Indiana Jones and the incredible Continuum Fingerboard

ECE News

Lauren Eichmann, ECE Illinois

Story Highlights

  • Prof. Lippold Haken's Continuum Fingerboard is featured prominently in the soundtrack of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."
  • The Continuum Fingerboard is described as a fretless style keyboard.
  • Many notables have played the Continuum including John Paul Jones, Terry Lawelss, Jordan Rudess, and A.R. Rahman.
The full-sized Continuum Fingerboard, created by ECE alumnus and lecturer Lippold Haken.
The full-sized Continuum Fingerboard, created by ECE alumnus and lecturer Lippold Haken.

There?s a new character in the latest Indiana Jones movie, one with Illinois roots. But you won?t see this character on screen; you?ll have to listen for it in the soundtrack created by legendary composer John Williams. The Continuum Fingerboard, a unique musical instrument designed and built by ECE Illinois alumnus and professor Lippold Haken, plays an important role in the movie?s music.

The movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, integrates Haken?s unique electronic instrument-often described as a fretless keyboard-into one of its soundtrack?s recurring themes. Although it has previously been used for sound effects in movies including Superman Returns and War of the Worlds, the instrument is being used in a revolutionary way as part of Williams? orchestra.

"The Continuum is now a real member of the orchestra, as opposed to ambient sound," said Haken of its use in Indiana Jones. "The Continuum has reached a level of maturity where it?s no longer like, ?Hey, look at this weird widget.? It?s being taken seriously as a real orchestral instrument. And that?s very exciting."

Lippold  Haken
Lippold Haken

Haken started working on the design of the Continuum Fingerboard as a graduate student at Illinois in the early ?80s in Donald Bitzer?s Computer-based Education Research Lab (CERL) on the Urbana campus. He later finished the preliminary design in the mid-?90s and officially released the Continuum Fingerboard in 2000. Haken currently teaches ECE 395: Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory at Illinois. He often incorporates the Continuum Fingerboard into his classroom activities.

In his teaching statement, Haken acknowledged how musicians and engineers live in quite different worlds. He would ultimately like engineering students at Illinois to earn an appreciation for computer music and its technology to such an extent that they are able to learn what it means to do "serious" interdisciplinary work with sound designers and musicians.

"In undergraduate teaching, I feel it is important to nurture ECE student pride in their ability to design and build working devices," said Haken. "It is important for students to have enough time to implement their own ideas; it is good experience for students to learn how to select chips, how to design PCBs, how to design and debug software and dsp algorithms, how to work with the machine shop, etcetera. Both guided learning in structured courses as well as independent project experience are important for our undergraduates."

Making it on the silver screen

In the film, the music is performed as part of a collaboration between Randy Kerber and Williams?best known for producing some of Hollywood?s most notable movie scores including those for Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, E.T., Schindler?s List, and Harry Potter.

Haken said he was first contacted by Kerber, who has been following the development of the Continuum for more than a year. As a Los Angeles studio musician, Kerber has played piano and synthesizer on about 800 feature films and countless album projects over the last 28 years. He said he has experience working with the Ondes Martenot - an electronic instrument invented in the 1920s and the closest thing resembling the Continuum - which gave him a significant advantage in learning to play Haken?s musical invention within a short time frame.

"Many people want to use the Continuum as a device that will instantly let them perform this one specific sound," explained Haken. "What they don?t realize is that it?s a difficult instrument to play. You actually have to learn to play it well. It?s sort of like picking up the clarinet if you?re a violin player. It?s going to take a while to learn how to play it well."

In fact, Haken said that is one of his greatest worries: that people will not respect what the Continuum has to offer. "I have this fear for people under time pressure who may get a bad impression of the instrument, or not fully appreciate its capabilities because they don?t have the time to learn it," he said.

But Haken said Kerber, who had to learn the Continuum in less than a month, has a lot of skills that make him uniquely suited to doing this. "With his level of experience, especially with the Ondes Martenot, he was able to do expressive things with the Continuum right away," said Haken. "He?s very skilled under pressure. Although he does realize that he can?t yet do everything that the Continuum has to offer, he was pleased that it was not as difficult as he had feared it would be for him."

Haken said most of the instrument?s expression does not come from the sound itself; rather, it comes from what you do with your fingers. Kerber purchased a full-size Continuum - which is also available in a half-size version - and a voltage converter, which allows him to use the instrument with both modern digital synthesizers as well as the 1960s style analog synthesizers.

"The instrument is so wonderfully expressive that I was very happy to have it in my arsenal," said Kerber in an e-mail, who added how he is excited to continue to learn to play the Continuum. "I am quite encouraged by the myriad of possibilities, both from the program and certainly from the Continuum," he wrote. "I look forward to more music with (the) fabulous controller."

As a fan of what will now be a tetralogy, Haken said he will see the fourth film in the theatre. "I?m not sure it would be easy to hear the Continuum in the soundtrack," said Haken, who has not yet heard the music. "My hope is that it?s really a part of the ensemble and if it is noticeable, it?s noticeable in a beautiful way as opposed to, ?Gee here?s this electronic thing along with this beautiful orchestra.?"

Haken said he wants to stress that, like other instruments, the Continuum takes time to learn. "A lot of people say, ?Wow, this is neat. Can I try it?? It?s similar to going out and trying the violin when you?ve never played the violin before. It takes quite some time. Because it?s electronic, they think they can just press some buttons and be able to use it. Just trying it out won?t tell you much of the instrument?s capabilities."

About the Continuum

Built by hand at Haken Audio in Champaign, Ill., each Continuum is made of thick metal with a soft red nylon over neoprene surface. As a non-traditional keyboard, it has no keys, and only markings indicate finger placement. Players are able to generate different sounds, pitches and volume by sliding their fingers across horizontally, vertically, or by applying pressure to the surface.

John Paul Jones, a former bass guitarist and keyboardist with Led Zeppelin, keyboardist Terry Lawless of U2, Jordan Rudess of progressive metal band Dream Theatre, and famous Indian composer A. R. Rahman have all purchased the Continuum and are either still experimenting or performing with the instrument already, said Haken.

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