Georgia Tech contest perfect for musical mad scientists


Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition

March 2-3 on the main stage of the Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive, Atlanta. The public is invited to the finals at 7-8:30 p.m. March 3. The event is free. For information:

To see videos of the instruments in the competition, go to

The Ferst Center for the Arts will look something like the “Star Wars” cantina Wednesday and Thursday, with artists playing tunes on segmented tubes and musical golf clubs.

Those peculiar devices are candidates in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, a yearly contest that draws aspiring musical mad scientists from around the world, who will showcase their mutant devices at a free concert.

The semifinal competition takes place Wednesday and Thursday during the day. The public is invited to attend the final competition from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday. The concert is free and will likely be followed by a jam session.

At last year’s Guthmans, the wobbly, rotating Magnetic Percussion Tower earned points for strangeness. This year’s crop is just as clever and just as weird.

A few of the entrants:

  • The Claudeatron (from Claude Woodward of Australia): This is a wind-powered MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller that is worn around the neck like a saxophone and features a joystick to control volume, timbre and other filters. Buttons that look like tentacular suckers complete the design.

The contest awards $10,000 in prizes, including a $5,000 first prize. It will be preceded by a Moog “Hackathon,” sponsored by the synthesizer company, in which Tech students are given 48 hours to reprogram the device for their own whims.

Gil Weinberg, the founding director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, has nursed the competition into an international phenomenon, but serving as a judge one year was harder work than he expected — comparing devices that could hardly be recognized as creatures from the same species.

“One of them may be an app,” Weinberg said, “another may be an acoustic instrument with a rich sound, another may be a new controller that uses gestures, a fourth may be a robotic instrument that responds to you. Now you have all of this and you have to say: What’s No. 1? What’s No. 2?”

The judges consider three parameters: the sound, the interaction between the musician and the instrument, and the design.

Other factors that aren’t strictly part of the criteria, but may play a role, are the potential commercial viability of the instrument and the excellence of the performance.

Judges this year are Allan Kozinn, a music critic and teacher and former music writer for The New York Times; Pat Metheny, a Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist and composer; and Marcelo Wanderley, professor of music technology at McGill University in Montreal.

Metheny’s experiments with what is called the orchestrion make him an inspired choice as a judge. The orchestrion was a 19th-century phenomenon that grew out of player-piano technology. Metheny adapted the idea using modern solenoid switches and computer controls, allowing him to play a whole roomful of vibraphones, snare drums, cymbals, bells, pianos and other instruments, while seated at the guitar.

He brought his Orchestrion (he capitalizes it) to Atlanta in 2010, and plans to bring it back. You can see Metheny's Orchestrion at his website,

Any good instrument, and any new technology, should extend the reach of the user, Metheny said in an email message: “That is what tools have always done.”

But artists are wired to use tools and technology in ways unforeseen by the inventor. “The early inventors of the drum set probably never imagined what someone like Elvin Jones would eventually get to with the instrument,” wrote Metheny.

Like Metheny’s elaborate mechanical garden, which uses modern and primitive technology together, some of the competitors at the 2016 Guthman use digital controllers to trigger acoustic sounds. That includes the Solid Noise Ensemble, which incorporates beer bottles, tin cans and an aluminum kitchen sink, arrayed around a performer who can strike, tap, shake or otherwise play the elements through networked computers.

At the acoustic end of the spectrum is the Yaybahar, an elegant instrument made of wood, springs, strings and drumheads, which was slated to debut in last year’s competition until visa problems kept the Turkish inventor, Görkem Şen, from attending the contest. He plans a second try this year.

Many of the competitors were not seeking to create another instrument for the classical orchestra, or even one suited for notated music. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Deepak Gopinath said during last year’s competition. A master’s student in music technology, he participated in the 2015 Hackathon, building hand-held modular devices that trigger MIDI sounds. “For me, the more important thing I’m trying to study is the nature of sound.”

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