Andy Cavatorta: The Sound Artist at Work

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Andy Cavatorta has kind eyes, a melodic voice, and a master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab. His pleasant demeanor complements the aural sculptures he creates, and it is strangely comforting that someone so warmly human creates such gigantic steel-swinging robotic structures.

And yet, the mild-mannered Cavatorta began his career as a punk rocker in the 80s and 90s, and his currently shaved head was likely the home of a Mohawk hairstyle at one time. Perhaps not all punk rock is created equal.

His creation for this year’s TED Active was The Dervishes, a musical installation featuring 14 spinning machines which create controlled voice-like tones through their motions. It is a caged animal of angelic sound – a robot that spins plastic tubes in a widespread circular motion to create a harmony. The tubes spin sometimes slowly and sometimes violently. The structure itself resembles a cyclone of heavy metal and plastic.

Cavatorta was inspired by the 16th century polyphonic music of Lassus, Tallis, and Byrd. For The Dervishes to create different notes, Cavatorta cuts the plastic tubes down in various sizes. Air whips down each tube as it spins, creating sound. The tubes are controlled by a computer that uses complex algorithms to deliver notes that Cavatorta has extrapolated from a piece of music. The sound produced is harmonious and heavenly, and two listeners would never agree on which era the song belongs.

As a rocker living in New York City, Cavatorta would find different instruments discarded on the streets and in the trash. He found himself writing completely new music on the found instruments and giving new life to his former compositions. These instruments were alive, had a history — and he was exploring their future.

The term “reimagine” resounds with Cavatorta. He has found that humans need new ways to say the same truths — truths that have been learned from the past.

As a chosen honoree for the Lincoln Reimagine Project™, Cavatorta plans to make The Dervishes into a more complex being and enable it to produce richer compositions. He will replace some of the metal and plastic with more advanced materials and plans to take the installation to a staging facility where he can properly test it. The next time we see The Dervishes it may look a little shinier, but it will always be punk rock.

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