Music Construction Machine

Interactive Sound Installation

Goethe-Institut Pop Up Pavillon, Wrocław, Poland


The Music Construction Machine is a large, public, generative music box, which people can operate via a big hand crank. Rotating the crank moves various mechanisms inside the giant box, producing ever-changing melodies and rhythmic patterns, played with an electric guitar, a keyboard and a drum set. As the machine is contained in a transparent glass pavillon, people can observe and contemplate on its inner workings while cranking.

The installation is exhibited on a public square called Plac Nowy Targ in Wrocław, Poland, as a part of the city’s cultural capital program. Therefore, it is a machine for everybody.

As we all have different tastes in music, I decided to abandon the traditional concept of a music box, which would play a pre-programmed melody repeatedly. That would satisfy the musical taste of only a small fraction of the crankers and listeners. So instead, the music is generated by an algorithm, which is implemented entirely in mechanical hardware, and which iterates through all kinds of possible sequences of beats and tones. Thus, the machine permanently ‘constructs’ new ‘music’ while it is being operated, hence the name “Music Construction Machine”.

Although the hardware determines which tones are played, the operators still have a strong influence on the interpretation and expression of the music, as they can decide how fast they crank and where they interrupt the flow of music.

Here are two recorded examples:

Of course many of the melodies that the machine produces don’t sound beautiful by traditional standards. One might even question if the sound that is generated by the machine can be regarded as music at all. But then again – where exactly is the borderline between noise and music? I’m not able to answer this question! But if someone cranks long enough, eventually musical structures will appear, which might match the operator’s taste perfectly. It’s just a matter of patience and careful listening.

If you want to know more about how the different parts of the machine work, I have explained the mechanisms in more detail in an earlier blog post.

I also want to point you on this short TV feature about the machine. They’ve shown some details quite close and also talked with the audience about their experience. But unfortunately, they got all my super deep conceptual thoughts wrong :)

Below are some more photos of the machine. I especially liked the look of it at nighttime. You can find even more hires pictures, all Creative Commons licensed, in this album. As always, feel free to copy/paste/remix/share!

Last but not least, I want to thank all the sponsors and supporters who helped me to realize this project:

A really big thanks goes also to Musikhaus Thomann, who donated all the instruments, as well as light and sound equipment for me to hack – although they knew that my machine would probably not sound very nice!

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