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Electric + Eclectic: Stephanie Cheng Smith's b-z-bowls

Acoustically Synthesized Textures

Eldar Tagi · 05/13/21

In most of our videos we put a large emphasis on the devices themselves—synthesizers, pedals, drum machines, field recorders—commercially available tools specifically designed to meet the creative needs of musicians. After all we are an electronic musical instrument shop, so all of these fun noise makers are our bread and butter. However, we also very much appreciate all kinds of experimental artistry and the ideas involved in it, and every once in a while we venture into the uncharted territory of one-off musical inventions by talented sound-focused artists. This is one of these cases.

Stephanie Cheng Smith is a musician, composer, and programmer who adroitly combines all of her talents and passions into a single wholesome artistic practice. The scope of Smith's work includes composed and improvised music for violin, electronics, and her own instruments that often involve arrays of vibration motors. Stephanie is also one fourth of the virtual experimental performance quartet Ensemble Uhhhhhmm (formerly known as Lil' Jürg Frey) that exists only within Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Horizons environment. With such a comprehensive list of artistic endeavors, it took us some time to decide on what could be the best thing to showcase to our audience. Well, the easiest and, perhaps, safest would be to ask Stephanie to do a performance with her trusted Doepfer Dark Energy synthesizer. This would certainly be very exciting, however we thought that hosting a performance on one of her own instruments would be even more inspiring. Meet b-z-bowls.

The b-z-bowls

As we've mentioned earlier, Stephanie's instruments often involve an array of vibration motors, and that is exactly what constitutes the core of the beautifully named instrument. b-z-bowls is composed of three rows of five equally spaced vibration motors with a plastic bowl attached to each. All motors are connected to a custom-designed Arduino Mega-based controller which Stephanie uses to adjust parameters like speed and intensity during the performance. The other important element of the instrument is the "fillings"—a selection of objects that the artist adds to bowls during the performance for altering the sonic textures produced by the instrument. These include colored ping-pong balls, beads, plastic cups, and wooden clothespins.

Although it relies on the microcontroller, b-z-bowls can hardly be considered an electronic musical instrument as most of its sound is derived from physical objects rubbing against and interacting with one another forming enveloping, and often very soothing textures. So technically, perhaps we could call it an "electro-acoustic modular texture instrument", categorically passing as something of a vibration idiophone.

But, does it djent?

Well, b-z-bowls does not djent, nor is it tailored to play melodies and rhythms in a conventional sense, which brings us to another subject—what is the role of such musical instruments?

It is easy to limit ourselves when we are thinking about the function of a musical instrument, as we often expect a single instrument to serve at least one of two musical roles: melodic/harmonic (aka tonal) or rhythmic (aka percussive). In fact, these are the characteristics of the majority of the popular musical instruments. However, many 20th and 21st century music instrument makers' explorations deal with sound in a broader sense. Following Luigi Russolo's "Art Of Noise" manifesto, as well as compositional tactics by early Russian avant-gardists like Arseny Avraamov, the ideas and practices of composing music using "non-musical" sounds has been spreading steadily, and presently it is so deeply ingrained in our culture that unless explicitly pointed out, we don't even notice it. Industrial, hip-hop, techno, glitch, and many other modern forms of music are reliant on exploiting "non-musical" sounds in a musical context. However, the initial sounds, in most cases, are masked and modified by layers of processing—sometimes beyond recognition. So, the likelihood that you have at one point or another rhythmically nodded or perhaps even jiggled to what initially was the sound of someone sweeping the floor or a washing machine spinning is relatively high.

It appears that the role of texture in music has been steadily increasing over the last several decades to a point where entire genres of music are devoted to it, i.e. ambient, lowercase, and in some cases noise. Speculatively, the reason for this could be related to the transformation of how we listen to music, as both the environment and medium has changed since the industrialization and electrification of sound. This thought is based on the assumption that before the 20th century, texture was added naturally from the environment while acoustic instruments were doing their part, and in orchestral works it was even imitated by the addition of specialty instruments like a wind machine, and a variety of developed techniques on traditional instruments. So as we are removed further away from the environment while listening to music, we are inclined to bring it back by means of the modern music tools.

From another perspective, by composing texture-centered music we are able to create a wholly new environments, that are familiar to us in some aspects, yet absolutely alien in others, and thus has potential to transport us into all sorts of realms—an effect similar to that of a cinema, yet fully focused on our aural sense.

Composing Textures

While things like the aforementioned wind machines and other "non-musical" noises are commonly used as either "bells and whistles" (*not actual bells and whistles, of course) or sculpting material in contemporary music, it is a whole different story when a composer decides to create a complete piece for one or more of this kind of specialty instruments. With conventional notation bearing little use in such situations, a composer often has to create a completely new language to organize and document works for unconventional instruments.

Hence, in contrast to the playful aesthetic of the instrument, Stephanie approaches composition for b-z-bowls in a very structured, and methodical way. The score is presented as a table where every column is filled with important performance information across a vertical timeline. The first three columns are ascribed to the three arrays of vibrating bowls, and the colors signify various objects placed into the bowls at defined moments in time. The following six columns relate to the parameter positions and other settings on the controller. Finally the last column lists very specific performance notes that inform the artist about the desired sonic outcome using playful suggestive wordings such as "Make Deeper", "Ocean Waves", and "Toad Croaking"—occasionally revealing the references to the sounds in the natural world.

What is also interesting is how Stephanie embraces the entirety of the sonic potential of the instrument—sounds that were discovered by active engagement with b-z-bowls, and those that unpredictably manifested themselves as a byproduct of the design. Thus Smith charmingly employs the high-pitched whining sound of underpowered motors as a compositional element in the very beginning of the piece.

Connections and Inspirations

It is difficult to think about experimental sonic practices like this one without referring to the work of John Cage, who famously utilized common household objects to create some of his compositions, fully embracing their sounds however whimsical they are, and diligently organizing those sounds in time and space.

Since the time of Cage, that fascination with and absorption of the simple everyday sounds has taken many forms, and ongoingly manifests and mutates in works of modern sound artists and composers. From processed paper crumpling of Steve Roden to large scale mechanical sonic forests of Zimoun—a theme that seems to unite many of such practices is nature itself, and the seemingly infinite variety of sounds found in it, which often follows a pattern of simplicity plus repetition equals complexity.

Similarly, the initial inspiration for b-z-bowls came from natural sounds like crickets and cicadas, and in fact the instrument itself is a reinvention of another instrument she had built earlier called "Bell Controller".

Following the original creative spark, and driven by artistic curiosity Stephanie wanted to readapt the controller she built for the "bell" instrument. The idea for using plastic bowls filled with objects came for the artist's appeal to the particular sonic qualities of materials and shapes of selected items, as well as the result of their interaction with each other.

Stephanie also noted that the visual element of the performance bears great value for the piece. While the repetitive tasks and symmetrically aligned rows of vibrating bowls deliver a compelling aesthetic, the selection of colorful objects that you can commonly find in a 99 Cents store adds a humorous element to the piece that is so often neglected or even avoided in modern music.

A Space for Music

Unless amplified externally, b-z-bowls is a relatively quiet instrument, at its maximum dynamic capacity reaching the amplitude levels of a somewhat lively conversation between a small group of people. This raises the question of the best listening environment for the instrument. The relationship between music and space is very deep and hugely interdependent. In fact, not only does our relationship to a piece of music is greatly affected by the environment that it is heard in, but the architecture itself can suggest and influence the compositional choices.

When we've asked Stephanie what she considers to be the best environment for b-z-bowls, she confidently advocated for smaller more intimate spaces, where the sound of the instrument is not overpowered by external noises, and moreover the compact size of the room promotes focused listening.

Smith's b-z-bowls is by no means a conventional instrument, and as such it is unreasonable to expect any sort of traditional music from it. Experimental approaches to composition, and instrument building provide opportunities for both the artist and the listener to expand our perceptions and ideas beyond what we are used to. Experimental arts are often labeled as inaccessible, while in fact they perform rather the opposite function—by opening and exploring untraveled pathways, creators of adventurous music open previously closed doors not only for themselves but for everyone else as well.

If you would like to hear more of b-z-bowls, make sure to check out Stephanie's latest album Forms. "Bird" is a piece entirely composed for the instrument.