opportunity.

To get involved please send me an email or find me on twitter @cawsand. I will use the tag #BustOutYOW. I am also interested in hearing from other makers in the city who would like to get involved with #BustOutYow.

*All quoted content above is drawn from email exchange between Christopher Smeenk and I between July & August 2012, and from his paper: ‘The Laser Musicbox

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One Response to “#BustOutYOW → The Laser Musicbox”

  1. […] other artists and sci­ence lab projects did not include in their research­ing goals.(Via a an artengine post which is really worth your time)More music »Contact Me — Twitter– Resources — Favorites […]

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