By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Fangliang Xu
Jesse Stewart is an amateur. He’s a multi-talented performer and composer, sure, as well as a Juno Award-winning percussionist and a music professor at Carleton. And he has built more instruments than he can count, including a xylophone made of ice and another from books.
But Stewart is an amateur, nonetheless, in the truest sense of the word: a devotee, an admirer. He is in a steady state of awe at the melodies and rhythms hidden inside everything, just waiting to be tapped out.
Under the banner of his interdisciplinary We Are All Musicians (WAAM) project, Stewart has long sought collaborators among people who have limited opportunities to make music. His latest creation, WAAM WEB — 48 aluminum discs built into a modular wooden frame, and an app to play them — is a natural progression in an increasingly digital world, allowing Stewart to orchestrate inclusive online jam sessions.
The largest disc is as wide as a yoga ball; the smallest has the diameter of a grapefruit. Mallets triggered by electromagnetic strikers are poised over the grey metal gongs, waiting for a command from … anyone, really. Which is the point.
“Music has the capacity to bring people together,” he says, “even when it is mediated by computers and the internet.”
In the Before Times, Stewart was doing just that across the Carleton campus and beyond. He regularly staged pop-up interactive music installations and worked, for example, with patients at Ottawa’s Saint-Vincent Hospital who had limited motor control.
Because it’s likely that hospitals and care facilities will be the last places to reopen to non-essential activities, Stewart applied to the university’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program to get the band back together in a unique way.
Stewart’s first few weeks of coronavirus quarantine consisted of recovery and rediscovery. After a successful operation to remove a benign brain tumour in February, he uploaded a musical video to Facebook every day for 40 days.
The idea was to offset bad news and boredom and to practice doing what he loves: making music out of anything, from mixing bowls and saw blades to bicycles, floor tiles, canoe paddles and even rock core samples. (Stewart once performed a concert using a cardboard box.)
Next, with the COVID grant, he built the WAAM WEB prototype and tuned the four dozen gongs. Not only does Stewart believe that anything can be a musical instrument, he’s also convinced that anyone can be a musician, no matter their skill level or abilities.
WAAM WEB’s online interface allows people to interact and control the percussion system 24 hours a day. Shriya Satish, a Carleton computer science master’s student, designed the instrument’s interface with a video game engine, and local graphic designer firm Stripe Studios helped with coding.
Players can tap or click on their computers and hear the notes made by the gongs through a live multi-camera video feed. People who can’t move a mouse or touch a screen can participate via Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI) software, which allows users to play sounds and musical phrases through movement and gestures.
AUMI was developed in 2006 by American composer and improvisor Pauline Oliveros, a good friend of Stewart’s who passed away in 2016. The tool is used by musicians and educators throughout North America to let children and adults with disabilities improvise music.
One of the big questions about online musicmaking is whether it can build bridges between disparate populations. “To what extent,” wonders Stewart, “can it actually foster a sense of community that’s not based on sameness but rather on difference?”
When it’s ready later this year, WAAM WEB will allow people young and old, with diverse bodies and minds, from different backgrounds, to interact musically with one another. Non musicians who have never played an instrument might think, “Oh, I’m making this sound.”
But Stewart will likely smile and say, “No, you’re making music.” Anyone can be a musician, after all. Even an amateur.
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