A new instrument design merging eastern and western sounds, culminating in a live multimedia premier concert.
A New Kind of Musical Instrument
The Dongxi Zither (東西古箏) is the next level of my progression into live multimedia musical performance. Instead of hacking existing objects, I will design and build a new multimedia electronic musical instrument from scratch, based on the traditional Chinese Zither (guzheng - 古箏). Modifying the design of the guzheng, I will incorporate a computer interface into its body using microcontrollers, like Arduino, for triggering beats, animation, or video. Ultimately, I will debut this instrument in a live concert at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where I received my BFA.
I was born in NYC at the fall of disco and the rise of hip-hop. Being Chinese American born to immigrants from Burma, one of the few connections to my Asian roots were mostly bound by the 8-track tapes that my parents held onto. With the help of the Beat Research class at MassArt, taught by Antony Flackett (DJ Flack), I created projects that merged eastern sounds with the hip hop beats and electronic music styles that I grew up with. For my most popular project, the "Qiyue" performance, I used a wireless keypad strapped to a defunct Chinese lute (pipa - 琵琶) in May of 2012 as a controller for live-triggering of samples and animated projection to play electronic music.
I then decided instead of strapping equipment onto a existing instrument, I would design and build a new instrument with integrated electronics.
In May of 2012, I received the Morton R. Godine Fellowship towards the completion of this project. Thanks to the generous donors of this fellowship, I have completed the initial research phase of my project:
Now this funding has been exhausted and I need your help to take this project through the design phase, get it built, and finally ready to debut on stage in a premier performance!
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When I submitted for the Godine Fellowship, I prepared a preliminary budget that turned out to be highly modest. After learning more about the traditional instrument, and now having made an instrument from scratch, I now know in more detail what is needed for an extensive project like this in terms of tools and materials. I also now have a broader network of experienced craftspersons to help me determine what I need and guide me along the way.
Design and Build
This is my first time designing an instrument, so there will likely be some figuring and refiguring in the build process. However, before I became an artist in music, I was an architectural model maker, and had always been good with my hands. My guitar-building mentor, Ivon Schmukler, often tells me "You're hired!" his way of telling me I've done well and has often told me that I am more skilled than his average student. While my craftsmanship is handy, people like Ivon are huge asset in planning.
The electronic features of the instrument will most likely be the most time consuming in terms of programming and testing. While I was at MassArt, I took classes in electronics (Electronic Projects I and II), so I have experience with Arduino programming. I have kept in touch with my professors, one of which is an electronic musician who makes his own instruments. They are a vital resource and I am lucky to have them to turn to if I come across problems.
Ultimately, I will be putting on a concert as a display of my new invention. Event production can be a large animal. As a graduate of the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) at MassArt in Boston, I have been part of production teams and have a good general understanding of how to put a show together. I am fortunate to have in SIM a virtual family of artists, performers, producers, and event technicians to collaborate with. I am confident I can find the right people to produce a fantastic premier concert.
"Video music" is a term used by my professor, Antony Flackett (DJ Flack) to mean video that is directly tied to its sound. How's that different from a music video? Well a music video often has a storyline/plot in the video while the song is played, and occasionally shows someone singing or playing along. In video music, sound samples are directly tied to visuals. When a specific sound is played, corresponding video is played as well. Each sound has its respective visuals. So, watching video music, in a sense, is like watching the music.
I am starting with the guzheng zither because, although it's large, it has a simpler build than the curves of the pipa. Someday, I would like to continue the process with the pipa and Chinese fiddle (erhu - 二胡).
The Morton R. Godine Fellowship is granted to "a junior or senior of exceptional merit" at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) to "defray the cost of traveling for completion of a well-defined project" or for a project's "artistic merit". This funding supported my lessons in traditional guzheng playing, and luthier (instrument woodworking) lessons. Now, I have a more clear direction in planning my project because of those lessons.
Yihan is a professional pipa and guzheng performer in Simsbury, CT. She has been my teacher since the summer. http://www.chen-yihan.com/
Ivon is a luthier and has been building, restoring and repairing guitars and other American fretted instruments since 1965. He has taught me to build a guitar, and is a great resource in instrument building. http://leedsguitar.com/ivonschmuklerguitars/