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Villainette: Bangs

A puppet-encrusted mechanical drum machine for making transgender-genderqueer pop music.

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Accordions have a lot of buttons that make quite a lot of noise, but they’re not quite a full band, so I’m making a robotic drum machine to make my feminist/genderqueer rock & roll performances more awesome. For those who are already jaded about robots hitting drums, I am going to go further by carving whimsical wooden puppets over the mechanisms.

Our ears naturally melt for the sonic qualities of unamplified chamber and folk music while our hearts are moved by thunderously loud enveloping sound. Robots have a physical strength that will allow me to combine these oft-estranged qualities without having to hire a symphony. This drum machine is specifically for making loud sounds that should require no electric amplification: in addition to traditional drums I am making gongs from salvaged metal (a truck’s suspension spring, a water heater, a gas tank), shakers from D&D dice and carpentry nails, and tonal drones using tuned power-tool motors. These aren’t just random loud things, though, as I am carefully curating the sounds to acoustically affect a 60s electric-guitar wall-of-sound which is coming back into style in SF.

Video of drum test: https://youtu.be/34BwZ9H35g8

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These comically aggressive robots have a natural personality, which I would like to accentuate with puppetry. Instead of raw robotics, it will appear as if lawn-gnome-sized puppets are hitting the drums with various implements. To compliment my original repertoire of feminist pop/rock ballads, these carved wooden characters will include: a lady knight beating on the teeth of a patriarchal dragon, a riotgrrl shaking a fistfull of nails, a princess banging her head against a gas tank, etc.

I have built a few percussion pieces, am satisfied with the mechanisms and motors that I’ve prototyped, so I am ready to go into production of the full set and associated puppets. I am setting myself a reasonable production schedule: the percussion in 2 months, the puppets in another 4 months, and a polished stage performance within a year.

I need parts to expand the prototyped percussion pieces into a performance-ready drum kit: relays, power supplies, solenoids, motor speed controls and other hardware, a few more drums and musical power tools, and some chunks of basswood to make the decorative puppets. Any funds left over will go to prototyping a tunable air raid siren, experiment with custom large solenoids, and integrate PWM control for varied strike strength.

Video of prototype test: https://youtu.be/iJe-okTY3o4

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Honestly there are more and more mechanical instruments being built by genius roboticists every year, and they’re all so much more awesome than what I’m proposing, but they’re also intimidating and the music they’re being used for isn’t so accessible. My dream is for mechanized music to become so common place that every college band uses them like they were any other guitar or synth, and I’d like to push that along by demonstrating practical, simplified machines in an accessible musical style (pop/folk). As with all my builds, I will be documenting all my successes and failures for youtube, on which I already have almost a thousand subscribers.

I am a transgender-genderqueer full-time artist. My queer-themed graphic novel, Failing Sky, has been nominated for an Eisner Award two years running. I was apprentice to renowned Chicago puppeteer Blair Thomas while earning an MFA in Performance. For the last ten years I performed in bay area avant-folk band Corpus Callosum, writing, singing & playing accordion. I dropped out of music to start Failing Sky, but have been tinkering with mechanical music, which is now coming into fruition.

You can see my last project, which was totally un-mechanical folk music, here: https://youtu.be/3_7UD23KsME And video of past puppetry projects can be seen here: https://youtu.be/k2E3DZ9PvIo

Funded by San Francisco, CA (May 2015)