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Felix Thorn's robotic musical machine + World's Most Amazing Musical robots

ab020A mechanical music machine, built from bits of old piano and driven by computer, was the star exhibit in the BA Sound Arts and Design show at London College of Communication. Built by third year student Felix Thorn (21) it resembles an eccentric Heath Robinson-  type invention with an array of hammers, keys and dampers – all taken from an old upright piano. He has also added drums, a glockenspiel and other percussion instruments. The whole construction is connected to a computer which sends signals to set the keys in motion to create a sound, described by Felix as “a music box on drugs”. As each hammer strikes a key it also activates a light (through light emitting diodes) which creates a magical sensation when seen in the dark.

Felix has been making computer-sequenced music ever since he was 12, producing sounds in a wide range of musical styles including meditation, spiritual, dance music, jazz and classical, but primarily electronic. In the second year of his course he constructed a mechanically-driven sequence built from clocks and great motors that controlled a keyboard – something he calls a “sound sculpture”. Recently, he has been working with film makers and animators creating music for film. He also produces music for EMI’s sound library KPM Music. His prime interest is in the fusion between audio and visual material.

He says:

What I have created is something that produces natural sounds generated by a computer that is visually exciting as well. The result is a machine performer that can evoke emotion.

Felix Machines are, mostly likely, what many an electronic musician may have dreamed of at some point while glued to a monitor screen. A mechanical ensemble containing piano parts and drums is driven through solenoids, springs and motors. Each movement of the robotic band is augmented with a flicker of light – a key is hit and the spark of light occurs simultaneous. In whole the experience is a practical implementation of syneasthetic theory – be sure to check out this video of the machine in action. The compositions are reminiscent of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, partly because of timbre and partly through the use of highly metered rhythms - the connection with music boxes and mechanical pianos is, of course, also implicit.

Felix Thorn  creates musical sculptures. With a background in fine arts and sculpture, an overriding love of electronic, breakcore and experimental music, and an intensely creative spirit, Felix builds machines that embody aspects of the mechanical and digital, creating music which is both acoustic and synthesized, as well as visually and aurally interesting. Not to mention beautiful.

Musical pieces are created with Apple's Logic Studio and sometimes Bidule (made by Canadian-based commercial software company Plogue Arts and Technology) and the sculptures are scavanged from a variety of sources and musical instruments (eg: an old piano, guitars, drums, an old shoe polisher brush, a towel rack...). Thorn also incorporates LED lights into his sculptures that flash on and off in time with various beats.

Parts of Felix's Machines frequently break, or come undone and this is all part of the natural process. (Sometimes double-sided tape can be a robot's best friend) Thorn, who was born in 1985 and lives in southeast London, UK, continually builds new robots, adds to and revises his existing machines, and is apparently in the process of developing a method of incorporating wind instrument sounds into his mechanical orchestra.

Why go to all this trouble when you could easily play your compositions on a computer and be done with it? Thorn explains that what drives him, is the desire to see music played live, without human intervention, in a way that matches what humans can do, and he does achieve that with his machines. Each note is physically hammered out or plucked and the experience of listening to and seeing the music, feels remarkably warm, human and emotional.

World's Most Amazing Musical robots






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