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Laser Musicbox

October’s Awesome Ottawa award goes to Christopher Smeenk to support his making music with lasers.

Christopher, a physics PhD student at the University of Ottawa and the Attosecond Science Lab at the National Research Council, explains that his scientific work “focuses on applications of ultrashort laser pulses to control and image matter on the atomic scale.” But he’s also interested in, as he puts it, “delivering tangible outcomes that non-specialists can enjoy.” So he has developed a new method to make music that he calls the laser musicbox.

“New developments in laser technology,” Christopher explains, “make it possible to use light to create and control sound – merging the sensations of sight and hearing into a single experience. By focusing an ultrashort laser pulse into air it is possible to simultaneously generate an audible sound and colours spanning the entire visible spectrum. By focusing a laser pulse into air we create a plasma, i.e., a gas of electrons and ions. When the hot plasma expands into the surrounding cooler air it creates a shock wave that you can hear. By controlling the frequency of the laser pulses we can manipulate the pitch of the note and play a melody.”

So far, Christopher has used his laser music box to play back scales, as well as two pieces of music from Daft Punk. Next, he plans to connect a piano keyboard to the laser to transform it into a musical instrument, and invite musicians and composers into the lab to experiment with the technology. He hopes to eventually use the laser in performance, with a small ensemble of musicians. He also plans to open up the software he is developing to others interested in experimenting with music and light.

To learn more about Christopher’s laser musicbox — he has written a short paper about how it works — and to follow his progress, visit https://sites.google.com/site/csmeenk/laser-musicbox.


Funded by Ottawa, ON (October 2012)