Harping on Humans

Since I began exploring the science + art connection, I have become increasingly fascinated with the body’s relationship to music–both in its creation and in the actual experience of it. But what would happen if our bodies themselves were transformed into music-making instruments? London-based artist Di Mainstone seeks to answer that very question in her latest artistic endeavor–the Human Harp. Inspired by the iconic harp-like cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge, Mainstone began to wonder what it would be like if people could “play the bridge”:

As I listened to the hum of the steel suspension cables, the chatter of visitors and the musical ‘clonks’ of their footsteps along the bridge’s wooden walkway, I wondered if these sounds could be recorded, remixed and replayed through a collaborative digital interface? Mirroring the steel suspension cables of the bridge, I decided that this clip-on device could be harp-like, with retractable strings that physically attach the user or Movician’s body to the bridge, literally turning them into a human harp.

Human Harp Module

The Human Harp module.

The Human Harp places the user at the center of a network of strings, with each string responsible for a particular sound. To create this faux harp, the participant is connected to a series of retractable strings that are housed within a small clip-on module that detects how far the string is being pulled + at what angle the string is being drawn, and records this information on an Arduino microcontroller. These measurements are then integrated to control the mood, volume, pitch and intensity of each string’s given sound by first translating the data into Open Sound Control messages, which are then read by sound-synthesizing software. Consequently, the resulting sounds come to reflect the quality of the user’s movements, effectively engaging the participant in a collaboration with the strings to create music.

Last fall, Mainstone began assembling a team of artists + engineers to workshop and create the Human Harp interface. In May, Mainstone was joined by dancer Hollie Miller in New York to debut the first version of the Human Harp for The Creator’s Project. At the time, the prototype was too sensitive to be showcased outside of a controlled studio environment, so Mainstone + company demonstrated the concept through a silent performance on the Brooklyn Bridge. The sounds were then reverse engineered to match Miller’s movements, illustrating how the interface will ultimately look + sound. In its final iteration, the Human Harp will tour the globe, where it will be installed across a range of suspension bridges. Though participants won’t literally “play the bridge,” the sounds of the harp will be sourced from local musicians + live recordings of urban spaces to synthesize a site-specific soundscape composed by human movement, creating a wholly unique sonic // visual // interactive experience.