ynthesizers reached their apex when Ferris Bueller used an E-mu Emulator II to take a “me-day,” but Zach Lieberman’s installation Play the World has managed to make electronic keyboards cool again—and a little mind-blowing. Commissioned by Google as part of DevArt, a program to encourage creative coding, the contraption turns a piano’s keys into a musical web browser.
First, Lieberman’s custom software monitors hundreds of internet radio streams from around the globe and categorizes the musical notes in each feed by pitch and octave in real time. That software is then connected to an electronic keyboard. When each key is struck, it triggers a stream that matches the intended note. All of the randomness of scanning radio frequencies remains, but it’s overlaid onto a predictable musical scale. Using the set-up, a person can literally turn the internet into a musical instrument.
If a key is held down the samples changes after a second, so a hip hop sample could be followed by a soundbite from an NPR fund drive. In both examples the source content is trimmed, the flavor remains, and perfect pitch is maintained.
The fact that none of the samples are pre-sampled adds a significant level of technical complexity to the project, but in addition to making cool sounds, Liberman wants to use the installation to connect people in far-flung lands.
Ten speakers are arrayed in a circle around the keyboard and emit sounds from the geographic direction of the stream’s source relative to the person playing. So if the pianist was in London, right-wing talk radio from an American station would come from their left while K-pop from Seoul would originate on their right. Azonto dance music popular in Africa would blare from behind the player while Norwegian black metal would be coming straight ahead.
Each keystroke would cue a sound from a new location and a small lit sign below each speaker reveals the origin of each sample.
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