The ConsortEM project was a collaboration between The National Centre for Early Music, Immersive Media Spaces, the University of York, Arts Council England: Yorkshire, Live Music Now!, Youth Music and the Drake Music Project. The project focused on developing digital musical instruments suitable for the performance of music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque. Many Early Music genres lend themselves to performance by groups of people with a varying range of musical experience and proficiency. Some Early Music styles also allow for novice musicians to perform simple parts alongside much more elaborate parts performed by more experienced players.
The innovative ConsortEM instrument was created to be able to be configured in a variety of ways, to enable players to begin learning basic musical skills. As they practise and improve, the instrument's configuration can be changed to give the player more complex challenges.
Playing melodies on conventional instruments requires the fine motor movement of as many as ten fingers. Many disabled musicians find that this presents a barrier to them taking a lead role in the performance of a piece. The player of a ConsortEM instrument can step-through a melody using a switch or sensor that is most suitable for her needs and which is plugged into the instrument.
The musician is able to engage more fully in the performance, and, in time, can learn to control expressive elements of a performance, such as rubato and dynamics. The instrument is configured via a graphical user interface on a PC. Users can select the type of input sensor, which will be either a digital or an analogue. The player or teacher can decide whether the sensor will enable the player to step-through a tune from an imported MIDI file, whether it will trigger one or more chords or a pre-determined sequence of notes, or whether it will control an expressive element of a performance, such as dynamics. The configuration can be saved to a smart card, and inserted into the instrument when the player wishes to use it.
This means that configurations for many different pieces can be prepared in advance, and the player can quickly and easily reconfigure the instrument, simply by inserting a new smart card.
The ConsortEM instrument can be played by individuals as soloists but there is also the opportunity for them to perform as part of an ensemble.
This project was divided into three phases. The first, known as ConsortEM - on track, comprised an MSc research programme undertaken by Alistair Kirk at the University of York. Alistair developed a number of prototype instruments and software to control them. This provided 'proof of concept' for the project. The company Immersive Media Spaces subsequently worked from Alistair's initial prototypes to develop instruments and configuration software for use by musicians.
The second phase known as ConsortEM - on tour, invited three Early Music groups - The Gonzaga Band, Trio Mercurio and Sirinu to work with young people from two special schools - Grove Park in Brent and Northfield in York. The young people, with the help of these professional musicians, learnt to play the ConsortEM prototype instruments and demonstrated their newly acquired skills to fellow pupils.
The final stage of the project, ConsortEM - on demand, investigated the feasibility of producing a larger number of instruments, together with supporting learning resources in order to make them available to users across the UK and increase the opportunities for disabled young people to enjoy music-making. While it was not feasible to create such resources and equipment immediately following the project, the learning from this research has been recorded and will inform future work as technology develops and reduces in cost and complexity.