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Art Meets Engineering: Audio Installation Will Let Fish Sing

The mysterious black ghost knifefish can usually only be found in the depths of the Amazon Basin, precariously hunting and seizing prey in the dark waters with mystifying accuracy.

In Malcolm MacIver's lab at Northwestern University, the dark, thin fish live a much less secretive life in tanks, and it's here that their tricks are revealed: they use a weakly electric field to sense their surroundings. MacIver, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, studies the seemingly silent fish for clues to how its nervous system (and, in addition, our nervous system) works.

The fish's silence is broken, however, when a speaker lead is dropped into the tank: the electromagnetic discharges they emit range from 30 to 1,700 hertz, depending on the species. That's the equivalent of the lowest B natural on a piano to the G sharp six octaves higher.

"It's hard for people to appreciate that these are electric fish until I bring them into the lab and show them the electric field by dipping speaker leads into the tanks to hear the sonified discharges," MacIver says. "These fish have taught us a huge amount about the nervous system, and we thought it would be fun to celebrate the fish and introduce them to the public in an artistic way."

In a cross-disciplinary collaboration with a visual artist and a composer/sound designer, MacIver hopes to bring the knifefish's song to the masses. The project, called "scale," will involve creating an interactive "choir" display of 16 fish spanning the 30 - 1,700 hertz frequency range. The fish tanks will be configured into a sculptural installation, and users will be able to interact with the fish via a conductor's baton (a hacked Wii wand) that will cue entries and cutoffs. A touch screen will control volume and design sound alterations to the raw "song" of the fish, and colored LEDs will show which "singers" are active and will respond to alterations in the volume of each fish.

"It's a great mix of art and science — getting people intrigued in science while creating something artistically valuable," MacIver says. "It will be both aesthetically and musically interesting, and it will be accessible for everyone."

MacIver is working with Marlena Novak, a lecturer in art theory and practice in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Jay Alan Yim, associate professor of music academic studies and composition in Northwestern's Bienen School of Music. The group received funding from Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts (CIRA) this summer and have begun work on the installation. Undergraduate students will help design the systems, and the team plans to have it ready for an art gallery venue next winter, with hopes of later donating it to an aquarium or zoo.

"We're really excited about this project, and I hope it will help motivate people to learn more about this fascinating fish," MacIver says.