A man and his sunshine
Solar and wind-powered instruments were used to produce a unique music CD
Ernie Althoff has been composing new music for 25 years. He has been composing
with sustainable technology for considerably less. Constructing solar powered
kinetic sounding devices, Ernie has relied on sunlight, wind and other outdoor
variables to produce
, a CD featuring 16 tracks of these devices.
The compositions consist of a number of machines operating simultaneously and
being controlled by the natural elements. Recorded at several locations
featuring a diversity of background ambience (cars, construction, wildlife),
the pieces reflect the audio world of our everyday environment, where chaotic
and chance happennings determine rhythmic and textural structure.
Initially constructing battery powered units, Ernie later switched to solar
power, adding another chaotic element to the devices. Utilising the PV cell and
motor from a number of Dick Smith Electronics educational kits, many of the
devices operate in a manner not unlike a wind chime with a motor controlled
pendulum. Unlike a wind chime, the pendulum is constantly spinning (sunlight
dependent) so Ernie divided the machines into two groups - one sounding
continuously and the other sounding sporadically. This division of continuous
and sporadic provides a simple reflection of sounds, such as the sea, cicada
song and traffic hum against a sudden birdcall.
Featuring pendulums and sound sources constructed from pieces of bamboo,
plywood, dowel, aluminium and tinplate, all 26 machines have been constructed
with deliberate variety in mind and all sound uniquely different. The sporadic
machines utilise a number of techniques to attain randomness:
1. having free-hanging sound sources that are not always in reach of the
2. having the motor and pendulum on a biased swinging balanced beam, the sound
sources only reachable through movement.
3. having an electronic switch carefully balanced to connect/disconnect power
to the motor (this also controlling the one non-acoustic machine - a modified
radio in a resonating chamber issuing a clicky hum.).
4. having a slight imbalance in the rotating pendulum, only sounding with
Early creations utilised batteries with the idea to create a constant base (for
when the sun is hidden), but simplicity won out with there being no real need
for constancy. The option of building an ensemble with deliberate relations
between the machines (a la string quartet) was discarded with the embracing of
individuality. The devices are not tuned to any key or scale, nor are they
tuned to each other - they are tuned to themselves, depending on their
composite materials and shapes for tonal quality.
The recorded pieces are but snippets of the limitless potentialities of such
open ended, chance compositions. Each composition is an exercise in timbre and
context, with factors such as machine combinations, relative position, time of
day and choice of environments all being carefully considered.
A booklet of colour photographs with text descriptions of the machines and the
16 tracks accompanies the
was a 15-month project funded by the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia
Review by Edward Kelly.
Originally published in
Issue 76, July-September 2001 by the (Australian) Alternative Technology