Nicole Carroll and the Orrery Arcana

October 2, 2018

“I like possibilities. And as an instrument builder I like to do things that are a bit out of the status quo.”

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Years ago, you could often find Nicole Carroll, Ph.D. Candidate in Brown’s Computer Music & Multimedia (MEME) department, relaxing in her Arkansas childhood home, listening to Def Leppard, Pink Floyd, and classical flute music with her mother. Later, as an undergraduate, she attended Arkansas State University, majoring in Composition and minoring in Bassoon performance, eager to spend time playing a rare and unique instrument that “sounded like chocolate.” Under the guidance of her second year Composition professor, Carroll was given the opportunity to write electronic music, inspired by the electronic elements in the heavy metal music that she loved as a child. After receiving a Masters in Composition from Bowling Green State University and a Masters in Computer Music and Multimedia from Brown, Nicole accepted a fifteen-month position as an Adjunct Research Fellow at Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, Australia during her 4th year as a P.hD, working under Senior Lecturer and Head of Music Technology Dr. John R. Ferguson. During this time, Nicole participated in various performances, many involving Noise music, experimental music, and acoustic ecology, around Australia and even in the states, and collaborated with well-known Australian sound artist, composer, and researcher Dr. Leah Barclay. Along with performing and a few teaching-related tasks, Nicole also began building her dissertation project: Orrery Arcana.

Orrery Arcana is an investigation of systems. The physical instrument has an octagonal wooden base and a hollow center. Within the hollow center, there are wires that connect to wooden gears via slip rings that sit atop the base, allowing the gears to rotate according to Nicole’s algorithms. These rotating gears support acrylic towers which, in turn, support blue disk-shaped printed circuit boards with photo resistor, magnetic, and capacitive-touch sensors. The disks are printed with pictures of crescent moons and the words “ORRERY ARCANA v.1.2.” Above the blue disks rests an assortment of other disks, some black and some white, that further represent Orrery Arcana’s lunar and astronomical nature.

“It’s really about astronomical clocks and having this one device that’s keeping time for multiple bodies simultaneously. And to go back to the idea of systems and having multiple systems working together to create [something] larger.”

In a word, conceptual inspiration for Orrery Arcana has been an “evolution.” After working with motors for a number of years, Nicole combined her strong interest in kinetic parts and fascination with clocks, such as the famous Prague astronomical clock, to create this “self-made modular hardware controller and software system.” Modeled after an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, Orrery Arcana is a large system that is influenced by multiple smaller systems. While constructing the instrument, Nicole worked with three primary things: data mapping using NASA Orbital Body Data to control processing parameters in software; physical representations of Tarot cards that each have their own algorithm; and the intricate geometric system, based on the cycles of the moon, that Irish poet W.B. Yeats and his wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, penned in their 1925 text A Vision. Further inspiration for “Orrery Arcana” came from 17th-century woodcuts and alchemic texts.

“When I’m thinking about building a new instrument, I’m thinking about function and how I want to play it.”

Nicole Carroll and the Orrery ArcanaNicole Carroll and the Orrery Arcana

With so many different physical, conceptual, and spiritual influences, it’s difficult to say precisely when Nicole first began working on Orrery Arcana. She first began building instruments about fifteen years ago and much of Orrery Arcana’s software utilizes reusable code that she began developing over ten years ago. In terms of hardware, she first created an instrument with Orrery Arcana’s base four years ago and started prototyping the instrument’s gears about two years ago. A large amount of her prototyping time was spent trying out different configurations and measurements for the gear teeth, in addition to iterating on the physical size of the gears themselves. Nicole admits that, aside from making decisions about the final form, finding the precise measurements for optimal gear performance, including smooth interactions, was the most difficult part of the project. Overall, the building process for Orrery Arcana, and for Nicole’s other instruments, was very “spiritual and special.” Thinking of Orrery Arcana as a unique sculpture, Nicole would, definitively, “never make another one.”

Using such a magical instrument, it’s clear that Nicole’s performance is also going to be a magical process. Using a number of chance operations, based on Tarot numerology, Nicole is going to provide Orrery Arcana with a finite number of instructions. After interpreting these instructions, the instrument is going to produce improvised sounds and sequences that Nicole herself won’t be able to foresee. In essence, every time Nicole and her instrument perform together, they create a unique experience never to be replicated. During the performance, Nicole anticipates going into a trance state while playing and, although the performance is about her and Orrery Arcana, she’s eager to share this experience with her audience, inviting listeners to engage in an opportunity to “listen to voices outside of ourselves.”

To check out more of Nicole’s work, see her website and her soundcloud

About the Author

Dominique Moore ‘18.5 is a percussionist and science fiction writer. When she’s not thinking about music and dystopian societies, she can be found spending time with friends in the CIT. To chat with Dominique about this piece (or anything else), reach out to her at [email protected].