The Margaret Guthman New Instrument Competition has long been a showcase for the future of musical instruments, both in commercial success and unique innovations. Competitors find every way imaginable to create new music: synthesizers that track soap bubbles as they float and pop, interfaces that make everyday objects like marbles and coins pop and bounce to beats, and bodysuits that create music for the wearer as they dance.
But for an 11 year old Alice Barbe, it was the chance to play a piano that used gelatin to make music that would stick with her. That moment in the Klaus Atrium would shape her life many years later.
“My mother saw a poster for the Guthman Competition, and thought it would be interesting. So we went, and saw all these amazing and really cool instruments,” says Barbe.
As a homeschooled daughter to two parents in academia – her mother being a long tenured mathematics professor in Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences – it’s no stretch to say Barbe has spent more time on campus than many full time students. From a young age, it gave her an opportunity for exposure to the many unique and engaging academic events afforded to Georgia Tech students.
Attending the 2012 Margaret Guthman New Instrument Competition was one of those opportunities.
“I didn’t think any more of it at the time, honestly, until I started getting more involved with digital instruments. But that had a lot to do with that first experience at Guthman. I really hadn’t considered the possibilities that existed at the intersection of music and electronics, and the wonderful interactivity that you can get with these digital instruments,” says Barbe.
Shortly after this first experience, she moved to Indiana for a year, where her mother took a yearlong sabbatical. While she was there, she took advantage of local music programs to perform opera music with students several years older than her peer groups.
When she returned to Atlanta, Barbe took an active interest in music democratization – her goal was to have concerts that were more interactive, and held more mainstream appeal than the concerts she had performed in Indiana.
Music Technology at Georgia Tech
After meeting with the School of Music’s Gil Weinberg, she realized that many of her ideas about what would make a really great interactive concert were actually about the technology that could make it, rather than the music itself.
But she quickly realized that she was incapable of building instruments by herself. She didn’t know how to solder, and had no experience with electronics.
She sent out an email that inadvertently arrived in the inbox of every female Mechanical Engineering student on campus, and ended up getting seven replies from interested students willing to help her build her instrument.
With that, Project Music Connector was born. The group, made up of Barbe and a rotating roster of Georgia Tech students, builds musical instruments and takes them around to various after school programs around the state, demonstrating the science and engineering behind building their creations.
After a few more small projects, the idea for the Biot-Savharp solified.
“The first thing that we did before any of the actual hard work started was to try out the concept. We had one electromagnet, and I had a tiny harp kit. We would put the magnet on top of the string, and realized it made a really pretty sound. I think what makes our instrument so successful is that it started from a pretty sound, at the beginning,” says Barbe.
“The physics of it are deceptively simple. It’s really ridiculous how simple it is, and how beautiful a sound you get as the result,” she says. Instead of the strings being bowed, plucked, or struck by a hammer, the harp’s sound is actuated by electromagnets. The result is an instrument with a uniquely ethereal sound.
The project started in the summer of 2018, with the idea to submit it for the 2019 Guthman competition. Now she finds herself as a Guthman finalist.
Making it to Guthman
“Submitting to Guthman has always been a dream of mine,” says Barbe, who attended the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Guthman competitions in addition to her original visit in 2012.
“I talked with different people who were presenting, and tried out their instruments, and looked up some stuff on the web, and built a couple of them myself. I feel like I’m one of the first contestants where the Guthman cycle has started – seeing innovation happen at the Guthman Competition inspired me to create my own instruments.”
With all of her accomplishments already, it’s hard to believe that Barbe is still just in high school. She plans to major in Mechanical Engineering in college, where she can apply many of the skills she has learned from building musical instruments.
As for what she will do with the prize money if she places in the top three at the finals?
“I have no idea!” says Barbe, with a laugh. “I haven’t talked to my teammate about that at all. There’s a side project that we discovered along the way building the harp that I’m interested in exploring, so we might reinvest the money into that.”
Barbe’s musical and engineering journey, it seems, is still only just beginning.