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We spoke to Alon Ilsar, the genius mind pioneering new drumming technology that forgoes the traditional drum kit for the air around us.
Not content with virtuosic mastery of the acoustic drum kit, Australian musician, composer, electronic percussionist and sound designer Alon Ilsar has spent his most recent years developing the AirSticks – a groundbreaking electronic drumming instrument which beautifully integrates forward thinking technology with physical, gestural practicality to give performers greater control over their sound and sonic manipulation in a 3D virtual space.
The result has provided Ilsar an instantly identifiable voice in the world of electronic drumming, with the AirSticks themselves set to change how live electronic music is performed, and to further augment – and strengthen – the relationship between musicianship and software engineering.
Can you please tell us about the process of creating the AirSticks, and what drove you to create it?
I have an intense love for both rhythm and the exploration of new music and sound. As a drummer growing up I would play along to all sorts of records, from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but I also played along to electronic music that greatly inspired my drumming; acts like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Amon Tobin. I played a lot on electronic pads, but they could not provide the nuanced control over sound that I was searching for. I somehow got the idea into my head that having the ability to strike and slash the air instead of hitting a pad would allow me to be more expressive and to improvise and play with more elements of the sound. Luckily for me, I found a computer programmer and the technology that made it all possible.
You mention computer programming and expansion of existing drum technology (and playing styles) to achieve your sound. Can you explain how the software and hardware come together and how you use it in real time?
The innovation of the AirSticks is in the software system we have designed. The possibilities of motion capture will never catch up with our imaginations, but the off-the-shelf and unfortunately discontinued Razer Hydra Gaming Controllers that we use come close.
The controllers comprise of two joysticks tethered to a base station connected to a computer using USB. The joysticks can be moved freely in space (so far as the tethering cables permit), and our custom software translates this movement data into MIDI which I then use to make mappings in Ableton Live. The controllers consist of several buttons which allow me to change modes and play rhythms with the fingers and thumbs, and loop phrases all without the audience noticing.
The orientation of the wrist is used to detect a strike, and absolute position determines the sound. Like electronic pads, this system controls the volume and brightness of a sound, but with the AirSticks, the attack, sustain and release of a sound can also be controlled. In this way, the AirSticks are more like a keyboard synthesiser or a percussive 3D theremin, morphing from sound to sound in the air, while also being able to manipulate effects on other instruments and trigger visuals.
What advice would you give other people in the midst of innovating a concept?
Collaborate. Talk to people. Share your ideas. I’m a huge advocate of true collaboration, not just cooperation. We all have different specialities and all desire different things. You need to do your research enough to be able to speak the same language as those who you collaborate with, but if you can find passionate people to work with who share the same values, incredible goals can be set and achieved.
Why relocate to New York, and has it lived up to your assumptions?
My partner received a scholarship to do research in New York, not a bad city to follow someone to. Also I am currently finishing up my PhD on instrument design through the University of Technology, Sydney, so I took the opportunity to use the last months of my scholarship to write up my thesis during the days, and explore the New York music scene by night. I’ve been to New York several times over the years, and have listened to recordings of so many great musicians from the city, so it has been inspiring for me to seek them out and start new collaborations.
Has the music scene, jazz and traditional, swayed you in New York?
Not so much the traditional jazz scene, but definitely the improvised and new music scenes. There are so many incredible musicians in New York across so many genres that the genre lines get extremely blurry. I love that. I’ve always investigated these areas between traditions, and here in New York collaborations across art forms are also much more common. For example I’ve worked with more dancers in my short time in New York than I have in my whole career. Also, there’s an elegance and simplicity to much art making in New York, while still respecting traditional practices, that I am trying to learn from.
What differences have there been, both culturally and musically, that may have taken you some time to get used to?
Nothing too drastic, though New York is such a global city. It does seem like rules here are used more as “guidelines”, and New York prides itself on allowing its citizens to have the freedom to do as they please, as long as it doesn’t negatively effect others…too much. I think that’s a much better model than the current “nanny state” solutions in Sydney to the problems inherent in sharing close quarters with other humans. Some of my puns go over people’s heads here. And I need to be careful not to swear as much as I do back home…
Do you think you’ve had better luck in America with the AirSticks than you would have had in Australia?
America, and particularly New York, prides itself in allowing everyone to reach their full potential. There’s no tall poppy syndrome, there’s no need to hide behind self-deprecating humour or sarcasm. But there’s also no safety net at all.
What advice would you give to other Australian musicians wanting to live in America?
Do it! Australia will still be there when you get back.
To keep up to date with Alon’s performances and learn more about the AirSticks, head to alonilsar.com/airsticks.