ECE staff member and lecturer make music that's truly electric

ECE News

Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Electronic Services Shop Technician Mark Smart performed as the headliner at the 2009 SEAMUS conference.
  • Smart played two Tesla coils using the Continuum Fingerboard invented by Lecturer Lippold Haken.
  • The piece "Risky Business: A tribute to Tesla" was co-composed by Smart and music professor Scott Wyatt.

Mark Wayne Smart
Mark Wayne Smart

On a nice day, it's not uncommon to see someone picking a guitar on the quad, or even a circle of people pounding away on drums.  But two seven-foot Tesla coils spouting bolts of electricity? That's bound to turn some heads. At least that was the experience of Electronic Services Shop Technician Mark Smart when he performed as the headliner for the 2009 annual conference of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). The conference, held on the campus of Sweetwater Sound in Fort Wayne featured a variety of papers, master classes, and of course, concerts from electronic musicians around the country and the globe.

"SEAMUS is a society of composers, musicians and teachers who combine electronically processed sound with acoustic instruments or live performance," said Smart. "Every year they hold a conference at a different location in the U.S. This was the first time I've attended one."

People still remember Smart's Tesla coil performance from the 2008 Engineering Open House (EOH) when he performed with the coils on the patio on the north end of Engineering Hall. His performance brought a sizable crowd, despite bitter temperatures and was voted the "Most Popular" exhibit at the EOH. Smart's jaw-dropping performance was the result of collaboration of many different wings of ECE. The coils that Smart manipulated to make sounds were designed by ECE alumnus Steve Ward (BSEE '08), and the Continuum Fingerboard that Smart used to play the coils was designed by ECE Lecturer Lippold Haken.

Mark Smart (far right) plays the Continuum Fingerboard as the Tesla coils fire behind him.
Mark Smart (far right) plays the Continuum Fingerboard as the Tesla coils fire behind him.

The Continuum Fingerboard was first conceived and built by Haken in the mid-1980s. The instrument consists of a long, spongy surface about the size of a piano keyboard. The musician controls the sound by moving his or her finger horizontally along the board for pitch and vibrato and vertically for special effects. The player can also control the volume of the notes being played by adjusting how hard he or she pushes on the board. Together, all of this gives the player a three-dimensional control over the sound.

"When I first set out to design the instrument, I wanted to invent an instrument that could precisely track vibrato and other finger motions," said Haken. "And by far the biggest challenge was to make it polyphonic, so that it could be played with multiple fingers and multiple tones at the same time."

Lippold  Haken
Lippold Haken

Since its invention, the Continuum Fingerboard has steadily grown in popularity. Haken has sold approximately 200, assembling each one by hand in his basement. Haken has sold fingerboards to the likes of Lou Reed, Jean Michael Jarre, John Paul Jones, Terry Lawless of U2, Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater, and A.R. Rahman, the Oscar winning composer behind the score for Slumdog Millionaire. The Continuum Fingerboard was recently used by Randy Kerber to record music for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a score composed by John Williams.

"I really want to make this instrument a standard," said Haken. "This is not something that someone buys just because it sounds cool. This is an instrument that someone buys and spends hundreds of hours to learn. And if you're going to spend hundreds of hours learning something, oh boy, it better be good."

At SEAMUS, Smart performed a piece entitled "Risky Business: A tribute to Tesla" which he co-wrote with music professor Scott Wyatt. Wyatt, who knew Smart from his time as a technician in the Experimental Music Studio, approached Smart about writing an original piece that involved the Tesla Coils and Continuum Fingerboard. Wyatt received a Creative Research Award from the College of Fine and Applied Arts, and Smart and Wyatt set to work composing "Risky Business," Smart working on Fingerboard and coil parts to integrate with Wyatt's composition. Wyatt submitted "Risky Business" to SEAMUS 2009 for consideration, and Smart and Wyatt were awarded the spotlight performance during the last concert of the conference.  

"The performance went smoothly and was very well received," said Smart." The weather cooperated, the equipment worked, and I played well."

Smart and Wyatt will also perform the work as part of the New Music Ensemble Concert on September 26 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

In addition to playing the Fingerboard, Smart plays the saxophone, synthesizer, and guitar. He is a member of the Buick All-Stars, a blues band. "I've always just been interested in music, especially electronic music. My very first instrument was a Magnus Air Organ," said Smart.

For more information on performances by Mark Smart, or to see footage of the EOH Tesla Coil performance or other Continuum Fingerboard footage visit:

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