This Kansas City musician invented an instrument that conjures sound from painting
Musician Camry Ivory wondered what it would be like to paint with music, so she invented an instrument that lets an artist create a painting and compose a song at the same time.
Electronic music fills the air at Agnes Arts, a studio and gallery complex just east of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Musician Camry Ivory is painting at an easel, and with each stroke of her brush she plays another note.
Ivory is creating music using the prototype of a new instrument. She calls it Coloratura.
“I just thought it would be cool to have a musical paintbrush to be able to create both music and art simultaneously,” Ivory says.
Ivory started developing Coloratura in 2015 as a one-time performance piece for downtown Kansas City's Art in the Loop Series. She's been refining the instrument ever since.
After seven years of tinkering with the invention, carting it to arts events around the city, and seeing firsthand the benefits it can bring to those who use it, Ivory is ready to share Coloratura with the world.
The instrument features an easel with a metal canvas, twelve brushes and pots of paint. Long wires connect the brushes to a circuit board. Each brush creates a different sound when it touches the metal canvas.
Before picking up a paintbrush, Ivory's main instrument was the piano.
"I've been playing the piano since I was 8 years old, and I just was looking for something different," Ivory remembers. "Music is definitely a beautiful art form, but it felt one-dimensional at times. I was just communicating, you know, sonically, but I wanted to add the visual elements to my work."
To get Ivory out of her musical rut, a friend suggested she learn a new instrument.
"So I took her advice to the extreme and just created an entirely new instrument," Ivory says.
But Ivory never planned on inventing anything. When she settled on composing music with paint, she says she was certain someone had come up with the idea before her.
When she started looking for other artists combining art and music, and using technology as a connector, she couldn't find anyone else working in the way she'd envisioned.
"I'm a big old nerd, basically," Ivory says. "I've always been interested in technology, and I did coding and websites when I was a kid."
Ivory is also a singer, songwriter and composer. She’s known for her work in the local music scene, where she performs with groups like Talking Heads tribute band Found a Job. She says painting takes her music down a different path.
"It totally changed the way I approach music, and makes me play in a really interesting way that I wouldn't normally play if I were just sitting at a piano," she says.
Evolution and experimentation
Once Ivory came up with a rough prototype, she was able to get the project funded with an Inspiration Grant from ArtsKC. The $2,500 grant is intended for ambitious artistic projects that make a positive impact on the community.
Ivory's husband, Justin Skinner, jumped in to help too. Skinner, a drummer, percussionist, and sound engineer, figured out how to hollow out paintbrushes so they could be wired to a circuit board. He also helped make the device more rugged, so Ivory can take them on the road.
“So once the brush touches the canvas it sends a signal to my computer, which is running music production software, and that creates the sound,” Ivory says.
Lately, Ivory has been experimenting with the pentatonic scale, comprised of the black keys on a piano. For Ivory, C-sharp is green, E-flat is blue, F-sharp is magenta, A-flat is orange and B-flat is yellow.
“I play often in this particular chord structure because the pentatonic scale is really harmonious, and so every note kind of plays well with each other,” Ivory explains.
After using Coloratura for several years, and having worked with people who have synesthesia, Ivory says she sees her work and the world differently now.
Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sense, like sight, produces experiences in a completely different sense, like sound. People with synesthesia often report being able to hear color or see sound.
"It has kind of turned me into a quasi-synesthete," Ivory says. "So now when I listen to music, I think, 'What would that look like if I were going to paint it?'"
The practice has also changed Ivory's perspective on embracing the unexpected while creating new art.
“I think with Coloratura, it teaches you that it’s OK to make mistakes. And sometimes the mistakes that I make are, if I can quote Bob Ross, ‘happy little accidents,’ right?” Ivory says with a laugh. “They take me in a different direction, either musically or visually, that I normally wouldn't have gone. So, yeah, I play a sour note, but it makes a really cool, weird chord that takes me in a completely different direction.”
Ivory says the swirling colors of paint stimulate a second layer of creative energy for her.
“I really get into a meditative flow, and I stop thinking about everything else,” Ivory says. “I’m just in this kind of Zen state of creation, and I really can't think about anything else because I'm getting this multisensory explosion of color and sound.”
Children are often the first to pick up a brush and give Coloratura a try. Ivory thinks there may be something about the mix of art, music and technology that could have therapeutic benefits.
She remembers the time a little girl approached her after about 15 minutes of painting.
“She says, 'This is so soothing, this really helps my anxiety.' And I just wanted to hug her — oh, my God. Like, 'I'm sorry that you have anxiety when you're so young, but I'm glad that you found something that you connect with,'" Ivory says.
For the past few months, Ivory’s been demonstrating Coloratura around town at maker fairs and pop-up events, and she's actively looking for other opportunities to showcase her invention.
"Even though I initially designed it for myself, I really want to share it with other people," Ivory says. "I think it's a different way to think about music, to think about art and just to think about yourself as a creative person."