This is the audio transcript of Coaching Through Chaos Podcast episode 09
featuring Dr. Colleen Mullen and Vahakn Matossian
4:31 Mullen: As with many episodes of this show there will be weeks where the featured guest fits into a couple of categories. Today's guest is both a maker, inventor, musician and budding entrepreneur. I'm talking with VAHAKN MATOSSIAN, who alongside his father, ROLF GEHLHAAR, created the HUMAN INSTRUMENTS COMPANY.
4:52 They're a London based company who are ingeniously redesigning instruments like pianos and horns to help people with physical limitations. They're essentially taking a limitation and reducing it to an obstacle to overcome. What a cool way to broaden a person's perspective on their own life, this is going to be like nothing you can imagine and they are just getting started...
5:14 You might ask though is there a market for instruments for people with physical limitations? Well yes, according to the CDC in the US the number of adults (2013) with any physical functioning difficulty is 35.2 million, that's 15 percent of our adult population...
5:32 and in the UK, it's even higher, there are over 6.9 million disabled people of working age which represents 19 percent of their working population.
5:44 You'll hear the full story during my interview with Vahakn, but the Human Instruments Company began when Rolf and Vahakn were helping out the British Para-orchestra by setting up their tech and sound support. The British Para-orchestra is the only one of its kind. It's the worlds first professional ensemble of disabled musicians. The mission of the British Para-orchestra is to shift the perceptions of disability and disabled people by creating a visible platform for gifted disabled musicians to perform and excel at the highest level. Rolf and Vahakn discovered a need as they were interacting with the orchestra. For as much as the orchestra was there to give opportunity to physically limited people, it was still forced to turn away people who wanted to join because there were no instruments they could physically use. They decided to change that.
6:27 Mullen: Rolf is a composer, artist and musician and early creator of electronic and computer music. Vahakn is an artist and musician with BAs and MAs in product design. Together they have begun to open a door for people with physical limitations that wasn't even thought of before.
6:43 Before we get into the interview, let me tell you about my experience of trying the Human Instruments' instrument. I met Vahakn at the recent Cyber Psychology Conference on the UCSD campus here in San Diego of June of this year. He was showing off a gadget that essentially looked like an oval shaped piece of plywood with some black lines painted on it and there was a motherboard at the top of it. He was interacting with the conference guests letting them try this gadget. He would have them put on headphones and blow into a tube while they moved their fingers around on the board. The participants appeared surprised by whatever they were hearing in the headphones. I was intrigued and wanted to find out what the gadget was and what the people were hearing. I introduced myself and Vahakn said "Do you want to try this piano?"
7:27 I was immediately excited to try this plywood fashioned gadget that looked nothing like my favorite instrument, one which I know very intimately. I put on the headphones and blew into the tube as I had watched the other attendees do and immediately heard what I recognized as synthesized keyboard sounds. He then gave me a few minutes of instruction and told me about the breath sensitive instrument. Breathing out dictates the sound one way and inhaling dictates the sound another way. After a few minutes of fussing with it, I was able to see how this could literally breathe new life into someones creative world. It was a bit awkward, but so is learning any new instrument. This piano was particularly designed for someone with limited mobility and or strength in their hands. They're currently in development of a hands free horns instrument and at least one or two other redesigned instruments.
8:17 Mullen: Bringing you this episode totally speaks to the heart of why I am doing this. You never know who you are going to meet in life and what new invention is around the next corner. As you may remember from episode 1, I grew up as a competitive pianist, for me I thought that a piano is a piano is a piano. And I'm not sure if I mentioned it before but my father was a paraplegic since he was 3 years old, due to polio. He was also a musician for a time. I saw how tremendously active a persons life can be despite their physical limitations and then on the flip side, I also saw how crushing it was when aspects of their life are not available to them. In my fathers case it was actually easier for him to pursue a career as an attorney with his limitations than as a trumpet player, though he kept his love of music throughout his life.
9:03 And here comes Human Instruments with their refashioned instruments seeking specifically to create opportunity for people that have been overlooked. To Vahakn and Rolf -kudos and respect to you for your heart and creativity. Alright lets get into the interview, and take note - the short musical breaks today are brought to you by Vahakn playing on the Human Instruments piano.
9:24 music interlude 1 - - -
10:09 Mullen: Vahakn can you tell me what the Human Instruments Company is all about?
10:14 Vahakn: Human Instruments is dedicated to providing accessible musical instruments. So we're basically aiming to make digital musical instrument interfaces that are as close as possible to the resolution and expression you would get from an orchestral instrument.
10:27 Mullen: and when you say accessible, what do you mean by that?
10:29 Vahakn: accessibility is the word used for objects, tools and advancements in technology which are for people that are disabled or have just different abilities, or maybe were born with a different body layout from maybe you or I.
10:42 Mullen: as I mentioned, my father was a paraplegic. I absolutely get that different people have different abilities - I actually didn't grow up thinking that he was disabled. So can you tell us how the company came to be and the motivation for it?
10:57 Vahakn: so I grew up as the son of a composer. My father is a contemporary composer who worked in electronic music and electronic sound and he also made sound installations - and they were interactive. And once upon a time, my mother demanded that the local school bring their kids down to one of his installations - they were a special needs school and so they brought them down and the kids went "berserk". And they saw a reaction that was quite something. From there he realized these instruments he was making, the tools he was making, were usable by many people. And I saw this growing up.
11:34 Later on, we began working with the British Para-orchestra, based in London, all over England actually. They're made up of people of varied physical ability, some of them are hard of sight, some of them are hard of hearing, everyone has a different ability in some way and they're all professional musicians - that's what ties them together. It was started by a conductor called CHARLES HAZELWOOD, and we worked with them as tech support, as musical support setting up mixers, just being around helping out and enjoying the music they played in a big way.
At the concerts, people would approach us afterwards and they would say "this is an amazing concert, what an incredible orchestra, it's so inspiring - I'd love to join, I'd love to play".
And I would say "well what do you play ?"
And they'd say " Well nothing, I can't play an instrument because, you know, I don't have one arm".
Or maybe the chap was in a wheel chair and never had the chance to play the drums and wanted to.. Whatever it was, it was always a different reason. And I'd get that sinking feeling , like Why NOT - there are all these amazing tools and adaptations and prostheses for para-sports, para-Olympics, every city has got some sort of para-Olympic program, and where's the para-music?
Which is one of Charles Hazelwood's main questions. And as a designer, and a maker, and the son of an inventor - I just had to ask that question - where are these tools?
12:50 Mullen: So that became a hat that you put on - designing these instruments. Can you tell me a little bit about your background - how did you get into designing this - do you have a background in tech or a background in music? How did you get into this besides the love of what you were doing with the Para Orchestra?
13:07 Vahakn: At school, I could be found in the art department and in the design department or the french room - so those were my subjects. I was always making or breaking whatever it was. Then I did a degree in Crafts and Materials, at Brighton University, and I was aiming at being a sculptor. And then I did another degree in Product Design at the Royal College of Arts. I was just obsessed with making, and I think a dissatisfaction with the things that surrounded me in the world. From that, I had a background in product design, but then as a young kid growing up, like I said the son of a composer, I was also very much into music. I've always been making music, and more recently these two things have collided, and that's the basis of Human Instruments, with the vision of my dad.
13:48 Mullen: that's brilliant. it just came together in the right place at the right time with the right interest. As far as Human Instruments goes, the ideal user then is someone who lacks some physical ability and your instruments are being designed to help replace that ability, or give them access to something they didn't think that they could have?
14:08 Vahakn: It started out as wanting to level the playing field for people that may not be able to use traditional instruments - and actually when you strip back the criteria of designing an object you don't talk about necessarily the person and their syndrome, or whatever they have, you just talk about how are we going to make musical note creation accessible in an expressive, controllable and repeatable way. And actually, disability flies straight out the window and all you're looking at is people that need to access note creation. So you really start with a blank slate. What that means is that, what we found through our experiments and designs, is if you nail the criteria and you create something that does what you aim to do, its interesting for anyone.
For me, the instruments we're making, frustrating at first like any musical instrument, becomes more and more fun the more you play. And friends of mine who are musicians or people we've tested with find that its just a different way of creating notes - which throws up new themes, new ideas for creation. So yes, they are primarily aimed at people with different physical abilities, but in the end if you make something elegantly or if you fix the problem in an elegant way, you'll find that the spinoff is far reaching and the devices are useful to people who want to use the devices. And it's really that simple...
15:22 Mullen: yeah, and its amazing that you can be designing it for one thing and find other uses for it. And the more people I talk to that are in development of products, it seems to be that that happens - they find new ways to use their items.
We're going to take a little break and come right back with Vahakn.
15:39 musical interlude #2 - - -
16:42 Mullen: and we're back with Vahakn Matossian of Human Instruments based in London.
In looking at the keyboard, its one octave on a piece of wood, looks like its just painted on there, and then there's some chords on little one inch squares painted on another board, with what looks like the insides of a computer sitting on top of it. And yet, when I touch them, it makes beautiful piano sounds. So - tell me - how on earth do you make that happen ?
17:10 Vahakn: Well the device that you're staring at is like you said, two pieces of plywood, very smooth to the touch. And screen printed - the same way you would print a t-shirt- on each side are these two patterns that we have designed. The idea is that you can reach the whole octave with your hand span, or maybe, one finger and a small amount of movement. So with very little strength or dexterity, you can reach the whole keyboard. On the left hand, as you said, there are some other little squares and they allow you to play chords. So you can play a major chord, a minor chord, a seventh chord, a diminished chord, augmented chord, minor seventh - many combinations between these chord types.
17:49 Mullen: Right, the musicians listening will understand those references.
17:52 Vahakn: Yeah, for anyone else, it's all the scary chords, all the happy chords, all the jazzy chords and the ones that just clang. So you have a big palette to work from. There;s a mouthpiece with a tube, and this goes to a breath sensor. And so you have the expression of the breath as you would with a woodwind instrument, or a flute, or any breath controlled instrument. You can play as softly as you like the beginning of a note will rise, and then sharply stop if you stop blowing.Or you can attack it with a big puff. So that really gives the expression with very little lung power. And so combining these two sides, the keyboard with the root note - ie the note you start with in a chord - and then applying the chord structure from the shift keys on the left - you can then play chords and single notes. And there are these strips near the chord buttons and if yo roll your finger on these little strips it arpeggiates the chord up the keyboard as if you are running your fingers up the keyboard -within the chord structure and key of your chosen keys. It sounds really complicated but when you start playing it becomes very automatic.
18:56 Mullen: Yes, I can see how someone would take to it after trying it out. I only tried it out once or twice and I have some experience playing so I can see how someone would take to it. And especially if they're learning it for the first time. I'm learning it and I'm complicated by the fact that I play the piano and I study it - my mind probably needs a bit more re-training than the person who is going to blow into the tube and use it. So tell us though about how it makes the sound ... and you're holding the tube of paint, tell me about that, because it looks like the keys are just painted on the piece of wood.
19:25 Vahakn: That's right, so painted on the wood - screen printed - is a paint, which is an electric paint by a company called BARE CONDUCTIVE. And you paint it on as you would in any other normal painty way, and within a few minutes it dries, and it's conductive. Currently it's hooked up to the TOUCHBOARD, made by the same company. And what the touchboard does, is it allows you to write a small program, load it onto the board and when you've connected up your paint squares - or whatever paint shape you've chosen - to the board, it will trigger the board with a signal and your program does whatever you want to do with the signal. The board comes loaded with a little sound program which will just launch sounds as you hit the various keys. But we've written a custom program which sends MIDI data - which is the Musical Instrument Digital Interface data that all computers speak - it's the language they all speak - and it allows you to fire off notes and to have very precise control over notes created, played, the length of them, the characteristics of the notes. So really this device just sends MIDI data to the computer and then the computer takes the MIDI data and whatever program you;re running - We-re using LOGIC and MASSIVE - which is a synthesizer by Native Instruments - it's all commercially available, you don't have to customize anything - it works out of the box plug and play - and it means that people that already are composers can use their favorite tools without having to download new software or specific apps.
20:49 Mullen: And I did hear the piano sound, and it sounded beautiful. Can it do like my home keyboard and play some other sounds?
20:56 Vahakn: You can literally make it play any sound you want - so we have a range of sounds, different synthesizers, sub-basses, raspy things you might find in dance music, kalimba sounds or gamelan sounds from Asian territories, so really you can choose whatever you want - which is the aim - the player can choose what they want to play, not be forced into a corner of piano or not piano.
21:19 Mullen: I see. My favorite is the strings setting on my keyboard, can you make a string sound on yours?
21:23 Vahakn: We can give you a whole orchestra.
21:27 musical interlude #3 - - -
22:17 Mullen: So that's the piano. When you look at it, it looks so simple - but it's really quite an advanced instrument that you've created. Do you have other instruments in development ?
22:26 Vahakn: We've got three running in parallel.This one, and then there's the DOOSERPHONE, which was a prototype made for a gentleman called Clarence Adoo, and he was a trumpeter, a very good one - he played with the greats - and he suffered a car accident which left him unable to use his limbs. About fifteen years ago, my father Rolf Gehlhaar was contracted to develop an instrument for him - a head mounted instrument. And he developed an interface which uses the head mouse, which is commercially available, so Clarence could control a mouse pointer with his head and with his breath pressure as the click, and he developed an interface to let Clarence make music. Now it was indeed an interface, not an instrument, although it had characteristics and you could control a great many things with it, it wasn't a true instrument where Clarence could play melodies all day long in the style that he wished to. So this was really a challenge and another starting point for us.
23:18 Mullen: It sounds like you're starting to develop an instrument that can be used to replace the trumpet that Clarence can no longer play.
23:25 Vahakn: well, as Clarence had an amazing musical mind, he could imagine melodies on a keyboard, and tell you what the notes were and play them without trying them out. So we developed a small kind of digital xylophone which was close to the face, and he played with a small mouthpiece and a little baton, and it used breath pressure and so it was one of the stepping stones to this device that we see here. So there's that one which were going to release open source, where you'll be able to buy the hardware online very cheap and download the software, and even the 3D printing file, you'll be able to get for free. So people can make it in their fablabs or find somewhere where they can have the tools to build one themselves.
24:03 The device we are currently working on now which is the heart of Human Instruments, which is codenamed TYPHOON right now, is mouthpiece, which will register the persons head position in space and allow them to play notes using their head position, breath, and various different characteristics of the mouth. So the idea is we're making a hands free musical instrument controller, which will have a couple of modes - and the modes are really crucial. One is to control any computer of any kind, and the other mode is a dedicated musical mode. So it essentially mimics how a composer would have a score in front of them on which to write their notes, but also a keyboard with which to reference, play and hear. So this device will allow someone to do that without using their arms or hands.
24:49 Mullen: So just with the movement of their head and their breath... that sounds quite advanced. and I can see, as you said, it's the heart of the company right now. The implications are tremendous, not only for people who want to be musical, but for the person who just doesn't know that they could be creative because they don't have the use of their limbs right now. So this just opens up that door to give them such an opportunity to still live a creative life. I think it's fantastic.
25:22 Vahakn: as mentioned, the aim is really to give someone the opportunity to have a profession in music should they so wish. And were just sticking as close as we can to that aim and the idea is to develop tools which allow that. That's really the two criteria, that's what we're trying to do.
25:39 Mullen: Alright Vahakn, I can imagine that there's all sorts of ways to collaborate with your company - whether its musical apps or composing music specific to the instruments - how would you see collaboration happen and do you welcome that within the company ?
25:52 Vahakn: yeah, we absolutely welcome collaboration from all corners: support, affiliation, if someones part of an organization they think resonates with what we're up to, or some of the ideas they think are useful, or they'd like to critique what we're up to, make things better, put them in concert, find us a musician, a programmer that's particularly gifted that is interested. Really, it's all about collaboration, building the family, and finding people that are very interested in this. The possibilities of these devices, and the creativity possible is far reaching, and so - absolutely, contact us - Get in Touch.
26:27 Dr.Mullen: Wonderful. What's your website ?
26:34 Vahakn: The website is HumanInstruments.co.uk and we have all of our work and some amazing links to other people working in a similar area right there.
26:46 Mullen: and there's some really interesting videos of their work in action on the website, so I would encourage you to check them out. Well thank you Vahakn Matossian with Human Instruments.
27:00 exit comments
28:18 musical interlude #4 - - -
Contact email | twitter
DrMullen@CoachingThroughChaos.com | @DrColleenMullen
firstname.lastname@example.org | @vahakn