Organic Matters

Alexandra Rodriguez (a.k.a. Culturalex) is an audiovisual alchemist and recent graduate, whose final year project produced some fresh (and nutritious) output… thanks to a little input.

Oh hai! What are you all about then?
I’m Alex! I was born into a colorful and noisy family in Venezuela, and towards the end of my childhood, we moved to Montreal, Canada. Brazil and Switzerland have also been my hosts for some years. I recently graduated in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal: woohoo!

So… Bio Electro Sounds?
Bio Electro Sounds is the second movement of a musical piece called Organic Alchemy; created as the opening act for my graduating art exhibition, Alice in Wasteland -- a multidisciplinary art exhibition about soil.

Central to the piece is an electronic and interactive instrument comprised of oranges, lime, bananas, grapefruit, and mushrooms; used as objects for triggering sampled sounds.

The piece’s narrative concerns the adventure of four strange explorers gathering for a ritualistic/tribal chant and then transforming into vibrant scientists that make sounds with biological material.

Very intriguing! Tell us more...
In light of 2015 being the International Year of Soils, I wanted to emphasize the value of soil and discuss both the threats caused by industrial agriculture and alternatives offered by permaculture.

Alice in Wasteland was a platform for questioning our relationship with soil and the process of cultivating our food. That was the idea behind using food as instruments.

*Note: All the vegetables and fruits that we used for rehearsals and performances were eaten after we used them. We ate a lot of carrots. A lot.

What led you to use Makey Makey?
A pleasant misunderstanding. When I first pitched the idea of creating a musical performance using fruits and vegetables to my class, my teacher thought I was referring to using a Makey Makey to create an interactive fruit performance. In my head I was referring to manually making instruments out of vegetables, inspired by the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.

When we realized that we were both talking about different things, and after she showed me a quick video of the different possibilities I could try with a Makey Makey, something exploded in my head. Both ideas merged: the acoustic with the electronic.

How does it work?
The fruits are connected to two Makey Makeys using alligator clips and connector wires.

The Makey Makeys were remapped and controlled using a piece of software called Soundplant, which assigns sounds to different keyboard letters.

The loop is triggered by a sampler.


Did you try a few different approaches?
I first toyed with the idea of having continuous sounds sustained by touch. However, as the creation of the track developed, the aesthetic started sounding more like a sampled hip hop-ish beat, so I switched to using Soundplant to imitate the function of a sampler.

Another experiment involved trying to attach the end of the ‘earth’ alligator clip to my wrist, so I could have both hands free to play at the same time, but for some reason I got a few shocks if I left it on for a while. I then decided to play safe and attached ‘earth’ to citric fruits, leaving the performers with one free hand to play with.

One final challenge to consider was the setup up of the objects. With two Makey Makeys, some short cables, and a lot of fruits to connect, I had to build a structure that would maximize the space and would be relatively easy to set up before every performance. So I decided to build a permanent structure with wood and nails, before taping the cables to the structure so the circuit could be easy to follow.

Did using Makey Makey make your vision easier to create?
I wouldn’t say it made the project easier, because I had never made an interactive object from scratch before, so it was a challenge. However, in terms of building an interactive object, using Makey Makey meant I was able to build this by myself. If I had used other boards, I would have definitely needed the brain of an engineer and a programmer. There is no way I could’ve done this alone using other alternatives.

What has been the response to your work?
A lot of people are in awe when they see the video for the first time, and hastily ask questions like: “How did you do that?”, “How does it work?”, “How is it possible?”, etc. I have also gotten a lot of questions and comments about the concept of the piece. In either case, the project has brought a smile to people’s faces.

There have also been some interesting comments about the rhythm of the piece like “Why are you dancing off the beat, Alex?” Very few people so far have caught that the piece is in 4/4 not 3/4. Perhaps it’s the initial loop that is a bit tricky, but when all the sounds come in, the feel becomes clearer.

Did you ace the class with it?
Yes. But more valuable than the grade was the feedback during the process and after the final piece was presented. Art is hard to grade, so the comments are what I am most excited – and nervous – about receiving. Overall, the feedback received was positive and included “Your piece made me feel like I was inside a Frida Kahlo painting” and “When’s the CD coming out?” :)

What’s next?
Working on this project has created a thirst for building instruments and creating musical experiences out of unexpected objects and situations. I recently started a blog called The Rhythm Sketchbook where I document curious aural experiences and encounters. I post photos, videos, and recorded samples and soundscapes that are free to download and use for creative purposes. I hope that this project inspires others and flourishes into new ideas.

Opening Scene

Listen to Alex's tweets @culturalex
Listen to the track