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Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Sound Producing Circuits

A few people have expressed interest in checking out my MFA thesis on women in electronic instrument design. It is on UMI ProQuest in open access, so you can download and read it in full. I’m still sort of traumatized from the whole process of writing it, and it veers dangerously close to becoming a feminist rant at times (not sorry).

Anyway, here’s a LINK.

Optical Sound Subversion

The development of optical sound recording for either independent playback or accompaniment with film in the early 20th century resulted in a number of experiments with synthetic and graphically generated sound. In Russia and the Soviet Union, simultaneous development of various methods of graphical and ornamental sound proliferated throughout the late 1920s and through the 1930s up until the beginning of WWII. The ANS Synthesizer, developed in 1938 by Evgeny Murzin in Moscow, generated sound through the electronic translation of light moving across an etched glass panel. In Germany, experiments with drawn and ornamental sound took place from the early 1930s onward.

Following WWII, the work of Norman McLaren with the support of the National Film Board of Canada continued development of his graphical sound techniques in accompaniment with hand-drawn animation. The Oramics Machine, designed by Daphne Oram in the UK and realized with the expertise of engineer Graham Wrench, utilized ten film painted film strips positioned above an array of photoelectric cells to control various sound parameters. Experiments with sound-on-disk optical sound based instruments and film sound-sync systems–such as the Optigan, the Welte Light-Tone, and the “Singing Keyboard”–utilized principles of optical sound recording and playback, are also relevant to this discourse.

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Physical Computing and Interactive Art

The increasing availability of low cost and open source physical computing technology enables artists or creators to elegantly utilize previously unavailable or overly complex forms of data, while additionally casting the artist or creator as technologist and engineer. Physical computing relies on microcontroller embedded systems to utilize sensors and other physical data in interactive digital systems, expanding human-computer interfaces vastly beyond their original conventions. New media and interactive telecommunications curricula are being introduced at many levels of education and academia; microcontrollers like Arduino and single board computers like Raspberry Pi have become familiar household names as the Maker Movement proliferates technology, art, and culture.  The efficacy of this and related hardware grows smaller, more affordable, powerful, and well documented.

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Mills College Signal Flow 2015: Days 2 and 3

Friday and Saturday went very well at Signal Flow. I spend the day on Friday going through my code to see if I could get things running more consistently and managed to figure out a workaround. The Timer library for Arduino ended up being the answer to my woes, and I was able to set up a signal to be sent to Processing at set intervals in order to keep the videos active when the board wasn’t touched awhile.

I also made some fliers to get people in the door, since the installation is so far removed from the music building and other Signal Flow festivities. L and I put them up all over campus and they definitely did the trick.




Lots of people came through and stayed awhile to stare at the weather balloon. I switched up the videos a lot yesterday to make sure it was always pretty fresh. My friend came to document everything and filmed for a good hour or so, so I’ll have plenty of good material to work with. People were really interested in the balloon and the projections, and I had SuperCollider throwing out my binary sequences as well as a semi-randomized pattern for my retrigger signal from Arduino. I pointed the speakers at the walls on either side of the room and it spatialized nicely. Most of the frequencies I used were harmonically related so they resonated nicely with each other in the room and it became very immersive. It was interesting talking with people about the history of the Ouija board and Spiritualism, and about early Electronic music and the Occult (some interesting connections there). A few groups used the Ouija board to ask some questions and had fun with the answers. One lady asked it when her granddaughter would be born, which I thought was sweet.

The new code worked so well that I was even able to leave everything unattended for a couple of hours to go watch everyone’s performances! That was an exciting change, as I had mostly been babysitting the installation in case things froze up. The tricky thing is that the capacitance threshold seems to be well calibrated to my body but not all bodies, so some people had a harder time triggering the letters. The fact that each letter has a different threshold is also not entirely helpful. I am going to spend some time after this weekend testing each individual point and calibrating everything individually, as well as setting an integer range as an output so I can use the board as a MIDI controller with Max MSP and Ableton.

Mills College Signal Flow 2015: Day One!

Yesterday was the first day of Signal Flow (and the day I was finally allowed into the space I am using to setup my installation)! It was definitely an interesting setup. I had a buddy help me move the ladder but the rest was all me. It took something like 12 hours but everything is working.

So, what is “everything”? Short answer:

Exploring the realm that separates and connects matter and spirit, American Spiritualism is a tradition rooted in material artifacts and superstition. The Ouija board is an object that conjures both fear and hope: that we can reach beyond matter to find that which has been lost– or forgotten. Interpreted as both parlor game and ritual, what can a talking board reveal about our memories, our regrets, and the American dream?

An interactive touch sensitive Ouija board that triggers 16mm found footage projected onto an 8 foot weather balloon suspended from the ceiling and plays binary representations of each letter, number, symbol, or word as sound patterns.

The long answer:

I built a larger than standard sized Ouija board out of wood, hand painted the letters with homemade conductive ink, tapped copper nails through the board, soldered onto them, hooked each letter, number, symbol, and word up to an individual pin of an Arduino Mega 2560, a 10M resistor, plus a common pin. There is also a ground bus consisting of copper tape along the edges and center of the interior of the board. I wrote Arduino code to measure the capacitance levels on each pin and to send a character representing each touch point to Processing if that capacitance is over a certain threshold. Arduino also measures the time that has passed alongside a set interval of 50 seconds to trigger a video if the interface is left untouched for a certain time.

Whenever Processing receives a character, it is then tested against a  series of conditions to trigger a corresponding video clip from an array and play that video on loop until a new condition is met. In addition to the video trigger, Processing also sends an OSC message to SuperCollider when a character matches yet another condition, and SuperCollider plays a pattern consisting of two frequencies or pitches representing 0 and 1 in a binary representation of each letter, number, symbol, or word.

All video is found footage from the Prelinger Archives. Mostly 16mm home movies.

I am still playing with my code to see if there is a more elegant way to keep things moving. As is, you have to interact with the interface at least every five minutes or so or the video will stop, probably because the longer the Arduino runs, the less practical it is to measure the elapsed time against my interval.

Anyway, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks, preparation, construction, and setup.



An elaborate clamping system that eventually resulted in the most symmetrical wood working I have ever achieved. My previous attempts include only a very wobbly step stool that I made in 6th grade, and that my mom still makes fun of.


First coat of hand painted conductive letters.


After first clear coat. Fun fact: you can paint over conductive paint and still maintain a connection between the surface and paint. This is probably useful to know.

First shot at wiring.


With ground bus implemented. I rewired the entire resistor board after this because I was unhappy with how untidy and potentially problematic it was.


With conductive planchette and LED candles.


The weather balloon suspended from the ceiling. I made a surprisingly effective four point hanging system that is adjustable from a platform in the rafters accessible by ladder.


A more artsy shot of the board.


Some unknown ladies having a fun time on a trolley at some unknown amusement park. All of the footage used is from the Prelinger Archives. I found a bunch of really fascinating 16mm home movies from the 1930s through the 1980s or so. Lots of really beautifully decaying and forgotten family vacations and moments.

About 7 people saw the installation yesterday before I got too tired and went home to go to bed because I had to be at work today at 8am. Back to it tonight!

Women in Electronic Instrument Design

I am compiling a list of people to contact or research for my thesis. Here’s what I have so far (presented in no particular order). Instruments are differentiated by whether the design in question produces sound signal through any means. Interfaces are designs which serve to control, trigger, or process sound from external sources. This list includes instruments based in both hardware and software which produce or control sound. For individuals with extensive work, I have not included all instruments or interfaces, but rather those which seemed particularly notable. Some names are included with no further details, as specific details of their designs are particularly hard to locate still (feel free to message me if you have more information on their work or if you know of other who should be included here). I encourage you to email me (cstamper (at symbol) mills (dot) edu) if you have any insights!
  • Jessica Rylan

(Flower Electronics)

Instruments: Little Boy Blue, Jealous Heart, Battery Powered Noise Generator, Personal Synthesizer.

  • Amanda Ghassaei:

Instruments: ambient synthesis, glitchbox, vocal effects box,

Interfaces: multitouch, sugarcube

  • Kaori Suzuki:

(Magic Echo Music)

Instruments: GEM MKII, Palette, Palette V2, CEM8

Interfaces: CICCS (Custom Interface for Computer Controlled Serge)

  • Carla Scaletti

Instruments: Kyma

  • Lori Napoleon:


Repurposed telephone switchboard interfaces and instruments. Circuit bent electronics/ MFOs circuits,

Instruments: voice changer, comb filter oscillator, synthesizer

Interfaces: sequencer

  • Laetitia Sonami:

Interfaces: Lady’s Glove

  • Laurie Spiegel:

Instruments: Music Mouse

  • Ellen Fullman:

Technically not electronic, but the design process alone merits inclusion in this research, along with collaboration with electronics.

Instruments: Long String Instrument

  • Cynthia Webster:

Instruments: Zeroscillator, Sawtooth Animator,

Interfaces: Synthacon Filter, Super Psycho LFO, Rhythmic and Prime Dividers, Four Filters, Octal VCA

  • Laurie Anderson:

It should be noted that, while Anderson clearly had a hand in the design process, the electronic circuitry and construction of these instruments was primarily the work of Bob Bielecki

Instruments: Tape Bow Violin

Interfaces: Talking Stick

  • Björk Guðmundsdóttir:

Instruments commissioned for Biophilia.

Instruments: Gameleste, Musical Tesla Coils

(A Guide to Björk’s Custom Biophilia Instruments)

  • Christina Kubisch

Instruments: Electrical Walks, Sound Sculptures

  • Kaffe Matthews

Interfaces: Sonic Bed

  • Daphne Oram:

Instruments: Oramics System

  • Pauline Oliveros: 

Instruments: Expanded Instrument System, Adaptive Use Musical Instruments

  • Brenda Hutchinson

Instruments: Long Tube, Soundrawing

  • Frankie Mann

Designs and constructs electronic instruments and sound producing circuits. More information needed.

  • Ute Wasserman

Polyphonic vocal processing and harmonic generation. Unsure of means.

  • Krys Bobrowski

Again, hard to find info. I was able to find some information about her acoustic instrument designs, including a Kelp Horn, but little else was available. She mentions electronics design in interviews.

  • Bebe Baron

Little information is available on her involvement in the design process or construction. It’s clear that Louis was the primary designer of circuits, but it’s rumored that Bebe herself played a larger part in the design process than generally assumed. 

  • Holly Herndon

Vocal processing/ generative synthesis. Unsure of means.

Working Against the Silencing of Women Sound Artists: Wikipedia Editing

My pet project for the last few months has been editing the List of Female Electronic Musicians on the English Wikipedia site. It’s been somewhat of an uphill battle and there was definitely a learning curve. I found it disheartening to see so few names on the list, especially when I was first starting in synthesis and electronics. As I’ve gotten deeper into the world of music technology and sound art, I’ve discovered that the lack of female representation in the field isn’t necessarily due to the lack of artists. There are lists of female artists and composers scattered around the internet, but they are harder to find than the wiki page (I’ve linked a few of my favorite articles and lists at the bottom of this post).It’s not unusual to be the only woman in the room in audio or music technology, which can be a very discouraging experience. Having role models working in the genres and fields of your interest is a crucial part of breaking down the social barriers preventing women, trans, and gender variant individuals from being involved in music technology and media.

This issue is very important to me because I’ve often been the only woman in the room. The most frustrating part of this experience for me has been that I am seemingly not really allowed to talk about it. Editing the wiki page felt complicated and sort of wrong on some level because I felt like I was adding to the “female” as a genre problem. The playing field is not yet level but there is resistance to being othered or classified by gender. But I thought back to those times when I was alone and surrounded by men, and I thought of all the women I know who are afraid to start or who have been pushed away from music technology because of the constant micro-aggressions encountered in the process of working. I wanted people to have access to role models, because I remembered how important finding positive role models was for me when I felt isolated in my work.

I am currently enrolled in the MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media at Mills College, while working part time as a Music Lab Technician at a school in the city. Mills College’s Undergraduate programs are all female/trans/gender neutral, and the Graduate programs are open to all genders. About 8-10 people are admitted to the EMRM MFA every year, and I am currently one of three women. I am the only female lab tech in my department at work. All of this is to say, that despite my constant curiosity and enthusiasm for music technology and sound, I often feel isolated and frustrated. I know for certain that I am not alone in this feeling.

So the Wikipedia page was just like a kick to the gut every time I looked at it, and I was determined to change that. When I started editing there was barely a page worth of artists, and now there’s over 200. I put out a call to a few groups on Facebook to add artists they saw missing too. Along the way there have been a couple of admins that have fought against the changes made to the page, removing artists on the grounds that they were “non-notable” and adding a “notability” clause in the header. This seems innocent enough at face value, but their conditions for notability were seemingly impossible to attain and very vaguely defined. For instance, if the individual in question was in a “notable” band but did not possess a page of their own, they were removed. Even artists WITH pages were removed  (I had to add Clara Rockmore and Ruth White about 4 times). I started making pages for artists who did not have their own and adding them. I was adamant about maintaining the page and re-adding artists for weeks on end. Eventually things started to stick.

This is just the beginning. More artists need pages created for them so they can be amended to the list, and there are certainly artists I don’t know about or have overlooked (I’m only one human). If you can think of any other artists to add, I encourage you to do, and to make pages for artists as well. I only hope that this page will bring attention to the hard work of oft overlooked artists while providing a glimmer of hope to individuals just getting started (or struggling along the way).

Here are some of my favorite sites and lists highlighting the work of female artists:




Nord NM in OS X 10.9

Hey friends! So I still get a ton of traffic on my posts about troubleshooting connection errors in Java with the Nord Modular. I have since moved away to grad school and have no had access to the Nord (except briefly in December), so I apologize that I haven’t posted any other solutions or clues. I do still check up forums to see if anyone else has come up with anything, and it seems it is possible to get the G1 editor working in Mac OS 10.9! Or so it seems. I am interested to see if I can try it out when I go visit my alma mater in a couple weeks.

Anyway, there is hope, and I’ve seen quite a bit of documentation both on forums and on youtube of others getting the G1 editor to work with OS X Mavericks… So, if you are still chasing the elusive Nord Modular editor, give that a look. Here is one video I found of someone’s working editor in 10.9

Will hopefully be posting further updates on this in the near future. Wouldn’t it be nice though??

Exploratorium Resonance!

Exploratorium Resonance!

I am very honored to have a track featured on the Exploratorium’s Resonance project blog! The banjo body resonance SuperCollider composition I produced last Fall is among a handful of other incredible pieces of sound art chosen to be featured as part of a collection of new and strange sound and music.

For more sounds, check out my soundcloud. I currently perform under the name Makahiya (which is a plant that closes up when touched).