Björk’s Music Man


Andy Cavatorta in his workshop.

When Andy Cavatorta was accepted to the MIT Media Lab, he had no intention of creating musical instruments. But when he was offered the opportunity to create an instrument for Björk he changed his tune.

Cavatorta had just finished a nearly seven-year stint working with Ensemble Robot, a group of artists, engineers and musicians who use robots to push the boundaries of live music. As a member of that group, the roboticist and self-taught musician had been creating his own instruments like the Whirly-Bot, which uses spinning arms of corrugated tubing to produce a choir-like sound, and the Blo-Bot. His first instrument for the Ensemble Robot, the Blo-Bot is a pyramid-shaped structure of air cylinders and organ pipes that sounds simultaneously percussive and like a singer with a nasally voice.

Though the creativity and ingenuity evident in these unconventional instruments got Cavatorta into MIT, he didn’t plan to continue along a muscial path in Cambridge. The Clinton Hill resident didn’t even apply to be part of the group that was working with music, but the music makers of MIT gravitated to him.

“I said, ‘Okay, for the MIT Media Lab I’ll certainly do this for another two years,’” Cavatorta explained. “When I get out I’ll have this degree and I’m going to be able to do these other plans that I have.”

Björk showed up and those other plans fell by the wayside.

The Icelandic singer and curator of all things weird and wonderful visited MIT with director Michel Gondry to see what students in the Media Lab were working on. They didn’t tell anyone that she was planning a new project–a multimedia album, called Biophilia, which was released in the U.S. today. The duo also didn’t reveal that they were looking for someone to create a one-of-a-kind instrument. Most of the students came in, plugged in their laptops and gave PowerPoint presentations. Cavatorta showed off real-life models of the Whirly-Bot and some of the other instruments he had created. He believes that those live demos were ultimately what got him the gig that he didn’t even realize that he was applying for.

Though he had planned on working on non-music related projects post-MIT, the offer to collaborate with the singer was too exciting to pass up. “For Björk , I can do some more musical machinery,’” Cavatorta said. The opportunity was a dream come true of sorts–when Cavatorta was working with Ensemble Robot he would often ask himself, “What is the peak of what we might do with any of this?” And the answer was always creating a project with Björk .

The Gravity Harp in finished form.

Communicating with Björk wasn’t always easy. Cavatorta says there was a period when every time the two spoke her vision was different than it had been during the previous conversation. The parameters of the project also changed–at first Cavatorta was designing for a concert film Gondry was going to direct. Then he was designing for a full-fledged tour.

“Doing a film sounded great because we could just do another take. We’d just be making something that only needs to work for a week or two and costs at least a fifth as much as something that has to reliably hang together,” Cavatorta explained. “So much of the process has to do with constraints and how you get around them.”

A Gravity Harp component in action.

For nearly four months Cavatorta and his five-person team worked 90- hour weeks in a warehouse in Bed-Stuy. Sleeping was limited. “Find a big piece of cardboard and bang the dust off of it and put it in the dusty corner,” he said was the attitude toward shut-eye.

Björk wanted the instrument Cavatorta created for her to play off the forces of nature, so he settled on a pendulum design that would play music using the earth’s gravitational pull. Initially, the plan was to have 38 swinging arms that formed a circle around the singer. Each of the pendulums would play a particular note in the song, but soon it was clear they’d have to scale it down. They decided on four 30-foot pendulums that would slowly swing alongside the singer. The Gravity Harps, which became the final design, were constructed only four weeks before Bjork kicked off her tour at the Manchester International Festival in England in July.

Even though in the end the team came in under budget for the harps, money was always a concern. Cavatorta says that they came up with inventive ways of keeping costs down, like constructing their own industrial brakes for the pendulums. Each brake they made cost $75 where buying them wholesale would have cost $1200 apiece. This strategy though, was sometimes nerve-wracking. “I didn’t want to be that guy, the guy who killed Björk ,”Cavatorta said. “I had some priorities and that was at the top.” There were no injuries or even any close calls on tour this summer.

Though Cavatorta says that there are other projects he’d like to explore, he keeps coming back to music. He’ll be working with Björk as she expands the tour and is currently constructing an instrument for a former member of The Sun Ra Arkestra. Now that the dream of working with Björk has come true, he says that his new wish is to team up with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or with Tom Waits.

Cavatorta remains slightly in awe of his own career. When asked whether he ever thought he’s have such a cool job he paused and smiled and said, “Yeah, this is kind of turning me into the hero for my 12-year-old self.”

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