German sound artist Derek Holzer has created the Christmas gift I wish I’d asked for: a beautiful, wooden analog synthesizer that’s controlled by light and a hand-cranked wheel. Holzer’s Tonewheels Hurdy-Gurdy (the name is a reference to this equally magical medieval folk instrument) uses no digital technology of any kind, relying exclusively on electronic oscillators and filters, light- and pressure-sensitive resistors, and good-old-fashioned moving parts.
The idea of using light to produce and control sound is nothing new, but the Tonewheels Hurdy-Gurdy’s apparent ease of use and handcrafted design make it something to behold. To play it, users simply strap it on and begin turning the wheel, which filters the beam of a built-in lightbulb and controls the sound.
Because the instrument’s settings are ambiguous, and its light-sensitivity probably means it will behave differently in any setting in which it is played, Holzer sees the Tonewheels Hurdy-Gurdy as an opportunity to engage with sound in a curious, but carefully considered manner. ”While it does not reward the impatient museum visitor with flashing lights and noises at the simple touch of the button, it does invite participation in the process of technological music creation,” he writes. “Although it first appears to be a very traditional instrument known to many folk-music cultures, it functions in a very different way which can only be discovered by playing it.”