26 September 2023

Making music more accessible

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Alon Ilsar* says a new wave of digital “gestural” instruments aims to address the underrepresentation of practising musicians with a disability in the Australian music industry.

Australians with a disability face significant barriers to making a career from music.

Almost 20 per cent of Australians – that’s 4.5 million people – identify as living with a disability, the overwhelming majority stating the main form as physical.

But in the world of music, only 7 per cent of the 15,400 practising musicians in Australia live with disability.

This unusually low figure is at odds with the fact Australians with disability are more than twice as likely to give money to the arts, and are more likely to acknowledge the positive impacts of the arts – nearly 70 per cent say the arts have a “big” or “very big” impact on their sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Further, 19 per cent of Australians with disability – almost one million people – already play a musical instrument, compared with only 15 per cent of other Australians.

Acoustic instruments have their limitations

Why are Australian musicians with disability so underrepresented in the music industry as practising musicians?

One of the main barriers is the instruments themselves, with nearly all musicians with physical disability settling for a traditional acoustic instrument that may not be ideal for their creative practice.

Acoustic instruments maintain an inherent and unyielding link between movement and sound, and were principally designed to facilitate virtuosic performances by musicians without physical disability.

Now, a new wave of digital “gestural” instruments that use motion sensors give us the opportunity to reimagine and reinvent the connection between human movement and sound in ways that couldn’t be conceived in the design of traditional acoustic instruments.

The slightest physical movement can be converted into loud, thunderous drums, virtual strings can be plucked out of thin air, and the art forms of dance and music-making can become one.

Disability itself, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society.”

Enter the AirSticks

At Monash University, a team of musicians, engineers and disability advocates at the University’s SensiLab have developed AirSticks 2.0.

As the name suggests, the instrument is in its second iteration.

The original AirSticks, which I co-invented with computer programmer Mark Havryliv in 2013, relied on off-the-shelf virtual reality (VR) controllers.

The controllers were far from ideal for music performance, as they were essentially repurposed plastic gaming controllers wired to a hub.

They did provide us with motion data that allowed the triggering and manipulation of sound through invisible “triggering planes” or by pressing buttons on the controllers.

This led to a very expressive gestural instrument that extended the metaphor of playing an electronic drum kit with trigger pads much further, giving the performer full control over every nuance of the sound; the timing, length and character of the sound could be changed depending on how and where strikes were made.

The original AirSticks were used in hundreds of performances, including the Vivid Sydney festival, TedXSydney and on Triple J’s Like a Version.

However, the instrument remained relatively inaccessible to the broader community, with the controllers themselves being commercially discontinued, and the triggering system being difficult to master.

A ground-up rebuild

The AirSticks 2.0 gave SensiLab researchers Sam Trolland, Elliott Wilson, Professor Jon McCormack, Ciaran Frame and myself the opportunity to redesign and build the instrument from the ground up, creating hardware that would allow the instrument to be completely wireless and attachable to drumsticks, forearms or gloves.

Other considerations included low latency (for the overall “delay” between movement and sound generation to be kept to an imperceivable minimum), plug-and-play functionality (to allow data to be immediately accessible for integration within existing digital instruments), and to be fully configurable (giving control over the calibration of the data received for customisation).

But, if an instrument is played only in a lab and no one’s there to hear it, does it really exist?

Melbourne is buzzing with grassroots music movements, with several inclusive music groups giving voice to artists with disabilities.

Through forming relationships with Jolt Arts, Safe in Sound, BoilOver and yourDNA, we’ve been able to “ecologically validate” our research in public performances and workshops, with artists with disabilities guiding the creative process that in turn informs the technology.

Using dance to communicate ideas

One of these artists, dancer and poet Dr Melinda Smith, has been promoting the health and wellbeing outcomes of dance for people with disability for 30 years.

‘‘I use dance and movement to communicate ideas and experiences that cannot be conveyed by words alone, so to combine movement with sound and text, and have the technology from SensiLab to do this with so much expression and transparency, is a match made in heaven.”

Dr Smith, who lives with cerebral palsy, brings her own creative practice to the development of the AirSticks 2.0.

In focusing on a performance output with the instrument, and through interviewing and just “hanging out” and getting to know each other’s values and ideas for what our next piece might look and sound like, we’re not led by the technology, but by our creativity and passion to move and inspire an audience.

The low-latency nature of the instrument allows Dr Smith to communicate with immediacy and expressivity.

The plug-and-play ability allows her to explore different instruments quickly, noting which provoke further fine-tuning, and the configurability of the instrument allows her to change the way her movements relate to the sound being outputted.

In collaboration with music researcher Dr Anthea Skinner and disability advocate Libby Price, and with the support of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Arts and Disability Mentorship Initiative a new work has been added to Dr Smith’s repertoire.

But also, the insights gained from creating the piece go back into the overall design of the instrument.

Finally, a return to the live stage

After a long enforced hiatus from live performances due to COVID-19, the AirSticks project is now in full flight through several new collaborations with musicians and dancers living with and without disability, each at different stages of their creative practice.

In the latest SensiLab collaboration in development, the audience is invited to join professional musicians and dancers on stage with AirSticks, blurring the line between listening and playing, and highlighting that everyone has a right to participate in music-making.

*Alon Ilsar, Research Assistant, SensiLab, Faculty of IT at Monash University.

This article first appeared at lens.monash.com.

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