The Instrument That Plays by Itself

Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir, Liang Zhipeng (CN), ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (DE)

The Banū Mūsā ibn Shākirs’ manuscript al-Āla allatī tuzammir bi-nafsihā from the mid-ninth century describes a universal flute player who, on closer inspection, turns out to be a programmable universal musical instrument. Using a pinned barrel—which later became the core element of European musical automata—it is to be able to play any melodies and instruments desired. In 2005 the ZKM | Karlsruhe presented for the first time a complete German translation of the original text by Imad Samir, which survives only as a photographic negative in Beirut. The centerpiece of this exhibition was the mechanical reconstruction of the playing automaton, accompanied by an animation showing how its drive system works by Liang Zhipeng. The “programmer” depicted the machine used to transcribe the melody played on the sorna onto the cylinder. Rings hung next to the flute holes connect each of the player’s fingers with a lever via taut threads. When the sorna is played, the finger movements are recorded as notes and rhythms on the rotating cylinder teeth. The markings on the individual cylinder chips are milled to create indentations. These chips are then inserted into the “player” and the indentations trigger lever movements identical to those that originally played the sorna. The cylinder chips rotate constantly in the player, driven by a motor. The animation shows how the cylinder was originally turned by a water wheel mechanism. A compressor ensuring constant air pressure is located inside the pedestal. In the Banū Mūsās’ automaton, a constant air supply for playing the wind instrument was created via a hydraulic and pneumatic mechanism, which for the exhibition was animated on a screen. The air from the compressor is fed into the sorna through a valve, and the levers play the melody on the sorna that is programmed on the cylinders.

We wish to explain how an instrument … is made that continuously plays whatever melody … we wish all by itself, sometimes in a slow rhythm … and sometimes in a quick rhythm, and we can also change from one melody to another whenever we so desire.