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 Heliosonics , 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 pendulum.
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 erratic wobbles.

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 Heliosonics CD.

Heliosonics was a 15-month project funded by the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council.

Review by Edward Kelly.

Originally published in ReNew Issue 76, July-September 2001 by the (Australian) Alternative Technology Association, Melbourne.

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