Musical gestures

Some weeks back I had the privilege of watching the Masters’ thesis presentations at NYU’s Department of Music Technology. There were many cool ideas on display, lots of innovative musical instruments, and ways of interacting with computers to controlling sound in aesthetically exciting ways.

Many of these presentations were very much centered on the relationship between music and the body. They were exploring how we, as humans, use our hands, our fingers, our ears, to create and modulate musical expression.

It all reminded me of something, but at the time I couldn’t place just what that was. Recently, I have figured it out.

It all reminded me of the expressiveness I see when people are speaking in American Sign Language (or its cousin languages British Sign Language, Nicaraguan Sign Language, etc.). These are also examples of the body, the hands and fingers, even the focus of attention, being used to create rich real-time expression for other people.

Now I want to do a project in which ASL is used as an instrument for playing and expressing music. We certainly have the means to explore this at NYU, since we have a wonderful motion capture lab, in which we can accurately measure even the finest movements of arms, hands and fingers.

On the one hand, using ASL to create music seems like an unlikely collision of two very different worlds. But maybe that’s ok. After all, being essentially deaf between 1822 and 1824 didn’t stop Beethoven from composing his Symphony No. 9 in D minor.

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