Working with music in software means thinking a bit like a music box maker, using sequences to create note and rhythm machines. Nick Rothwell sends a project in which he literally engages the mechanical music box, with rotating electro-magnetic discs and a set of digital devices that recall their 19th-century predecessors. The designs are modular, interconnecting with one another into a little music box ensemble. And in another sign of the influence of the design of the monome, they explicitly nod to that hardware and its community as an aesthetic cue. (I have to admit, though, I’m more envious of this than the new arc.)

At the heart of the piece is a custom-made electro-magnetic rotary sequencer. Melodies are stored on a series of interchangeable, acrylic, 10” disks embedded with small magnets arranged in a regular circular grid. In the same way vinyl records are located on a turntable these disks are centered on a spindle and rotate over a ‘play head’ made up of a line of magnetic field sensors – effectively replicating but superseding the set of pins on the revolving cylinder that pluck the tuned teeth of a steel comb in the traditional device. Additional units are ‘daisy-chained’ to each other via single cables and include a self contained and controllable sound source (to hear and effect the musical output) and an animated representation of a dancing ballerina automaton – realised as a modern-day interpretation of the praxinoscope (the successor to the zoetrope – the popular visual parlour toy of its era – but which improved on it by replacing its narrow viewing slits with an inner circle of mirrors).

Inspired by the design of the second generation controllers these modular components draw on their minimalist design aesthetic and utilise a similar restricted material palette of walnut, brushed aluminium, translucent acrylic, and orange LEDs.

Nick aka Cassiel is part of the Monomatic trio, which:

…was initiated in 2007 as a collaboration, experimental playground and halfway house between the work of Anthony Rowe of squidsoup – art, research and play in creative interaction design using sound, physical and virtual space – and Lewis Sykes then of The Sancho Plan – a progressive audiovisual collective who explore the realtime interaction between music and video. Monomatic has since evolved and the current line up now includes Nick Rothwell a.k.a Cassiel – a composer, performer, software architect, programmer and sound designer.

The work was shown as part of London’s Kinetica, an exhibition of kinetic art over the weekend.

Rotating music box-style wheels is an elemental design in musical machines, which means there are countless works one could mention here. I’ll leave that to comments, though, because I imagine you’ll think of a few examples I haven’t. Fire away.

Here’s an early visualization Nick did of an unrelated project, rendered in Max for Live. I love the circular visualization; I’ve played with some similar sketches myself in Processing, but not in Max. Like a wheel inside a wheel…