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Fluid Melodies: An Interview with Steve Mann
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Fluid Melodies: An Interview with Steve Mann

For the past 20 years, Toronto-based artist, scientist, inventor, professor and musician Steve Mann has been inventing, creating, building and playing what he calls ‘hydraulophones.’ Part fountain, part interactive waterfeature, part musical instrument and in all ways unusual, these systems enable adults, children and anyone who cares to give one a try the ability to manipulate the flow of water to create musical notes, harmonies and melodies.

For the past 20 years, Toronto-based artist, scientist, inventor, professor and musician Steve Mann has been inventing, creating, building and playing what he calls ‘hydraulophones.’ Part fountain, part interactive waterfeature, part musical instrument and in all ways unusual, these systems enable adults, children and anyone who cares to give one a try the ability to manipulate the flow of water to create musical notes, harmonies and melodies. Not to diminish the painted ponies of The Wizard of Oz, but Steve Mann’s hydraulophones are horses of a different color. These watershapes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from landmark centerpieces that have the sculptural grandeur of pipe organs all the way down to water-flutes that resemble brightly colored tadpoles.

What’s most remarkable about these devices isn’t just their structural and artistic variety or the ways they look as visual art: It’s the sounds they make. At first, the natural comparison is to a pipe organ, but as you listen, a variety of shadings and other sonic reverberations emerge, slip and slide around you.

What’s more, hydraulophones invite people to insert their fingers into the jetting water to shape the sound and squeeze out the shape of each note, and a variety of sonic textures are possible depending upon how the flow is manipulated. With practice, participants can sculpt an array of purely aquatic sounds as well as what sounds like an entire orchestra of oboes, flutes and harmonicas.

The hydraulophone’s inventor, Steve Mann, has been playing with (and playing) these devices for about 20 years now, finding more and more ways to put them in places where people can see, hear and become personally involved with them. We caught up with him early in December 2007 as he was rehearsing for a formal holiday concert at which his instrument of choice was to have a starring role.

WaterShapes: How did you start down this path of creating musical instruments that use water to create sound?

Steve Mann: I began by wanting to challenge the conceptual boundary between work and play.

A big part of the idea behind the hydraulophone is the notion of what I call the “urban beach,” a place where aquatic sculptures invite people not only to look at them as objects, but also become engaged with them as active parts of the environment. It’s a place where people can play in the water with either their fingers or their whole bodies.

The great thing about a hydraulophone is that it injects this note of playfulness and alters one’s perception of a space in subtle ways – maybe even subversive ways. It works because a hydraulophone can be a majestic architectural centerpiece at the same time it brings aquatic play into the picture. In effect, it breaks down the separation between parks and beaches and serious places where people don’t typically think of fun and play.

Business parks or university campuses, for example, can be very serious architectural environments: What a hydraulophone does is inject a playful element into the setting in a way that enhances the scene rather than contradicting it the way an ordinary play feature would.

WS: So the concept of ‘play’ is extremely important?

Mann: My use of the word play is a double entendre in the sense that we talk about “playing an instrument” at the same time a hydraulophone is about getting people of all ages (not just children!) to “play” in the sense of a child playing with a toy.

I think that’s an especially fascinating concept: It’s as much about getting adults to play as it is getting children to play. And with hydraulophones, they are often invited to do this playing in spaces that one would not normally think of as play spaces – such as at the main entrance to a landmark architecture site.

WS: What made you think of marrying water and music?

Mann: When we learn about music in school, we’re taught that there are three only kinds of acoustic instruments: strings, percussion and wind. As I studied music, I began to think of percussion and strings as being far more similar to each other than either of them are to wind instruments: Strings and percussion instruments both make sounds with solid matter while the wind instruments use air.


Through years of development, the hydraulophone has become a serious musical instrument capable of great range and depth of sound – so much so that it has moved into the concert hall where it holds its own among conventional orchestral instruments.

But the piano, for example, is both a percussion and a string instrument: It challenges this boundary. So before long, I came to think of only two categories of acoustic instruments – solid and gas – with two sub-categories in the solid column (strings and percussion) and two more in the gas column (woodwinds and brass).

Taking this line of thought a couple steps farther, school also teaches us that there are three states of matter in nature – solid, liquid and gas. This led me to ask, “Why not try to create an instrument that works off matter in a liquid state? Why not take an instrument similar to a flute and have water flow through it instead of air?” In that sense, I was thinking of a hydraulophone as an entirely new category of instrument.

WS: Where were you when you first came up with the idea of creating a liquid musical instrument?

Mann: It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a very long time, so I can’t think of an exact time or place. But if there was a specific trigger that really motivated me to further develop and perfect this invention, it’s an event I remember from the mid-1980s.

At the time, I was watching and listening as a liquid-nitrogen truck filled the tanks in a nearby building and remember being intrigued by the sound of the fluid flowing through the pipes and how it made a whistling noise that was actually a very pure note that would shoot up a perfect fifth every once in a while. This inspired me to make up a song in which I tried to capture the spirit of the sound: It was called “Liquid Nitrogen,” and to this day it’s one of my favorite songs to perform on a hydraulophone.

As I experimented more and more, I developed systems with high and low pressure levels in which different kinds of sounds come from the instrument depending on how you position your fingers over each of the water jets. What’s really fun about hydraulophones is that sounds differ when you block the edge of the water jet (where the water is moving with less velocity) as compared to blocking the center.

WS: What made you think you could do all this? How did your background influence you and contribute to the hydraulophone concept?

Mann: Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in interdisciplinary studies and thinking. I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because MIT is the kind of school where students are encouraged to be technically crazy as well as artistically crazy over a wide variety of disciplines.

This education taught me to think in terms of combining disparate concepts to create something new. The hydraulophone is a perfect example of that kind of thinking: On the one hand, it’s a technical device with various hydraulic and structural elements; on the other, it’s very much about art both in being a musical instrument and in being sculpture. And when you consider that it blends art and technology with fundamental forms of human behavior, you can see that it cuts across several major conceptual boundaries.


Along a distant but parallel track, hydraulophones also moved onto the playground, where children (and their parents) are utterly fascinated by the curious sounds the tadpole-shaped Nessie makes when they play with the jets of water.

That sort of creative collision has always fascinated me. I think that’s where new things come from, by combining ideas and applying them in ways that haven’t been considered before. At the same time, I take personal joy in disrupting traditional categories and like the fact that I’ve stirred up some controversy in the field of organology because authorities in the field simply don’t know how to categorize hydraulophones.

WS: Do you enjoy challenging conventions?

Mann: I think there’s something to be said for asking questions and challenging boundaries. As James Baldwin once said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.”

Insects exist by performing very specific, categorical functions. Humans are more complex, and I believe we should have the capacity to transcend categorization. And, yes, I do like the fact that the work I do confounds categories.

WS: When did you create the first hydraulophone?

Mann: I’ve invented, designed and built hundreds of different types of hydraulophones through the past two decades, each of them quite different from one another, so it’s hard to put an exact date on it. But it was at some point in the mid-1980s, when I composed “Liquid Nitrogen” and began pursuing distinct sounds, tuning and intonation with my early hydraulophones.

WS: How have they evolved?

Mann: The first hydraulophones were very difficult to play. You had to press down on the jets really hard to create a note – upwards of 60 to 70 pounds of pressure per square inch. In fact, when I first started playing back then, I would do push-ups on my fingertips to make my fingers strong enough to play the instrument comfortably – and even then my hands would quickly become extremely tired.

In the years since those first incarnations, much of the development/refinement process has been aimed at creating instruments that require just a light touch so that everyone from very small children – even babies – to elderly people with arthritis can play them.

It interests me that people talk about hydraulophones as though they’re all one thing, but I’ve actually made hundreds of different instruments that respond in different ways and operate on vastly different principles. In actuality, it’s a whole family of instruments that use water: Some are simple and others are extremely complex.

WS: So the use of water is the unifying characteristic?

Mann: Obviously, yes, but there’s also the way they’re played that unifies them and makes them all “hydraulophones.” The one thing they all have in common is that you have a row of water jets and make sounds by pressing down on those jets, obstructing the flow and creating different notes and chords.


The potential these watershapes have to attract the attention of musicians, parents, children, seniors – people of every age and walk of life – has made hydraulophones star performers in public places, where they break down basic social inhibitions and encourage interactive play in a way few other installations ever could.

The whole range of hydraulophones shares this unifying characteristic. On one end of the spectrum are massive public-art pieces that exist as permanent installations; on the other, we make very simple hydraulophones that are scaled for use by small children – and there are numerous iterations in between.

WS: What actually creates the sound?

Mann: That’s an interesting question, because among people who make musical instruments of all sorts, there’s a constant debate about what actually makes the sound. In a woodwind instrument that has a reed – such as a clarinet, for example – the reed vibrates in such a way that it can be partially credited with generating and manipulating air movement.

In a reedless wind instrument such as the flute, however, the sound is most certainly made by the air. Thus flutes are purer examples of wind instruments: Although the sound is modifed by covering up finger holes (or pressing the keys or levers) in different combinations, the wind is what makes the sound.

Hydraulophones are new, so their sound production is not as well understood and is something we’re investigating. What I’ve done in all cases is replace human breath with the flow from a garden hose or pump to create different notes at different finger holes while maintaining the ability to affect subtle, independent changes in sound at each hole.

WS: Are all hydraulophones custom-made for specific applications?

Mann: Not quite. I’ve worked through the years with designer Chris Aimone, and together we’ve come up with a “standard” hydraulophone for interactive waterplay. These units resemble giant tadpoles or small whales – a sort of serpent-like shape, so we call her “Nessie” after the Loch Ness monster. Children seem to love her.

On larger scales, Chris and I do custom design/production work, generally breaking things down into three steps: initial study, design and execution. To that extent, larger pieces of the sort that become civic sculptures are definitely application-specific instruments.

WS: I can’t help noticing that you refer to hydraulophones using the female gender. Why is that?

Mann: It just seems to work that way. The Loch Ness monster, for example, is always referred to as “she,” and ships are usually also referred to in feminine terms – as are many large bodies of water such as lakes. But there may also be something else at work here, something more primal, because people have told me that hydraulophones speak with a feminine voice.

I once played a concert in New York, and afterwards a woman came up to me – crying and smiling at the same time – and said that she was really moved by the performance. Then she said something that’s stuck with me ever since: “This is really fantastic, it’s really woman. Air instruments are male, but water is woman.” We don’t necessarily want to read too much into it, but there’s probably an aspect of water that invokes the whole idea of the return to the womb.

WS: Were you influenced by the Water Organ at Villa d’ Este and its use of water to create sounds?

Mann: Actually, no. People have asked me before if I was inspired by Greek or Roman fountains that made sounds, but those installations didn’t use water as a “user interface,” nor did they make sounds with water. Instead, the water was a source of power that moved air to create sounds. In a hydraulophone, by contrast, the water isn’t just a source of power, but is also both the user interface and the source of the sound.

WS: Where have you been installing your hydraulophones? What sorts of environments?

Mann: So far, we’ve placed them in public parks, college campuses, community aquatic centers, waterparks and even some retirement villages, and I have the sense that they’ll work just about anywhere people congregate. What’s unique about them is that they bring the concept of waterplay to a level of sophistication that makes it appeal to people of all ages. Children love them and so do adults; in fact, some older folks with arthritis actually use hydraulophones in music therapy, which strikes me as a wonderful application.


At the same time as they encourage play, larger hydraulophones can also serve the monumental needs of public spaces, arriving on the scene like alien pipe organs to create visual cores for plazas, courtyards and civic centers.

It’s interesting to note that, while aquatic play appeals to people of all ages, adults sometimes don’t indulge in it because of social constraints on behavior: You might want to run through a fountain on a hot day, but you don’t do it because that’s not what adults generally do unless they’ve imbibed a bit and have broken down their inhibitions.

But hydraulophones are musical instruments, so that whole psychology shifts and adults feel free to play because they’re making music: That’s a much more sophisticated form of play than simply splashing around and getting wet. And there’s also the educational aspect: Whereas parents are often hesitant to let their children play in public fountains and come home with wet clothes, they seem to take delight at hearing their kids play simple songs on the hydraulophone.

We even do music lessons on the hydraulophone: Learning music has never been this much fun!

WS: How would describe your creative process?

Mann: That’s not so easy to answer. With the hydraulophone, for instance, I was directly inspired by a dream I had that I was playing a fountain the way someone would play a pipe organ, but well before then I’d spent a great deal of time in my childhood taking things apart to see how they worked.

Hydraulophones function and exist based on known scientific principles using common materials. They may be based on what may seem wild-eyed or off-the-wall concepts, but the process of making them is very thoroughly grounded in reality.

One of the things I like most about what I do is that I’ve given myself license to dream and work – to have my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground at the same time. Again, it’s my way of breaking down the boundaries between technology and art.

WS: Do you think the fact that hydraulophones use water to make music is the main reason people find them so fascinating?

Mann: Absolutely. There’s something almost otherworldly about the sounds they make, but I accept the fact that the water itself stirs people’s imaginations and evokes emotional responses: They don’t have to think about it much to conjure the almost primal feeling of being connected to nature by touching water. When you add in the fact that by touching water you make music, something very interesting happens that is fairly profound at the same time it’s a lot of fun.

There’s something frolicsome about it. You don’t have to be a musician to enjoy playing it, but musicians go nuts because they can play songs while having all that fun.

WS: Do you write music specifically for hydraulophone?

Mann: Yes I do, and I’ve even invented new kinds of musical notation for hydraulophones to capture their full capabilities.

The Ears Have It

This is a case where hearing is more than half the fun.

To get a clearer sense of what these instruments are all about, go to YouTube on the Internet and search on hydraulophone. There are several film clips for viewing (including this one), and we’d recommend closing your eyes to drink in the sounds if it wasn’t so much more interesting to watch.

— WaterShapes

A hydraulophone has all the notes that you’d expect to find on common orchestral instruments, but the sound has a different quality from any other instrument I’ve ever heard. Its basic sound suits songs written in minor keys – which is fantastic because children seem to respond well to music in minor keys for some reason – but of course it can be played in major keys as well.

The sound is almost otherworldly, a singing voice of a very special sort. And with practice, you can learn to bend and squeeze notes by the way you press the jets, which allows you to expand the range and create notes that don’t exist on standard instruments.

WS: Because hydraulophones exist in the environment and can be played by anyone who wants to give it a try, do they change the way you think about ‘performance’?

Mann: Most definitely. In fact, they completely break down the separation between the audience and the performer.

In a typical concert, the performers sit on a stage, protected by the proscenium, and the audience sits on the other side of that barrier at a set time in anticipation of hearing well-rehearsed pieces of often-familiar music. By its nature, a hydraulophone deconstructs that entire system, creating a space where there’s an ongoing performance with no real separation between the audience and the performers.

In addition, one of the things I really like about the hydraulophone is that you can see what it sounds like. Not only does the same note sound sadder when you cover the edge of a finger hole instead of its center, but it also looks sadder, with the water jet drooping down in a sad-looking kind of way. This makes playing the hydraulophone very visual as a performance medium.

Also, because the hydraulophone makes sounds on its own when no one’s playing it, you don’t even need performers at all: Proximity is all it takes to enjoy what’s happening. But usually, once people recognize that all they have to do is walk up, press the jets and make music, they don’t hesitate to get involved: Hydraulophones are very friendly in that way.

Steve Mann is an inventor, artist,musician, professor, scientist, engineer and the creator of the hydraulophone, a combination waterfeature/musical instrument that uses water to generate sound. He currently teaches in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto and has written 139 research publications, two books and numerous articles. He also holds 51 patents, has been the keynote speaker at numerous scientific and industry symposia and conferences and has been a speaker at Distinguished Lecture Series and colloquia at more than 50 universities. Among his inventions in addition to the hydraulophone, he is considered by many to be the inventor of WearComp (a wearable computer) and WearCam (an eye-tap camera and reality mediator). He carried his inventions and ideas to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1991 and received his doctorate there in 1997. Among his many endeavors, he owns and operates Funtains, a company focused on creating hydraulophones for a range of applications and settings.

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