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Derek Holzer's optical hurdy gurdy hand-cranks light into sound

Tonewheels Hurdy Gurdy, by Derek Holzer

As if the hand-cranked hurdy gurdy wasn't a strange and wondrous instrument already, Berlin-based sound artist Derek Holzer has built one that eats light and spits out glorious waves of distortion and noise. The instrument was built in October for the Acces(s) Festival in France as an adaptation of his previous project, Tonewheels, which uses spinning optical discs imprinted with waveform patterns to generate sound. As with all Holzer's projects, there's no computer anywhere in the mix: just the spinning optical wheel, light and pressure sensors connected to custom-built circuitry, and a row of knobs controlling filter sweeps and distortion.

It's a throwback to vintage optical instruments, a decidedly fringe strain of music-making pioneered by Edwin Emil Welte's Light-Tone Organ in 1936 and realized within the consumer market as the Optigan in 1971. The same principle was used recently for Indianen's Evil Eye turntable synth system, a more stationary approach utilizing specially designed waveforms screen-printed onto 12-inch records.

Holzer says his hurdy gurdy is meant to encourage exploration of sonic space, generating unpredictable results as part of its function. "While it does not reward the impatient museum visitor with flashing lights and noises at the simple touch of the button, it does invite participation in the process of technological music creation," Holzer writes. "Although it first appears to be a very traditional instrument known to many folk-music cultures, it functions in a very different way which can only be discovered by playing it."

The Verge
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