Swinging Variations 1-6

– 30 minute performance with self-made instruments
– Bachelor graduation project
– ArtScience Interfaculty
– Exhibited at the KABK Graduation show 2022

This project showcases 6 self-built musical instruments which are left to swing freely and express their own patterns of sound and movement. Each one is made using a simple combination of shapes and materials. Through these 6 variations, I hope to gain new insights into the physical and musical phenomena of swinging.

Conventional histories of swinging mechanisms start with Galileo's pendulum experiments in the 16th century, and his discovery that pendulums swing at a near constant frequency. This was followed by the invention of the pendulum clock, which became the world's most precise timekeeper until the 1930s. As a result, pendulums have become symbolic of the regular passing of time, and even the idea of the universe as a vast natural clock which ticks according to the laws of physics.

In contrast, I have chosen to explore the ancient swinging mechanisms which existed before Galileo and pendulum clocks. These alternative devices are irregular, asymmetrical, or erratic, and as a result, they structure our perception of time in new ways. For instance, speeding up/slowing down time with oscillations, segmenting our temporal experience with sparse patterns, or allowing us to experience micro time-scales by using very fast rhythms. Each mechanism brings its own kind of temporal logic, and encourages us to move away from the regular passing of clock time and towards new and unfamiliar temporal experiences.

What can we learn about time by listening to these instruments?

Fig. 1-2
Snapshots from live performances

Fig. 3-6
Individual instrument behaviours
Starting Points

Fig. 7-9
Sketching imaginary instruments
Fig. 10-12
Observing interactions between instruments
For 7 months, I was actively engaged in instrument making.

In the morning, I would wake up and draw different materials and shapes. Later, I would actually build the instrument, listen how it sounded, and use this as a basis for more sketches. I would describe this as a kind of material thinking: concepts form through hands-on experimentation.
I will describe my central reference points below. For more, please see my publication Mechanical Musical Instruments.


1. Definition of a musical instrument.

Ludwig Bielawski's definition was the most relevant because of its emphasis on the transfer of energy:

"A musical instrument is a transformer of motion into sound." (Bielawski quoted by Marko Aho, 2016,29).

Fig. 15
Shishi-odoshi - a water powered animal scarer from Japan. Its tempo comes from volume of the pipe and the flow of water running into it.
Fig. 13
Steve Reich - pendulum music
2. Embedded theories of knowledge

In Davis Baird's book Thing Knowledge, he argues that scientific tools embody certain kinds of material knowledge which is complimentary (and essential) to theoretical knowledge. Baird's writing provides an epistemological framework for thinking about messy hands-on instrument building practices.

"[if] instruments were simply instantiations of ideas, one could easily argue that knowledge is fundamentally a matter of ideas... This is not how it is. Materials and ideas are both necessary [for knowledge]." (Baird, 2004, 88)

3. Instruments as compositions

In instrument building and hacking cultures, a shift can be observed from composing music towards designing instruments which compose their own music. Within these cultures, it makes most sense to think about instruments as musical systems.

"The instrument often becomes a piece in itself ... the musical score is decentralised and the instrument or system takes up its former position." (Magnusson 2019,182).

4. Rediscovery

In the 1974 album and publication New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments (Fig. 14), David Toop and Max Eastly present tutorials for making DIY instruments. Rediscovery is present in all low-tech material practices, as a methodology as well as an epistemological atitude.

"SONURGY (from the Latin SON, meaning sound, and from the Greek OURGOS, meaning working). It is the synthesis of the simultaneous study of kinetic art, music and musical instruments." (Eastly, New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments 1974)

5. Musicality of emergent phenomena

Writing 28 years later, David Toop describes the movements of mechanical instruments as having natural emergent musical properties.

"As resonant or amplified solids move and interact, activated by unpredictable systems, the patterns of sound they create take on the drama of natural emergent phenomena." David Toop (2002,125)
Fig. 14
New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments
Fig. 16
Some bells are so heavy that the player is barely able to swing them.

It seems as if they is being played by instrument, rather than the other way round. As a result, the bell's musical capacities (e.g. how many swings per minute) are mostly determined by its size and weight.
Most of my instruments (Fig. 17) were constructed based on sketches. Others were pre-owned instruments from Ebay, often found in garage sales or inherited from family members.
Fig. 20
This instrument sonifies knot data. By tying knots at different points on a string, it is possible to specify a sequence of events. When the string is pulled through this instrument, it makes a 'Dinngg...' at each knot, creating a rhythmic loop.
Fig. 19

Fig. 18
Swinging constructions using an retired Foucault pendulum the Delft University of Technology.
Fig. 17
Self made and acquired mechanical instruments
Some instruments worked better in participatory rhythm workshops rather than solo performances.

In May 2022, I ran a workshop using the Clickers at Het HEM, Amsterdam (Fig. 21-22).
Fig. 21-22
Clickers are made from hardened steel balls, which create a sharp CLICK when they collide. Given practice, it is possible for a group to totally synchronise.
Fig. 23-26
Participation and live performance