Imagine the following scenario: you are presented with a wooden box with two, what seems to be plasma strips along the top. On one side of the cube you see a speaker, and on the other you see the following words carved into an elegant circuit design: D-box. You are told that this is a musical instrument - what’s more, you are told to just experiment with it, and to, through play, try to figure out the capacities of this seemingly simplistic box-thing.


This is the creation of Andrew McPherson, Senior Lecturer in Digital Media at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the key members of the Mixed Reality Laboratory at Nottingham University.


But let us, for a moment return to this initial scenario - how do you interact with this instrument? Too fearful of playing the instrument the wrong way, I peek at what other people are doing, figuring that they would know what’s the right way to do it. And from my not-so-excellent espionage work, I discovered the following:


  1. The two strips both play a role in producing sound - one is involved in pitch, and the other has a phaser-like quality when it is pressed in conjunction with the first strip.
  2. There is also a percussion aspect to the instrument: it has a nice hollow sort of sound when tapped (which, I later discovered, was due to there being mics on the inside of the instrument).


It was not long before we were instructed to open up the box and asked to re-wire it. It was, at first, an incredibly frustrating experience. I was nervous; of being somehow wrong, or unimaginative enough to make anything interesting. And at first this was the case: I would plug and unplug, and nothing would happen. I read the instructions over and over, tried to work in a systematic way. Yet nothing would happen - or something would, but it would sound like an angry electrical fart and I felt too embarrassed to proclaim or associate myself with this sound - must my creative child be so crass?


I eventually gave up this strategy and instead, relocated the different bits and bobs without trying to control what outcome I wanted anymore, and would just experiment. It was then that I heard it - the creative child that I had been waiting for - an eccentric eerie sound that resembled the sort of music that accompanied an alien encounter in a poor 90s film or TV series.


But of course, one gained much more from this instrument than a lovely sound that now acts as my text ringtone. The significance is, I feel, two-fold. The first lies from the position of the creator: it is an acute attention to the fact that in the creation of an object, your intention or ideas of how it is to be used will never fully capture the way in which people will use it. D-box of course is not unique in this sense (though it is perhaps unique in making this aspect more transparent) – the act of Parkour can stand as a testament of how urban infrastructure may be used in unexpected or anticipated ways.


The second comes from the perspective of the participant, as Emma, one of the other participants of the workshop states: “It was a real mix between frustration and exhilaration. It was like learning to play again.” I think Emma really encapsulates the whole experience beautifully there (and doing so without any mention of angry electrical fart noises as well): we were learning to play again; we were learning to forego these expectations of doing something the ‘correct way’, and learning to just embrace the experience, or, as Emma again more eloquently puts it: “create a connection with something such that it just becomes an extension of you”.


Such a discovery is significant in not only an objective way (as psychological experiments have indicated the importance of both imaginative and physical play in childhood), but also, in a more personal sense; a someone who spends a significant amount of time in the educational system, it was for me, a stark personal reminder of how, through time, I had become more concerned with the necessity to be correct than really just being exploratory, adventurous, or even playful. Though not as simple as merely switching around a few wires, perhaps it too was time that I changed my tune. But that’s enough for now, I hear my alien melody calling me...


If you feel this resonates with you, we have lots more music-making tech workshops coming up, from Tweet and Shout to Retro Electro. This workshop was part of The Performing Data Project at FACT.