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How to Build a Magnetized Piano Harp

Singer Samantha Urbani spent the day with inventor, sculptor, and instrument designer Andy Cavatorta.

What if there were untapped notes and pitches lying dormant in one of the world's most popular instruments? Then, what if somebody came along to awaken a new musical language in that ubiquitous instrument with the help of a few magnets?

In the final episode of season two of Sound Builders, presented by Harman, singer Samantha Urbani (Blood Orange) heads over to downtown Brooklyn, to spend the day with Andy Cavatorta. He's an inventor, sculptor, and instrument designer whose latest quest to program robots to make music has led him to the creation of his magnetized piano harp.

Cavatorta is no stranger to building his own instruments. His most recent claim to fame was his role in developing a homespun instrument for experimental musician Björk. In preparation for her 2013 Biophiliia tour, Björk commissioned Cavatorta to build harps that swung like multi-string pendulums and triggered musical patterns from Earth's gravitational pull.

For his latest musical creation, Andy has mounted a caboodle of magnets onto a piano's frame. Once the magnets are activated, electromagnetic vibrations pull and release the piano's steel strings in a bloom of various pitches in harmonic succession. By doing this, Andy has managed to feather dust an instrument that was created many centuries ago and offer it a new sonic vocabulary by tapping into the piano's uncharted harmonics. Indeed, our exchange between sound and instrument is an ever-evolving one that reminds us that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks.

While excavating new sounds from an old instrument is enough to make an audiophile tinkle his pants, it's the instrument's new interfaces and unique dialogue between the tactile and the magnetic player that's the real kicker. While one player is able to stimulate electromagnets by playing the keyboard, another tactile player can pluck, hammer, and touch the steel strings of the piano harp in order to shape their harmonic nodes and further manipulate the sound.

Here we see how Andy's multi-player magnetic piano harp can be a standalone instrument, but its inception was originally planned to be a cog in a larger wheel of organized sound. On November 16th at Littlefield in Brooklyn, composer Molly Herron will debut her New Music for New Instruments concert in which Andy and his electromagnetic harp will play alongside other instrument builders to create a symphony of sonic delight.

To learn more about harnessing the power of music, also check out " The Distortion of Sound," a new documentary about the decline of high-fidelity sound. Catch all previous Sound Builders episodes here.

This article was originally published on sister site Motherboard.​