All Ears

Capsule were invited to curate an exhibition of new works responding to innovations in early music technology, using the Birmingham Museum Trusts archive of Victorian music boxes as a starting point, the exhibition was hosted by Millennium Point.

The mechanisation of sound creation began as soon as technology allowed it. In the 19th century, mechanical musical instruments such as barrel organs, symphonions, orchestrions, euterpeons and miniature music boxes proliferated. Equally marvelled at and loathed for their tinny, repetitive reproductions of classical pieces and show-tunes, these programmable machines can be seen as the ancestors of today’s electronic and digital instruments. Birmingham Museums’ collection of ornately decorated mechanical instruments, on display in the All Ears exhibition, reflects on the transition of music from real-time, human generated sound to the myriad ways in which technology shapes how we produce and consume music today.

Optikit  – Owl Project

Owl Project combined ideas from the Symphonium music boxes in the museum collection, with more experimental techniques of optical sound developed in Russia during the early 20th century, such as the Variaphone and the ANS Synthesiser.

The Symphonium was very fixed in its musical remit. The notes were set to a Western scale and the sequences on metal disks, which were hard to change. In response, we are developing an unfolding music box that can be reconfigured in a multitude of ways. Assembled from a bespoke kit of paper discs, synth modules, motors and fixings, the Optikit generated endlessly changing beats and rhythms throughout the duration of the exhibition.

Owl Project is a collaborative group of artists, Simon Blackmore, Antony Hall and Steve Symons. Drawing on influences such as 70’s synthesiser culture, DIY woodworking and current digital crafts, they work with wood and electronics to create music making machines, interfaces and objects.


New Automatic Party Organ
Sarah Angliss Colin Uttley + Eve Warren

This five-octave pipe organ was designed as an automatic party instrument. People can call up tunes by placing RFID-tagged request cards on the lid. The pipes came from two scrapped Welsh chapel organs. They were stripped, rewaxed and regilded, then arranged in an asymmetric sweep that’s reflected in the shape of the new windchest (the box of air under the pipes). The paintwork was inspired by an 18th century harpsichord cabinet but uses soundwaves as a decorative motif. The air inlet, for example, is cut in the shape of a wavefront.

Sarah Angliss is an award winning composer, roboticist and historian of sound whose music reflects her fascination with European folklore and long-forgotten machines. In performance, Sarah mixes theremin, saw and ancient instruments with live electronics, with an ensemble of musical automata of her own design and construction.

Amplification from MortonUnderwood on Vimeo.


Amplification was a stereo acoustic amplification system, developed to encourage deep listening to environmental sounds within a space. Users of the system can augment their listening through two large ear trumpets. They will also be able to adjust the stereo field of what they can hear by swivelling each horn.

MortonUnderwood were struck by the developers’ efforts to amplify the sound output of the music machines on display in the museum collection. In a world where we can easily dial in more electronic amplification, many of the innovative approaches seen in the collection are now obsolete. Through Amplification, MortonUnderwood hope to highlight the beauty of passive, acoustic amplification systems.

MortonUnderwood is a musical instrument design and sound art duo made up of equal parts David Morton and Sam Underwood. to amplify the sound output Their work mainly explores acoustic systems and sub-bass.


Oak Apple Orchestra
Paul Gittins

A collection of instruments and objects played by clock motors. Oak apples, attached to the secondhand, hit the strings at two second intervals and then strike and fall back. Each instrument has several clock motors, positioned to select specific notes. This selection then repeats to create an endless rhythm. The structure of intervals between the notes is essentially random, producing an infinite number of variations, and the clock motors can be switched on and off using a bluetooth control, changing the shape of the rhythm. The instruments produce a continual stream of minimal music with a two second beat.

Paul Gittins works with a variety of media, producing interactive shadow shows with screens of paper pixels, in theatres and outdoor festivals. He is currently developing an orchestra of self playing instruments that will be attached to trees in woodland locations.

The Machine Makers - Sarah Angliss

Maker-musicians, watchsmiths, tinkerers, hackers, kinetic artists, digital craftsworkers and electronic engineers – the creators of the machines in this exhibition come from many disciplines but share a fascination with sound. Each work combines traditional techniques in clock making, sculpture, circuit design and carpentry with the maker’s new ideas. In this way, every work is an experiment, a chance to explore how a new mix of clockwork, capacitors, bells, motors, blowers, paper, transistors, sheet metal and other raw materials can create intriguing sonic experiences.

The Symphonium and Morton Underwood’s listening horns (The Amplifier) are two of the machines here that work without electricity. Others, including the Optikit from Owl Projects and my own automatic pipe organ, use a combination of mechanical and electrical parts. Meanwhile, the synthesizers of Bob Moog, which can be seen in the travelling Sound Lab, create sounds through purely electronic means. Despite these differences, all the works on display are concerned with embodiment – the way sound emerges from certain materials, circuits and mechanical parts. This distinguishes them from virtual instruments (the kind that run on a laptop). If it’s made in software, the mellow buzz of a filtered sawtooth wave will sound very clean and steady – the laptop’s size and shape and the peculiarities of its body won’t have any effect on this. But when this sawtooth is created by light shining through the spinning disks of a 1930s Variaphone (one of the inspirations for the Optikit), the slightest changes in light levels or in the rotational speed of the disks will create a subtle unevenness of tone. This tells you you’re listening to sounds arising from a physical process. Similarly, a sawtooth from an organ will start with a tell-tale husky ‘chiff’ as air is let into the pipe.

It’s interesting to see how today’s music machine creators are reinventing ideas from the past. As they strike a drum skin, Paul Griffith’s mechanised oak apples echo those drum-playing automata of the nineteenth century. The paper disks of the Optikit remind us of makers from the past who encoded tunes in the metal disks of the Symphonium. And if you listen to the world through Morton Underwood’s giant horns, you may be reminded of old gramophones and brass band instruments. Salvaged from two old sousaphones, the horns have a pronounced filtering effect that colours the sounds as they’re amplified. Whether you think of them as imperfections or lucky accidents, complications like these often arise when building sound machines. It’s not surprising that makers rely on trial and error, led by their ear. It might be easy to draw a clockwork mechanism to strike a bell. But you have to build it to find how sweetly that bell will ring. Moog, a gifted electronic engineer, took great care over the timbre of his machines. He opted to build synthesizers from circuits, rather than software, even though he lived well into the digital age. In the mid-1960s, Moog followed his ear and designed low-pass filters that strayed far from the textbooks. He found his own designs sounded better, giving a warmth and richness to Moog instruments that’s still in demand today. As Moog put it: ‘I know when formal training has to be abandoned and you need to function intuitively with analogue stuff.’

Building music machines is hard. If you try to construct something as simple as an automatic beater, you’ll soon learn to respect earlier makers. The sound machines we build today are invariably one-offs, made from salvaged parts, with all the precariousness of a prototype. The maker’s studio is typically littered with abandoned projects, fried circuits or mechanisms that have shaken themselves apart. Their life is one of courage, where inventions dreamed up in an email have to be built from scratch, ready for the stage or exhibition hall. It’s also a life of scavenging in scrap yards or sleuthing for parts on eBay, of late-night fixing and finishing. When he first showed his synthesizers at The Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1968), Moog recalls how he was still putting them together in his hotel room on the morning of the show.

So why do we go to the trouble of building these machines? Some fulfil our desire to perform music that’s beyond human capability, such as the polyrhythms of the Oak Apple Orchestra or the lightning riffs of the automatic pipe organ. Some attract us because of the way look or how they feel in our hands. Others offer a new species of performance, infused with randomness, that might develop, falter or surprise us as it unfolds over time.

I’ve noticed how seasoned video gamers will watch early music machines in a state of childlike wonder, even though these devices can do far less than the characters on a screen. How odd that in the era of virtual instruments and intangible, shape-shifting avatars, these electrical and mechanical beasts seem so special. As it clicks, wheezes or whirrs away, a mechanical music machine can sometimes seen uncanny. It’s an inanimate object that seems to have a life of its own. The ANS Synthesizer which influenced the Optikit builders had this uncanny quality as it sonified drawings etched onto a blackened glass plate. When it was first seen in the late 1930s, its otherworldly sounds were associated with occultism and accessing other realms.

Whatever else they offer, all the devices in this exhibition have a sonic complexity that software alone still can’t quite muster. As the roboticist Rodney Brooks said ‘the world is its own best model’. The richness and delight of objects in the real world is still hard to beat.