Lasers Transform Classical Music Into A Dynamic Forest Of Light

Design studio Arcade visualize Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" using a sound-responsive laser sculpture.

Sep 18 2013, 3:00pm

Lasers may not be the first thing you think of when you hear Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring", but the two go together incredibly well. And for proof, look no further than the sound-responsive laser sculpture that design studio ArcadeJames Alliban and Keiichi Matsuda—created for the TimeShift festival in Holland. 

The pair installed 50 lasers on the balcones of an auditorium where a performance of the pie took place by the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Each laser was connected to an individual instrument to give a visual accompaniment to the music—with each beam shining brighter the louder the instrument was played. The duo call the piece a "virtual architecture from laser beams, transforming the music into a dynamic forest of sound and light."

Alliban and Matsuda used custom-built electronics to attach piezo sensors to the instruments, picking up audio vibrations which were processed by printed circuit boards (PCB) and used to control the lasers. Mirrors were also used to direct the beams to different places and correspond with the cadence of the music.

You can check out the performance above, and below Alliban and Matsuda answer a few questions we emailed over about the project.

What made you choose lasers as the visuals? Other than the fact that lasers rule. Was it the physicality/architectural quality they bring to something intangible like music?
Yes, the original concept was to spatialise the music, to transform the musician's performance into a virtual architecture. Lasers are perfect for this; as you say, they have a physicality that really allows you to create spaces instantaneously. We had to be quite careful in the way we used the lasers though. It's pretty commonplace to see laser shows at dance music gigs, so we wanted to avoid those kind of aesthetics. I think that the end result is both dramatic and legible, connecting you more with the music instead of distracting from it. 

How did you go about choosing the grid-like pattern of the lasers? And why did you choose this particular formation?
Keiichi Matsuda: Lasers are dangerous if they enter the eye, so we had to impose strict guidelines on ourselves as to how we used them. We started by modelling the auditorium in 3D software, and defining an area of space that was a safe distance from they audience's eyeballs. From there, we were able to identify where we could place our fixtures and mirrors, which led to the three different configurations used in the performance. It was a lot like designing the form of a building, in that we had to balance a lot of spatial requirements with an eye for creating a beautiful space. The film doesn't really give a sense of how three-dimensional the end result was. We were especially happy with the grid configuration, as it created a ceiling of light right in the centre of the auditorium that could be seen from both above and below.

How did you go about visualising how the piece would look? Was it a case of practice and trial and error with the orchestra?
We knew that we would only had a very short time to work with the orchestra, so we had to get it right first time. We had already modelled the performance in 3D software, and made some basic hardware tests using a ukelele, but there was no real way to know how it was going to look until the night before the first performance. We spent time early on in the project going through the manuscript with the artistic director of the orchestra, so we were confident that the concept would work well with The Rite of Spring. It was amazing to see it all working for the first time. We just stepped back and watched it being 'performed' by the orchestra. 

You say that no computers of software was used in the application of the lasers. And also, you took a more analog approach when building the fixtures to reflect the lasers. Was this purely for practical reasons or was there something about this approach that synced with the way you wanted the music to be represented?
We explored alternative methods at the beginning of the project, and discussed connecting all the lasers and piezos to a central computer where we could remotely calibrate, monitor and control the performance. We felt that this solution would leave us slightly detached from the orchestra though, when the whole point was that the installation was responding directly to the music. Our eventual approach was to build stand alone devices, each with the ability to monitor an instrument, process the signal, and display the result. Of course, this also means that we are not relying on a central computer which could crash or glitch out at any minute. 

The decision to control the fixtures manually was also made after exploring other options. There is sometimes a temptation to make everything digital, when the most elegant solution is often based on older technology. It's about finding the best methods to perform a particular task. Due to the history involved in the performance, and the fact that we were working in a theatre environment, the more manual approach seemed entirely appropriate. 

A double bass gets kitted out


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