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CompositionContemporary MusicPostgraduate research

The Big Ears Workshop

2 June 2015

Composer Richard McReynolds is studying for his PhD in composition. Here he tells us about his involvement in a workshop collaboratively creating prototype accessible interfaces, and using them to create an improvised electronic music ensemble performance…

“My research involves the use of gestural devices to trigger electronic sounds in musical performance.  In order to explore the applications of my research during the last week of March I travelled to the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast to take part in The Big Ears Workshop.

Big Ears

“This is a public engagement course that gives students the opportunity to work with the sonic arts with a non-specialist audience.  This year Big Ears was in collaboration with the Drake Foundation N.I.,  an organisation which works to give people with complex disabilities the ability to independently make music.  The goal of the project was to meet musicians who were part of the Drake Foundation and then design an instrument for them to play at the end of the three-day workshop.

“On the first day we were introduced to the project and to the Drake Foundation as an organisation.  We were then organised into groups and introduced to the musician that we would be designing an instrument for. The instrumentalists were at the heart of the project.  We talked with them over lunch in order to find out what controller they would prefer to work with and what physical gestures would be the easiest for them.

“This was quite a different experience from me as my research is based around composition with the idea of the sound and structure of the piece at the centre of my thinking throughout most of the projects I undertake. To be purely an instrument designer and to not have the majority of control over the sound output and the piece was a strange experience for me.

“After deciding with our musicians what their ideal instruments would be to perform we spent the rest of the day learning basic skills on Arduino circuit boards, Max MSP and Ableton Live.  This was incredibly useful for me as I have a lot of knowledge about Max MSP but hadn’t had the opportunity to work with hardware such as Arduino Circuit boards and Ableton Live software.

“This gave me the opportunity to quickly learn the basics of both and put them to use in a project immediately. I have always found this the best way to learn skills.

“The next day was spent putting what we had learned the previous afternoon to use.  Creating the instruments that were tailor-made for the performers.  It was a long day of wires coding and frustration but, by the end of the day, the instruments were starting to take shape.

“The instrument that my group created was triggered by waving a glove with L.E.D. strips attached to it in front of a computer webcam.  The camera then detected the light and with that information the computer could trigger 6 notes depending on where the hand’s position was in the range of the camera.  There was also the added functionality of a pressure switch that could control the delay of the samples to create a more legato sound, as well as three buttons that would change the notes.

“The final day involved fine-tuning the circuitry, hiding unsightly and delicate cables, then taking our instruments into the performance space.  Here the members of the Drake Foundation returned and they were able to try out the newly created instruments.  We conversed with our musicians again and they chose the synthesised sounds that the instruments would create.

“When everyone was set-up, a piece was composed that showcased all of the performers.  This was then performed later that evening in a public concert.  The recording of the piece can be found here:

“The three-day workshop was an incredibly rewarding and insightful experience.  As someone who has knowledge and previous experience in using technology and physical gesture to create music I still learned a lot about what possibilities there are.

“If you have even just a small experience working with electronic music or sound art I would highly recommend applying for the Big Ears program. There is definitely a lot you can get out of it and, at the same time, you are providing something beneficial for someone else. ”

Drake Music:

Drake Music Facebook Page:

Big Ears Site:

Big Ears with Drake Blog –

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