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Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  

By Marcia Porter

“If the body made music, what would that sound like? As a composer, it’s an interesting question to ask.”

A curious question from a curious person. Dr. Andrew Staniland, associate professor (composition, electronic music) at the School of Music, ultimately funneled that curiosity into a successful submission for the 2016 Terra Nova Young Innovator Award.

“I’ve been practicing mindfulness for several years, and I really enjoy it,” said Dr. Staniland, by way of explanation of the genesis of his award-winning project. “I thought it would be interesting to make an instrument that would help deepen mindfulness practice and bring together two passions, composition and mindfulness.

“My vision was to make an instrument to be played not with your physical hands or bow or mallet, but played with signals that would come in from your actual body,” said Dr. Staniland, seated at a suite of equipment in the Memorial Electro Acoustic Research Lab (MEARL), housed at the school.

Unique to Atlantic Canada, the MEARL opened in 2012, two years after Dr. Staniland joined the School of Music as a faculty member.

It’s a research and creative space where you’ll find computers, electronic keyboards, speakers and assorted equipment — all necessary pieces for musical exploration.

Today, blinking lights, circuits, wires and buttons all come together in an early prototype of the new instrument, the result of the Terra Nova award. It looks kind of like a UFO, albeit one that fits in the palm of your hand.

While it can’t fly, the instrument’s speaker does sense motion and responds with sounds like notes on a piano keyboard.

The MEARL instrument prototype
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

There are three modes that offer a realm of musical possibilities. In mindfulness mode, you can play without ever touching the instrument; while in ambient mode, it plays by itself based on real-time environmental signals.

“Once you have data coming in, you can interpret it as music, melodies, harmony and rhythm,” Dr. Staniland said. “It’s a lot of fun to explore.”

Engineering and music

Fifth-year electrical engineering students Alycia Leonard and Mark Bennett nod their heads as they watch Dr. Staniland’s demonstration; this is their handiwork.

The pair are Dr. Staniland’s work-term students, hired last September. It’s their final work term before graduation.

“It was a big, blue sky event,” said Dr. Staniland of their first meeting. “I showed them the proposal and asked if they could build it and they said, ‘Sure.’”

Fortuitously, not only do the students possess the engineering know-how, they’re both also musically inclined.

Mr. Bennett learned to play guitar growing up in Clarenville, N.L., where his mom taught music. His brother Shawn Bennett is a School of Music graduate and a music teacher in Botwood, N.L.

Ms. Leonard, from St. Philips, studied piano and saxophone.

The translation of engineering expertise to the musical instrument was much easier to achieve in the MEARL, says Ms. Leonard.

“In terms of getting in and seeing how the sounds interact with Andrew’s music, this space is crucial for that.”

And as it turns out, the work term experience has been fruitful for the students, too.

“It’s my dream job,” said Mr. Bennett of the chance to combine his love of music with engineering. He plans to study music technology at graduate school.

Ms. Leonard is also applying to graduate schools and hopes to do a program in sustainable development. She wants to work in rural areas of the developing world to help establish electrical systems. This project has helped her think about knowledge translation.

“There are so many possibilities for this instrument, beyond my own realm.” — Dr. Andrew Staniland

For this interdisciplinary team, the entire process has been inspiring.

“There are so many possibilities for this instrument, beyond my own realm,” said Dr. Staniland. “It can be played by someone who isn’t able to move or touch things. Just think about the social impact it can have in health care, for example. There are so many uses.”

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