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April 28, 2010

Geek Out!: Violin + Wii Remotes = Rock

Posted: 12:48 PM ET
Karyn and the Wiitles
Karyn and the Wiitles

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Remember the moment Arnold Poindexter made jaws drop in the 1984 hit "Revenge of the Nerds," when he picked up his electric violin and brought the rock at the Lambda Lambda Lambda/Omega Mu talent show? It was an impressive transformation from "zero" to "hero." Was it possible geeks could be rock stars too?

The answer is yes (of course!), and this Thursday through Saturday, there will be plenty of geeking out over music and technology. Some of the best electronic musicians from all over the country will be converging in Atlanta, Georgia for the Third Annual City Skies Electronic Music Festival, where musical styles will range from “ambient to downtempo chillout to Berlin school to IDM to space music to experimental.” (Full disclosure: I'm one of those musicians getting ready to rock out.)

I’m a classically trained violin player, and I’ll be collaborating on a performance at the festival with The Wiitles, “the world's first and only Wii remote rock band.” It's going to be symphonic, discordant, alternately familiar yet alien, and yes, uber geeky. In fact, every time I plug in my (yep, electric) violin and my collaborators pick up their Wii remotes, I feel like we’re kind of creating a new language.

As a string player, some of my heroes include artists like Andrew Bird, Owen Pallett and Zoe Keating, who hook their instruments up to an array of electronics like loop pedals in order to create layer upon layer of rich, complex patterns in real time. Check out this great Radiolab podcast where Keating describes how she marries cello + laptop + electronics. On the more experimental/performance art side, Laurie Anderson famously invented, in the late 70s, a tape-bow violin using recorded magnetic tape on the bow and a magnetic tape head in the bridge.

The Wiitles sort of take all this to another level by turning Wii remotes into instruments and programming the buttons to trigger samples, loops, scenes and effects in a live setting (check out this animated video intro). They capitalize on the accelerometer and Bluetooth technology that come with every Wii remote, which allow the device to sense acceleration along three axes to detect pitch and roll.

The data obtained from the accelerometers and the different buttons are transmitted via Bluetooth and picked up by a Macbook Pro, where the data is converted for use by software that manipulates audio. Like Pallett and Keating, the Wiitles use Max/MSP (which can convert incoming data to MIDI), and also Osculator to make MIDI conversions and use that data to manipulate Ableton Live, a music sequencing program. Using Ableton Live, the potential for audio manipulation is limitless.

What this means for me is that I can take the familiar sound of my violin to some really strange, ethereal and warped places. For example, knocking against the side of the instrument near the pickup creates a hollow percussive sound. Running my fingers repeatedly over the strings sounds hauntingly like someone sighing. Playing fiddlesticks (adopted from a Cajun fiddle tradition where another band member strikes the strings on the upper fingerboard with thin sticks while I play) triggers a sound like marbles scattering across linoleum. All of this can be manipulated and incorporated into the music in real time during the performance.

Innovative technological appropriations have allowed us to marry classical and experimental music in surprising and wonderful ways. What are some of your favorite examples in this realm? Share your feedback in the comment section – we'd love to hear from you.

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Filed under: gadgets • Geek Out! • technology • Uncategorized

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Mike   April 28th, 2010 2:19 pm ET

Eagle1, these folks are using their creative talents to do something new- why is that so bad? They might be using video game controllers, but they are definitely not sitting "in front of the couch" (or TV). While taste in music is subjective, and I can't blame someone for not liking or appreciating their sound, I personally find it hard to be disgusted by people who are happy with being creative, making music, and entertaining people. They earn their badges by audience applause.

Kudos, Karyn and company.

KSW   April 28th, 2010 2:42 pm ET

Eagle1 – WAIT – did you mean to comment on the other article about Cub Scouts offering Gaming codes???

In case you weren't – While I do agree that many kids today need to get off the couch, I think perhaps you are missing the fact that these (grown men) ARE off the couch (and out of the box), as you can see if you link over to The Wiitles myspace page and watch one of their videos. In fact, as a former Girl Scout Cadette, I am pretty sure they would get a scout badge for innovation!
As Mike says, the music itself is actually hardly the point, but rather the creative and technological process, much like many badge projects, the Pine Car Derby being one of them. Wouldn't you say it has less to do with who wins and more to do with seeing and experiencing all of the different ways we as humans approach a project?
Perhaps a bit more contemplation before making such non-constructive criticisms about something that doesn't even really relate to what this article is about might be a good badge project for you?

rsnisk   April 28th, 2010 3:34 pm ET

ksw that could be the most incredible response to a terrible message ever. You get a badge for constructive criticism 🙂

rsnisk   April 28th, 2010 3:37 pm ET

dont think i forgot you mike
a+ for the response you gave too!

you get a badge for being the first responder to make an actual point 🙂

RP   April 28th, 2010 11:59 pm ET

To me, this group represents the death of music.

prairieson   April 29th, 2010 2:29 am ET

RP, the same was said of Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles... the list goes on and on. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but art(music) is in the eye of its creator.

Franko   April 29th, 2010 2:41 am ET

At first, I thought a science fiction terrorist group - protecting their queen, pointing lasers or tasers. - Sunglasses to protect their drug sensitized eyes

Body as your musical instrument, technology expanded.

Judson   April 29th, 2010 8:30 am ET

Hey Eagle1, didnt you hear that Boy Scouts now have a Badge for playing video games at least an hour per day!

guest   April 29th, 2010 10:43 am ET

@Eagle1 – Maybe in the future you might want to post your comments on the correct article. I believe you meant to be here instead of on this message board.

As far as the use of music with technology, I love the idea. Everyone has their own ideas of what art is and there can be some really great techno music created. And I've heard the electric violin's which sound terrifically like the non-electric versions. Thanks for the great blog on this new wave of music. If it wasn't for innovative folks like you guys, we'd be listening to all the old stuff all the time.

RP   April 29th, 2010 12:42 pm ET

prairieson – if what you say is true, than I hope that these boys (and girl) get themselves some nice thick glasses soon.

Patrick   April 29th, 2010 3:31 pm ET

Eagle 1 just wants kids off the couch so he can look at thier butts. Anyone who is an adult and still calls himself an Eagle Scout is friggin odd. I'm an avid outdoorsman. I hunt, fish, camp, hike, and know how to handle myself in the wilderness. I didn't have to hang out w/ weird grown men to learn this stuff. When we were kids, we just went outside and explored. No need for badges. Just a good ol' fun time.

QWERTY42   April 30th, 2010 10:46 am ET

Ummm... the Cub Scouts now offer a Video Game Merit Badge.... Eagle1, you've been outmoded... your move old timer.

Johnathon   April 30th, 2010 3:18 pm ET

Eagle 1, so people without fingers, any disability, or any hurdle to successfully play the real violin should suffer because...because of what, I am not exactly sure.

Tiger Cub mom   April 30th, 2010 3:33 pm ET

Ummmm, QWERTY42, the Cub Scouts now offer a BELT LOOP and PIN. Only Boy Scouts offer Merit Badges.

Tiger Cub mom   April 30th, 2010 3:34 pm ET

Sorry, Cub Scouts offer the Video Game Belt Loop and Pin.

Tom C.   April 30th, 2010 6:45 pm ET

Wow, I am awed by the grasp of the technology and obvious passion for the music....Rock on Karyn.....

easy shots at the scouts?   May 1st, 2010 10:30 am ET

so Patrick, KSW and Mike: Eagle1 has a very good point, too much technology has taken the place of getting dirty and exploration

the best you can hope for is to explore something with programming limits when you spend hours on these Wii's

I have tried them, the dancing program, the pattern recognition program and some of the games where you play each other

they are neat, but do the replace getting outside? To attack Eagle1 for saying it is what it is means you as well need to step away from the computer, you obviously spend too much time to realize that the computer does not replace outside

And Patrick the scouts offers outdoors to those that don't have your resources: rather than post stupid insults about looking at butts try donating some time to a worth cause

real Violin   May 1st, 2010 10:50 am ET

Jonathan, you have a point, but not one to make to Eagle1

of course it offers something, and to those that can't play a real violin it is wonderful

BUT the real violin is simply fantastic, just like other accoutic instruments, yes it is neat to put them through an amp and play with the sound, but I think a vast majority of musicans continually go back to the source – accoustic instruments – for grounding and inspiration

the Wii game is interesting, but not a replacement for the outdoors or accoustic music

So, I don't think the CNN article is suggesting that it is, I don't think many of you are, including Eagle1, but the point is clear don't let technology remove you from life

try to stay away from processed foods, try to stay grounded in your accoustic music roots first and explore electric modifications after and don't let the computer explore life for you, get outdoors

I'm pretty sure   May 1st, 2010 10:59 am ET

To prairieson: I'm pretty sure Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the list that goes on would think this project is removed from the world of music

most of that list grew up making music in clubs with an audience in front of them

not with some glorified mouse and a computer screen

you have nothing to say don't you   May 1st, 2010 11:00 am ET

rsnisk: you just post criticism, you really aren't a thinker are you

Pokefire   May 1st, 2010 11:03 am ET

"The data obtained from the accelerometers and the different buttons are transmitted via Bluetooth and picked up by a Macbook Pro"

Really couldn't have just said a laptop? Just another way Apple is getting more free advertising on this site.....

RP   May 1st, 2010 8:42 pm ET

@I'm pretty sure – I agree – when computers are involved, whatever is made cannot be considered music.

Troyzkoi   May 2nd, 2010 12:16 am ET

People look up the band Dead Weight. That is all I have to say

Troyzkoi   May 2nd, 2010 12:27 am ET

P.S. here is a link

they opened live for les claypool in Arcata 2002 and it was the sh@@@t

prairieson   May 2nd, 2010 3:06 am ET

I seriously doubt Schoenberg or Cage ever played clubs, but more to the point, Cage wrote compositions for piano and Coke bottle and other objects; as well as a piece called 4'33", in which the "music" was whatever ambient noise existed in the concert hall. And he's considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

As for a "glorified mouse and computer screen", what about the works of Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita, or the technical contributions of Robert Moog and Leon Theremin? Carlos' and Tomita's work is about as technically grounded as it can get , but undeniably music and beautiful to boot. It's not the instrument that defines music, it's the artist.

prairieson   May 2nd, 2010 3:12 am ET

I just found a quote which, I think, sums up my point very nicely... "the border between music and noise is always culturally defined—which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus.... By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be, except that it is 'sound through time'."

hahaha   May 2nd, 2010 10:52 am ET

I can't believe there are so many stalwart music purists at a point (holy cow 2010) where "purity" has to imply a complete ignorance or a complete denial of the last 150 years of music (maybe more). Furthermore, why are all of you philistinic luddites using computers? Shouldn't you be churning butter and reading by candlelight? I can't think of a single historically important naysayer. You people are a waste of space.

I can't think of a single historically important naysayer   May 2nd, 2010 11:09 am ET

no, you just can't think at all

and I have done the churning butter and reading by candle light; it actually teaches a lot of our continuing dependence on electricity, nothing wrong with it and much right with doing things homemade

try picking up an instrument and playing it, depend less on computers, try being less of a consummer and making more of your own things; you mr. hahaha (I like your name) are a reason among reasons why the U.S. is losing its prominence in the world

I am certainly not in denile, or a musical purist, or looking for purity (WOW I just noticed how many labels you have tried to hang on me), I am not a philistic luddite (good word had to look that one up)

I play guitar and piano, am a trained computer programmer and can appreciate their computer excercise on the level that it is just that a computer excercise

no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be   May 2nd, 2010 11:29 am ET

except the phrase that 'I will know it when I see it'

is it really an improvement? I like your comments and will check the works listed. I have friends that are composers that use the computer as a tool in helping them write their music. But... is this heading the direction of Kraftverk? How about when Kraftverk just put their blow up dolls in front of their synthesizers and walked off stage back in the late 1980s. Or when musicians pipe the music in and lip sync. Or sampling from other hits and paste together a song and call it their own music. Why is it great that they are this involved in electronically altering the music. From my reading, it is more removed from being human.

I disagree with your words about defining the artist: I don't think the artist should be sampling or making the computer do the music making for them

In the article's author case, she has said she is a trained musician, so she appreciates the more than just the computer as a crutch

Josh   May 3rd, 2010 10:03 am ET

I think most of you forget this:They've altered the Wii remotes; they aren't using the actual Wii system. They're only manipulating the the remotes.

Also, there's no reason NOT to use whatever sources available to create music. Music is a form of expression and a way to evoke some response from a person through sound and somtimes visuals.

Electronic instruments and computers can be just as important as traditional, acoustic instruments when making music.

Just as an unlearned person can make crappy music on an acoustic violin, an unlearned person can make crappy music using audio programs on a computer.

At the end of the day, neither traditional nor newer musical styles and production are any more or less important than the other.

So, why not make use of technology to help further our ability of expression?

Just as an unlearned person can make crappy music   May 3rd, 2010 11:32 am ET

no doubt, or an unlearned person can make beautiful art

not really an issue

here is some further thought that this discussion has brought:

I think art, like music, has taken a huge fall in recent decades

deconstructionism etc., after Picasso was Pollac really art? I don't think Warhol was, he took comics added some primary colors and sold it, shame on us; Pollack spashed paint... art?

Using technology to further expression: what a nice phrase... easy to say yes to... eroding standards, doing good work, making beautiful meaningful projects that are from us

Is the computer really playing chess? Are we really playing music through a computer?

Josh   May 3rd, 2010 12:57 pm ET

Who makes the "standards"?
At the end of the day, its all relative to who's asking the question and who's answering it. Art to me might not be art to you.

Art's more about what you get from it than whats put into it. Thats not to say that skill and dedication shouldn't go unrecognized.

Its silly to demonize technology as being something bad. It can be bad OR good; its all what you make of it and from it.

Whats so bad about deconstructionism?

Also, many of the "splashed paint" artists that you're demeaning usually start off with a foundation in life drawing. Its not as if they have no technical skill.

Foundations are a must, but to say that they're the only thing thats worth something would be silly. They're made to be built upon; to evolve and devolve.

many of the "splashed paint" artists that you're demeaning   May 3rd, 2010 3:59 pm ET

evidently no one makes the standards and the direction has gotten us to where we are, with a popluace more and more often discontented with both music and art produced by our society, I have read it with blogs even with CNN

I actually like Pollack, so I'd have to say that you did not read my post

I do not think deconstructionism did anything of value for architecture or art or food for that matter, but that is not what this article is about

You are reading that I am demonizing something, so I don't think we are even on the same blog

I don't feel the need to go any further with this discussion if you are going to misread what I type

It was fun for a bit, but this topic has outlived its interest

Josh   May 4th, 2010 9:27 am ET

It'd have helped if you'd been more clear with what you were saying.

"Pollack spashed paint... art?"
What was this supposed to mean? It sure seems like you're questioning Pollack's art.

can't resist the Pollack question   May 4th, 2010 10:21 am ET

"It sure seems like you're questioning Pollack's art"

I do think it is up for discussion in my mind, but I have an appreciation for Pollack's work, he from my view is just barely art, fascinating but art?

Where is the craftmanship, the learning

Now granted, with Pollack it can be applied the phrase "this painting took me 10 minutes to make; but it took me 30 years of training to get to that 10 minutes"

But that said, I appreciate your pointing out that I was unclear, but I do think all that is to be said has been about views on this article

I will give the works cited here including the author of this article's music a listen, but I also feel like this direction of music that we have been refering to is not a good one

Daved   May 7th, 2010 9:39 am ET

so many words ... so little SOUND. this band turns a gimmick on its head, producing wonderful music.

reign in blood   May 7th, 2010 6:17 pm ET


SSSSLLLLAAAAYYYYEEERRRR!!!!!!!!!   May 9th, 2010 7:49 am ET

give me Iron Maiden

so many words   May 9th, 2010 10:57 pm ET

your comment says nothing

producing wonderful music   May 9th, 2010 11:59 pm ET

you work for the band

hawk1   May 10th, 2010 6:44 pm ET

eagle 1 is an idiot

hawk1 is a coward   May 11th, 2010 12:06 pm ET

wow taking shots at the younger kids, make you feel important?

luis   May 13th, 2010 11:13 am ET

The David Crowder Band this years ago with the Guitar Hero Guitar through USB. Same thing. I did it myself using USB to MIDI commands and triggering them into Ableton Live or Reason.

are you interupting our name calling?   May 17th, 2010 11:51 am ET

Luis, that sounds too thought out for this blog

audience really taught us how to behave   May 18th, 2010 9:53 pm ET

From an interview with Mick Jagger => ""Jagger said he and his bandmates learned how to play to an audience when they first started playing small clubs in England and developed an early following.

"We had a super enthusiastic club audience," he said. "And that audience really taught us how to behave, how to have, you know, repartee with the audience and so on. Even from those early days, it's not really that different to the exchange that you get with a big audience.""

Can't get this with Wii, from this article => ""I’m a classically trained violin player, and I’ll be collaborating on a performance at the festival with The Wiitles, “the world's first and only Wii remote rock band.”"

sad, this Wii band is just sad, many of these bloggers just don't get it

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