Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Visionary Instruments: The Light Harp

11 September 2007

Visionary Instruments: The Light Harp

"We are the music makers, the dreamers of dreams."
- Arthur O'Shaughnessy

I recently discovered another new instrument designed for use by more than one person: Jen Lewin's ultra-cool Light Harp. Starting with a Theremin-type concept (waving your hands through space to make music) and expanding it into several new dimensions, the Light Harp is a massive installation piece that uses laser beams to translate its users' motions into sound.

You literally play this thing by catching light in your hand. Each beam measures both the height and speed at which it is broken and assigns them independent variables - volume, pitch, etc. Lewin has been making them for twelve years, but she's gotten a lot of exposure from more recent exhibitions at Burning Man 2005 and Wired's NextFest 2007.

Less a formal instrument and more an interactive sculpture, Lewin's vision is to have her Light Harps played with haphazardly with up to sixty people, while still making beautiful noise. Here is a demonstrative video of children playing the Light Harp (many more on her website):


...and here is a totally different use of the harp, featuring a dancer with gauzy wings:



So there you have it. The more we as a culture enter into a relationship with our environment and understand that all sound is music from the right perspective (paraphrasing Ken Wilber, "Art is anything with a frame around it"), the more we are going to create works of art that reveal this understanding.

The Light Harp is one such piece - a real work of grace that reminds us of our role as creators in the world and invites us to participate in that creation. An appropriate artifact for Burning Man, a festival at which the principle of "radical participation" - being through doing - is fiercely upheld as an antidote to our culture of passive consumption.

Long, long ao, we lost our sense that everyone is a musician, that everyone is an active part of the celebration. We marvel at African cultures in which everyone knows they can sing and dance, and does so from birth. We handed over the responsibility for our art to the chosen few, and then we handed over our choice. Now we live in an age in which most people believe that art (and especially music) is something that belongs to someone else, some nubile god-king or queen of the recording leviathan.

But at the same time, we are discovering the sacred voice of the world, the creative will of not just everyone, but everything. An increasing amount of popular music features "found sounds" and atmospheric rhythms gathered from natural sources. Björk's soundtrack to the film Dancer in the Dark is punctuated with the beats of factory machines, footsteps, and railcars.

We are waking up to a world that presents itself to us as a gift, and we in return are beginning to sculpt a culture that engages us as active co-conspirators in the divine dance of it all. Beauty is back in rank with Truth and Goodness. We are the music makers, again, finally. The Light Harp is proof.

(Written for iggli.com.)