Muḥammad, Aḥmad und Al-Ḥasan ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir, bekannt als Banū Mūsā

Das Instrument, das selbständig spielen kann

Artist / Artist group
Muḥammad, Aḥmad und Al-Ḥasan ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir, bekannt als Banū Mūsā
Das Instrument, das selbständig spielen kann
installation, audio
Material / Technique
Reconstruction of two automata with an animation of their functioning
Dimensions / Duration
installation dimension variable
ZKM | Center for Art and Media

„We want to demonstrate how to construct a machine that will independently play any melody of our choice, and it should be performed sometimes with a slow rhythm and sometimes with a fast rhythm. It should also be such that we can, if we wish, change from one melody to another." These are the first two sentences of the manuscript of the Banū Mūsā, which was written under the title “al-la allatī tuzammir bi-nafsihā” [The instrument that plays by itself] around 850. In them, it is already clear that they are concerned with the construction of the artifact as a universal machine that should be able to control any other instrument. The „machine that can play by itself“ can be considered as an early complete music automaton.

The installation of the reconstruction consists of two machines, the „programmer“ and the „player“, as well as an explanatory computer animation for the energy and air supply.

The „programmer“ was built to first transfer the melodies played on a sornay – a conical oboe – to a roller. When playing the sornay, the musician puts his fingers through rings connected by threads to a lever. This allows the finger movements to be recorded as notes on the rotating cylinder. The marks made in this way on the roller surface are milled out to create indentations. The Banū Mūsā chose the variant of pins that can be inserted on the surface of the cylinder.This information of the programmed recorder that has become concrete is mounted on the cylinder of the „player“. Through these recesses, the levers covering the air holes of the instrument raise and lower, performing the same movements with which the Sornay was originally played. To ensure permanent energy supply, in the reconstructed version the cylinder of the „player“ is driven by a motor, and inside the base there is a compressor that ensures constant air pressure. The air coming from the compressor is fed into the sornay through a valve. Originally, the sornay was driven by a water wheel and the air pressure was generated by a hydraulic-pneumatic mechanism, as can be seen in the computer animation.

Author: Siegfried Zielinski