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At Lawrence Jam Sessions, An Unusual Instrument Lets Everyone Make Music Together

Alex Smith
Leena Foster (front) and Julie Unruh make music at the Lawrence, Kansas library using motion-detecting computer apps.

Once a month, a recording studio in the basement of the Lawrence, Kansas, public library opens for a jam session.

There are no guitars or drum sets, though.

The players make music with motion-detecting computers that allow anyone – regardless of physical or developmental ability – to become composers.

The jams are an opportunity for creativity and healing, organizers say.

Among the regulars is Julie Unruh, a native of Montezuma, Kansas, who suffered brain damage when she was 19. An English student at Kansas State University who was a fan of grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who played flute, piano and guitar and who loved riding her skateboard, Unruh was on a family vacation in 1998 when their car was hit by a semi truck.

Her memories of the day are blurry, but she’s been told it happened just after breakfast. Her grandfather was behind the wheel.

“According to my little sister, she says that we both looked at the semi, and then it hit us,” Unruh says. “Then I went into a coma for three months.”

Unruh doesn’t remember  those unconscious months in a hospital bed, but she does remember hearing music. 

“You know how when you’re not really  doing anything or thinking of anything, music will just kind of come into your head?” Unruh says.

To her surprise, the music that drifted up from her memory wasn’t grunge. It was Beethoven.

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
Leena Foster (left) gets instruction on using the AUMI from KU professor Kip Haaheim.

Specifically, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, which haunted her and became her companion during months in a fog.

“Of course it was keeping me entertained, but it was calming me, cause it does calm me, when you listen to Beethoven,” Unruh says.

When Unruh awoke, she found out her grandfather had been killed in the crash. She had broken bones, skull fractures and a punctured lung. She also suffered brain damage which left her unable to walk, talk or play instruments.

Today, after twenty years and a long road of recovery, Unruh is once again making music, and she’s got a team of like-minded collaborators.

Sherrie Tucker, a professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, welcomes a loose-knit group of community members, musicians, students and people with disabilities to the Lawrence library each month.

They jam on the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument, or AUMI. 

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
Julie Unruh (left) and KU student Kathryn Robinson try out different instrument options on the AUMI.

The AUMI is a free app for tablet computers that was first developed by Zane Van Duzan, a musician and programmer, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 2007.

It was created to allow people with disabilities like cerebral palsy to manipulate sound through motion-detecting cameras.

The AUMI can be set up to play numerous traditional musical instruments or ensembles, or nonmusical sound such as kittens or street sounds from Vietnam.

Though the AUMI allows users to play individual notes, the broad hand sweeps or head bobs that participants typically favor leads to music filled with long glissandos or arpeggios.

Those effects, combined with the use of nonmusical sounds, produce music that would seem to come from the far end of the Avant Garde.

That’s probably just how the originator of AUMI jams, Pauline Oliveros would’ve liked it.

“I’m not interested in making an object of art and entertainment. But I’m interested in making something that helps me to grow and expand and change as an individual,” she said in an interview in 1983.

Oliveros was an American composer who first made her mark in the 1960s in electronic music, but she went on to devise projects to guide musicians and nonmusicians through making their own experimental sounds. She wrote instructions and conducted workshops.

KU’s Tucker, who collaborated with Oliveros, says the musical outcome of these projects took a backseat to the act of creating – that “music is a welcome byproduct of this activity.”

This effort eventually led to the creation of six AUMI sites in North America, including the one at KU, where researchers in music history and music therapy and professors in the music department work with people in the community.

Oliveros saw the AUMI as a breakthrough tool that gave anyone the ability to become a composer.

“She thought it was healing,” Tucker says. “She thought that it helped people to be creative in that way. And that if we had more opportunity to make our own music and to be heard in an authentic way, and if we were able to listen to one another and hear one another’s creations, then that would actually heal the world.”

Oliveros died in 2016, but the AUMI lab she started in Lawrence is still going strong.

Unruh says that after the coma, she developed a deeper love for a more diverse range of music that she ever listened to before the coma. She’s passionate about everything from Beethoven to blues to classic jazz. 

And once a month at the jam sessions, with technology that she says gives her access to a new world of sound, Unruh explores even further reaches of music.

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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