Ian Hattwick’s Instrument Design as Artistic Practice

2019-21 CAST Cross-Disciplinary Class

Discovering new sounds and new forms of music-making

About the Project

Instrument building has become a common part of musical and artistic practice, whether through the design of software systems, hardware interfaces, or interactive artworks. In this course, students will get hands-on experience in the creation of these types of systems, learn how to situate instrument building within their artistic practice, and critically engage with how the act of technological development plays a role in the reproduction and dissemination of aesthetics, social formations, and culture.

The learning strategies for this course are largely practice based to help students gain the interdisciplinary skills needed for successful instrument building, including multimedia software programming and electronic and mechanical engineering. The hardware platform developed for the course enables students to start programming and designing musical experiences from the very beginning; as additional skills are introduced, class projects will grow in scope. By the course’s end, students will have created an instrument consisting of electronic, mechanical, and software components designed and created by the students themselves. In parallel, students will continually engage in musical exercises, experiencing the impact of their design decisions. Mid-semester, students will propose an instrument design which reflects their artistic interests, and subsequent technical and performance exercises will guide them in the realization of their design, resulting ultimately in a performance with the instrument at semester’s end.

This course situates the design of technological systems firmly within lived, embodied experiences, and challenges market-based narratives of design success. In addition to current designers of digital systems, the class examines instrument makers from western cultures such as Hugh Le Caine, Gunnar Schonbeck, and Bart Hopkin, and the role of instrument design in musical performance practice across different traditions, from the mbira dzavadzimu of the East African Shona people to the role of the gu’qin in Chinese philosophical traditions. This course will also examine adaptive music systems and inclusivity, reviewing strategies for successful design for musicians with a range of abilities and discussing how instruments can support use by performers from diverse cultural, musical, and personal backgrounds.

By the conclusion of the course, students will have critically engaged with the ramifications of technical and conceptual design, will have gained practical experience in the design of digital musical instruments as well as their use for artistic performance, and will be prepared to build on this experience as they continue to develop their artistic practice.


Past Events

Engineered Expression: Digital Instruments in Performance
Concert: Friday, May 7, 2021 / 7:30pm
Workshop: Saturday, May 8, 2021 / 1:00pm

Digital Instrument Design, Course 21M.370 
Offered Spring 2021

Digital Instrument Design, Course 21M.370 
Offered Spring 2020


Ian Hattwick is an artist, researcher, and technology developer whose work focuses on the creation and use of digital systems for professional artistic performances.

With a background in music composition and performance, Hattwick is particularly interested in the use of multimodal hardware systems to explore and facilitate social and embodied interaction.

An avid collaborator, Hattwick has created a variety of hardware systems for artistic performance, including prosthetics that double as musical instruments for interactive dance, a multi-modal interface called The Pearl conceived as an interactive performance prop, and several wearable haptic systems. Currently, he is working with Montreal-based startup The Phenomena to commercialize a wearable haptics system called the VibroPixels, which has been used for immersive art installations like Chris Salter and Tez’s Haptic Fields and VR and location-based entertainment applications such as the The Phenomena’s Egyptian-themed VR experience Enter the Duat.

Hattwick has also written music for a wide range of international musical contexts, from chamber and solo performer works to electronics, percussion ensembles, computer music ensembles, and live drum and bass.

Hattwick received his PhD from McGill University in 2018 and holds degrees from the University of California, Irvine and the University of Southern California. He is a lecturer on the subject of music technology at MIT.

More at the artist’s website: Ian Hattwick

In the Media

“What we [humans] can imagine is only the beginning… we can make sounds you can’t imagine. We can discover new sounds and new forms of music-making.” — Ian Hattwick, MIT News

The Guardian: Do You Play the Spine? Introducing Prosthetic Musical Instruments, August 2013

Ian Hattwick: Interactive Lighting in the Pearl: Considerations and Implementation

Dezeen: Instrumented Bodies