Christmas bells ring in Canberra thanks to musical AI

An ANU researcher has combined the power of music and computer science, to create an instrument spreading Christmas joy throughout the Canberra community.

Dr Charles Martin, an expert in musical AI based at The Australian National University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, has redesigned the National Carillon’s old clavier, or keyboard, which is currently in the Canberra Centre for festive shoppers to try.

He’s programmed the old clavier’s batons – or keys – with synchronised sounds that mimic the original bells of the carillon, as well as to play three Christmas carols.

Visitors can play the instrument.

“This installation really demonstrates how the National Carillon is controlled by musicians and is actually a huge city-scale musical instrument!” Dr Martin says.

“People can try it out and know what it feels like for the carillonists who perform for us.”

The NCA has been upgrading the National Carillon, including replacing the old clavier.

The organisation wanted to put the old clavier on display and add electronic sound. Dr Thomas Laue, a Senior Carillonist and a lecturer at the ANU School of Music called on Dr Martin to help.

However, for the carol of the bells to reach our Canberra doorsteps, it required a team larger than Dr Martin, with various fields of expertise.

“I worked with the NCA’s carillon technician, Terry McGee, and another colleague Dr Alistair Riddell to design a sensor system that could be added to the clavier so it could be removed without damage,” he says.

Working as hard as Santa’s elves the night before Christmas, Dr Martin brought the new and unique instrument to life.

“I got to jump in at the last minute and code up the synthesised sounds!” Dr Martin says.

“The moment we finally could press the clavier batons and hear authentic carillon bell sounds, and start to experiment with playing some music, was just exhilarating.”

Combining music and computer science has been a passion for Dr Martin and the centre point of his research.

“I’ve always been interested in music and technology separately, but I’m captivated by the process of creating new expressive musical instruments with computers,” he says.

“Music technology is a field where I have felt able to create experiences that are genuinely new and can impact a broad variety of people.”

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