The Orbitar

FALL 2011: V.07 N.02: CAA Conference Edition 2011

Kate Riegle-van West
MFA Candidate, Interdisciplinary Art and Media
Columbia College, Chicago

The Orbitar is a new multimedia musical instrument rooted in the ancient art of poi spinning.  It is comprised of three components: The Satellites – sound- and light- generating musical instruments modeled after traditional poi; The Controllers – gloves and a headset which shape the sound and light parameters; and The Console – the receiver for the data coming from The Satellites and The Console, which ultimately creates the final audio output.  The Orbitar is a powerful new invention for creating live audio and visual compositions drawing upon 1) the act of play, an important tool for sculpting the brain and reconciling cognitive difficulties, 2) the creation of audio compositions through corporeality and voice, a connection to ritualistic tradition and an important tool for priming the auditory cortex to more efficiently process information, and 3) the use of non-habitual movement and multiple senses, important tools for relating to the outside world and breaking mechanical tendencies.

The Orbitar, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West, multi-media musical instrument, video: Kate Riegle – van West

What is Poi Spinning?
Poi is an ancient art originating in the Maori tribe of New Zealand.  Made by attaching a weight to the end of flexible cord, the poi are held in each hand and swung around in circular patterns, becoming extensions of the body and a magnifier of our movement.  Originally poi is believed to be part of the “dance” section of the Maori whare täpere, meaning the “house of entertainment.”  Today, poi has gained international popularity as part of the skill toy family and is practiced in many different styles for recreation and performance.

(left) Traditional Maori poi, artist unknown. Photograph, date unknown. (right) Model of The Orbitar aglow, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West. Digital image.

(left) Traditional Maori poi, artist unknown. Photograph, date unknown.
(right) Model of The Orbitar aglow, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West. Digital image.

Project Influences

G.I. Gurdjieff
G.I. Gurdjieff was a philosopher, teacher, and mystic.  He believed that people were generally stuck in a state of “waking sleep,” and that, in order to truly perceive reality, we needed to posses a greater degree of consciousness, through connecting our inner and outer worlds, and thus understanding the intimate connection between our three functions: physical, emotional and mental. [1] Gurdjieff’s exploration of non-habitual movement through his “sacred dances” is the backbone of utilizing The Orbitar as an extension of the body to focus inner awareness.  Gurdjieff is discussed at length in the “Theoretical Goals” section of this article.

Harry Partch
Harry Partch was interested in corporeality and tying music to the natural speaking voice. He worked with a 43 tone microtonal scale of his creation on custom-made instruments he invented and built.  He was also interested in connecting ancient ritual to modern music creation.  According to writer David Quantick, “The sheer size of the instruments compelled musicians to move in a different way, which led to a new form of performance, part dance and part ritual theatre.” [2] Partch’s philosophy and work resonate with the key concepts behind The Orbitar on many levels.  His concern with corporeality, the attitude, posture, and active physical involvement of the musician, is the driving force behind the principle of utilizing The Orbitar as an extension of the body to explore non-habitual movement.  Partch’s concern with tying music to the natural speaking voice (coupled with Maori tradition) is the driving force behind the vocal component of The Orbitar and the necessity to explore non-traditional scales and tones.  Partch’s concern with ancient ritual is the driving force behind the necessity of The Orbitarist to be a simultaneous singer, dancer, composer and poi spinner, and to draw upon poi spinning’s ancient Maori roots.  In the words of Partch:

My music and my instruments are the expression of an ancient tradition in which sight and sound unite toward the achievement of a single dramatic purpose. This is not concert music, it finds its highest purpose in collaboration with other arts, with dance, with tragedy, with satire, with farce…in ancient ritual, primitive ritual, everything was involved. [3]

Stuart Brown
Founder of The National Institute For Play, Stuart Brown has studied and cataloged the effects of play in all stages of human and animal life to demonstrate its importance in sculpting the brain and achieving success and happiness. [4] Specifically relating to The Orbitar is Brown’s research on Body Play and Movement, one of the seven categories of play Brown has defined.  In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown states, “Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties.”  The abilities to make new patterns, find the unusual among the common, and spark curiosity and alter observation are all fostered by being in a state of play.” [5] Poi has always been considered a form of play.  As previously mentioned, poi was part of the whare tapere, or the house of entertainment, where Maori people gathered to engage in leisure activities. [6] Today it finds a similar home under the term “skill toys,” which encompasses props used for dexterity play or object manipulation such as hula-hoop’s and yoyo’s.  Poi is intrinsically playful, and is a powerful tool for fostering innovation, flexibility, adaptability and resilience, which, according to Brown, all have their roots in Body Play and Movement.

Poi, as a form of play, also bridges the gap between the outer and inner worlds as described by Gurdjieff in the “Theoretical Goals” section of this article.  According to Brown, “Real play interacts with and involves the outside world, but it fundamentally expresses the needs and desires of the player. It emerges from the imaginative force within.  That’s part of the adaptive power of play: with a pinch of pleasure it integrates our deep physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacities“ [7].  The Orbitar is a powerful tool for learning about the self-movement that structures an individual’s knowledge of the world.  And because poi spinning is done for its own sake, arising out of innate motivations, it typically occurs during periods of the most synaptic-neural growth.  The act of playing with poi lights up the brain and gives form to internal inchoate desires and needs.

Project Goals & Applications

Theoretical Goals
Part of the appeal of poi spinning is its potential to be utilized as a tool for achieving a higher level of consciousness and a focusing of inner awareness.  According to G.I. Gurdjieff, we are stuck in a loop of automatism. Our body unconsciously cycles through daily movements in the same way the movements of our emotions and mind have become mechanical.  To combat this Gurdjieff created a system of “sacred movements” which utilize non-habitual motions to break these cycles. Poi spinning shares the same catalog of techniques as those practiced in Gurdjieff’s sacred movements: polyrhythms, new postures and transitions between them, and full integration of the mind, body and spirit.    As a tool for breaking these mechanical tendencies and altering the associative processes of thinking and feeling, poi spinning opens new neuropathways and bridges the two hemispheres of the brain.

Furthermore, Gurdjieff proposed that we exist amidst three worlds: “the outer world” – the impressions received outside of our bodies, visual and tangible, invisible and intangible; “the inner world” – the automatic flowing and functioning of the organism; and “the world” – the totality of the functioning and the connection between the outer and inner worlds, yet a world on its own, dependent on neither. [8] It is in the formation of these three worlds that the key to attaining “the world” lies, for the first two worlds are formed on their own, while the third is formed exclusively by the intentional connection of the functions of the first two.  This intentional connection is created by stopping the flow of unconscious thought, achieving complete concentration of the mind, and thinking only of what one wants to think of. In doing this, one can learn to think without distraction, and to subordinate the unconscious psychic processes.  Essentially, through this kind of focused attention, one can achieve complete concentration, and through this concentration, one can achieve being in the “moment,” or being in a “trance” or “flow state,” or in Gurdjieffian terms, “the world.”

The Orbitar, through a combination of non-habitual movements and the triggering of audio cues via voice and hand controls, requires attention free of distraction, allowing complete concentration of the mind as described by Gurdjieff.  By using a fully immersive, multi sensory tool, the Orbitarist may begin to see the oscillation between the outer world and the inner world, giving him/her an understanding of how to blend the two.

Scientific Goals
Because we relate to the outside world through our senses, The Orbitar is an ideal vehicle for bridging the gap between the inner and outer worlds, due to its rich connection to multiple senses. The Orbitar generates data on the movement of The Orbitar satellites as extensions of our body, and that data can in turn be represented as an audio score.  Thus, by mapping the relationship of movement to sound we can map the relationship of movement to the world outside of ourselves.

Artistic Goals
While The Orbitar has many artistic applications, my three major artistic goals are to create a fully immersive multimedia musical instrument, to reconnect the powerful ancient Maori traditions with the future of poi spinning, and to create a unique form of performance art.

The Orbitar is the first musical instrument of its kind.  Fully immersive, multimedia, and multi-sensory, it allows users to make contact with music in unprecedented form.  Completely customizable to suit each individual, and controlled by voice, touch, and movement, Orbitarists will experience music in three dimensions, through mind, body, and spirit.  The addition of control via voice connects The Orbitar to the ancient Maori tradition in which poi spinning was executed to specific poi songs, or paitere, composed by the Maori women.  The poi would be sent on an imaginary journey around the events and details of the composition, accompanied by dance and singing of the composition.   The Orbitar brings this powerful ritual into the technological era, giving performers the ability to express their own paitere with precision and grace, creating a unique performance and musical composition with every spin.

OrbitAra, 2011, performed by Kate Riegle – van West, ten minute performance, photograph by Jenny Garnett.

OrbitAra, 2011, performed by Kate Riegle – van West, ten minute performance, photograph by Jenny Garnett.

Technological Goals
The complete Orbitar system is comprised of three components: The Orbitar Satellites, The Orbitar Controllers, and The Orbitar Console. Together, with the addition of the Orbitarist (a simultaneous singer, dancer, musician, and poi spinner), these components control the instrumentation and parameters of each unique Orbitar composition.

The Orbitar System, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West, Robert Guyser, and Jordan Stefanelli.

The Orbitar System, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West, Robert Guyser, and Jordan Stefanelli.

1. The Satellites
The Orbitar Satellites are modeled after traditional poi balls, a weight on the end of a flexible cord to be spun in circular patterns.  There are two Satellites, one for each hand. Each Satellite sends wireless signals to the computer, which is then turned into audio data.  Moving The Satellites around the Orbitarist changes the way the audio sounds.  The Satellites also contain RGB LED lights, which can also be altered live by the Orbitar Controllers, giving the Orbitarist the unique ability to create live sound and light compositions.

The Orbitar Satellites, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West and Robert Guyser, photograph by Robert Guyser.

The Orbitar Satellites, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West and Robert Guyser, photograph by Robert Guyser.

2. The Controllers
The gloves are used as the interface for switching performance parameters. They give the Orbitarist infinite ability to customize their performance live. Some examples of glove controls are: the ability to decide what instrument each Satellite will use, the ability to turn the Satellite LED lights on and off and/or change their color, the ability to loop audio compositions live, the ability to decide what types of effects each Satellite instrumentation will have, etc.  The options for instrumentation and effects are completely customizable.

The headset can be used for additional musical accompaniment to each Orbitar composition.  By singing into the headset, the voice of the Orbitarist is processed through a voice modulator.  The types of noises the voice modulator recognizes and the sound of the final output are completely customizable and can be preset prior to each performance and adapted live via the gloves.

The Orbitar Gloves, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West and Joe Correia.

The Orbitar Gloves, 2011, Kate Riegle – van West and Joe Correia.

As the first a multi-sensory, fully immersive, musical instrument of its kind, The Orbitar has tremendous potential to be used as a tool for physical and mental rehabilitation/therapy, recreation, performance art, and to create musical compositions in a non-traditional manner.  There are still numerous facets of The Orbitar system yet to be explored, such as a notation system and composition theory, and new research and compositions will continue to flow.  For more information, please visit:

1. Official Website, “Gurdjieff Dances.” (accessed November 6, 2010).
2. Darren Chesworth, “The Outsider: The Story of Harry Partch,” BBC, 1974. (accessed November 22, 2010).
3. Darren Chesworth, “The Outsider: The Story of Harry Partch.”
4. Stuart Brown, Official Website, “The National Institute For Play.” (accessed November 6, 2010).
5. Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Penguin Group, 2009).
6. Karyn Paringatai, Poia mai takue poi: Unearthing the Knowledge of the Past (A critical review of written literature on the poi in New Zealand and the Pacific).  Diss.  University of Otago, July 2004.
7. Stuart Brown, Official Website, “The National Institute For Play.” (accessed November 6, 2010).
8. Official Website, “Gurdjieff Dances.” (accessed November 6, 2010).