Dániel Váczi (right) plays a Glissotar, with clarinetist Ted Gurch. (GaTech/YouTube)

Jammin’ into the future: Guthman Musical Instrument Competition selects 2022 winners

Mark Gresham | 17 MAR 2020

The Guthman Musical Instrument Competition held its 2022 contest finals and concert on Saturday, March 12, at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts in West Midtown Atlanta. Judges Gerhard Behles, Paola Antonelli, and Rick Beato deliberated and selected this year’s winners from nine finalists. The audience also voted on a People’s Choice Award at the concert’s end. The winners shared a total of $10,000 in prizes.

In August 2021, musical inventors worldwide submitted their instruments to the 2022 competition. After an online showcase of 26 semifinalists, a committee of Georgia Tech faculty combined with public voting chose the nine finalists and their creators to compete in the final stage and perform in Saturday’s concert.

Competition finalists played their new instruments alongside local artists drawn from professional Atlanta musicians and a mix of Georgia Tech students, faculty, and alumni. The competitors and accompanying musicians met for the first time on the morning of the concert.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s iteration of the technology-intensive Guthman competition is that the winning instrument makes no use of electricity. Magnetism, yes; electricity, no.

The impressive Glissotar snared both the First Place prize and the People’s Choice Award.

Developed by Dániel Váczi and Tóbiás Terebessy, the Glissotar was inspired by the tárogató, a Hungarian single-reed instrument with a conical wooden body, commonly used in both Hungarian and Romanian folk music. Instead of the tárogató’s keys and tone holes, the Glissotar uses a longitudinal slot on the instrument’s tube, covered with a stretched magnetic ribbon. Pushing down on the ribbon seals the slot up to that point so you can produce any note in the available pitch continuum.

Design of the Glissotar

Design diagram of the Glissotar (glissonic.com)

The name, Glissotar, is a portmanteau contrived from glissando and tárogató. Glissotar is also short for the instrument’s longer formal name, Glissonic Tárogató.

For the performance, Váczi shared the stage with Ted Gurch, Associate Principal Clarinetist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Gurch, well-known among new music circles, also performs with the Atlanta Chamber Players and was a member of the technology-oriented chamber group Sonic Generator.

Although Váczi and Gurch had only met for the first time that same morning, they performed with great ease as if they had been playing together for some time. Váczi played the Glissotar, beginning solo, then Gurch joined in, first on bass clarinet, then switched to another Glissotar. One would expect Váczi to be well-versed with his instrument, but Gurch demonstrated that a professional clarinetist’s orsaxophonist’s technique adapts rather quickly to the Glissotar.

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The Glissotar’s tone resembles somewhat that of a saxophone but with a hint of English horn, so the impression left with my ears was slightly mellower than a typical sax. A pleasant reedy sound. Not entirely surprising in that the instrument uses a soprano saxophone mouthpiece with a mechanical octave mechanism just below it. But how well the magnetic foil securely seals the longitudinal slot all along its length will surely earn the respect of traditional wind instrument makers, repairers, and experienced players of single-reed instruments.

In addition to its inventiveness, the Glissotar is a most pragmatic device that could quickly make its way into the musical mainstream if enough professional and skilled amateur single-reed wind players pick up on it as part of their arsenal of varied instruments. It could go beyond novelty very quickly.

Xiao Xiao performs on the T-Voks accompanied by pianist Zachary Shah (GaTech/ YouTube)

Xiao Xiao performs on the T-Voks accompanied by pianist Zachary Shah (GaTech/ YouTube)

T-Voks took the Second Place prize. This entry by Xiao Xiao, Gregoire Locqueville, Christophe d’Alessandro, and Boris Doval, T-Voks is a Theremin connected to Voks, a performative singing synthesizer. High-quality multilingual voice synthesis is played in real-time through two types of controls. One is the Theremin itself; the other is a device for syllabic or rhythmic sequencing of speech. The Theremin’s frequency antenna modifies the output pitch while the amplitude antenna controls both volume as usual and vocal quality and effort. An additional pressure sensor attached to the player’s volume control hand handles syllabic sequencing.

Xiao Xiao performed on the T-Voks accompanied by Zachary Shah, a Georgia Tech biomedical engineering major and pianist. Unlike the T-Voks itself, their choice of vocal repertoire was quite traditional: Handel’s “Non lo dirò col labbro” (from the opera “Tolomeo, re d’Egitto,” HWV 25) and “La Vie en Rose” (“Life in pink”), the signature song of popular French singer Édith Piaf (1945).

Unlike the performance on the Glissotar, Xiao Xiao’s execution on the T-Voks had its share of pitch problems, while the vocal synthesis had more verbal idiosyncrasies than Peter Pears. But it is a fundamental concept with far more novel potential in its future development. Consider replacing the Theremin with a device that reads intended signals from the face and throat to control pitch and volume and real-time AI syllabification rather than sequencing (much like Gil Weinberg’s Skywalker Hand, developed at Georgia Tech). The goal here is, ultimately, direct mental control of synthesized singing. Let’s not imagine that researchers somewhere have not been working on it, but this is a path forward I see for T-Vox concepts, enabling the mute to enjoy real-time conversation or singing.

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The Third Place prize was awarded to the Chowndolo, Devloper Giacomo Lepri performed on the Chowndolo with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra cellist Brad Ritchie, who, like Gurch, also plays with the Atlanta Chamber Players and was a member of Sonic Generator.

Even more so than with the Glissotar, magnetism comes to the fore with the Chowndolo. Its central feature is a moving magnetic pendulum whose trajectory changes according to the placement of magnets underneath it, transforming the dancing pendulum’s oscillations into an evolving tapestry of sound. The sounds generated are entirely based on FM synthesis, with sound parameters controlled by sensing variations in the magnetic field.

The two Chowndolo played in this competition concert were small sculptural “installation” devices on a tabletop scale. My immediate future-think: a matter of scale. How about an installation with a 32-foot or longer pendulum, with its dance altered by the Earth’s magnetic field? Or you could go in the other direction, to a microscopic pendulum and magnetic nano-fluctuations fluctuations — either way, or both.

A pair of Chowndolos played by Giacomo Lepri, with cellist Brad Ritchie. (GaTech/YouTube)

A pair of Chowndolos played by Giacomo Lepri, with cellist Brad Ritchie. (GaTech/YouTube)

The Cicada earned a Judge’s Special Award for Spencer Topel, who originally developed it at Dartmouth College and commercialized the device in April 2021. Topel performed on the instrument in an electronic duet with Georgia Tech alum and electronic musician Sam Cape.

Cicada converts voltage to vibrations in a mechanical oscillator capable of generating acoustic modulation using tip-surface interaction between the instrument’s bridge and soundboard. The modulation effects are controllable and repeatable.

The five remaining finalist instruments were: AirGlow, The GLOBE, Licheri Guitar, Aristid, and The Hypercubes. Read more about all of this year’s finalists at guthman.gatech.edu/2022-finalists

The Guthman Musical Instrument Competition is one of the only competitions of its kind, dedicated to identifying the newest and most forward-thinking ideas in music. Each year, musical inventors worldwide come to Georgia Tech to share their creations and ideas about the future of music.

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Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.