One-of-a-kind Octamasher Instrument Comes to Carleton

Jesse Stewart helped bring the Octamasher to 1125@Carleton this fall. (Chris Roussakis Photo)

Jesse Stewart has a passion for bringing people together through music. The Juno award-winning musician and associate music professor at Carleton’s School of Studies in Art and Culture believes it’s not just a form of entertainment, but a fundamental human right.

This fall, Stewart collaborated with Carleton’s living lab, 1125@Carleton, to bring his passion for community music-making to campus with the installation of the Octamasher, a one-of-a-kind instrument made of eight repurposed keyboards arranged in an octagon. Various community groups will visit Carleton to make music with Stewart on the Octamasher, giving people who may have no musical training an opportunity to express themselves creatively.

“Everyone should have opportunities to make music,” Stewart says. “We now have various adaptive or assistive technologies that can now facilitate music-making, even among people who may have experienced barriers to music-making historically for various reasons, including physical or cognitive disability.”

The idea for the Carleton project came from We Are All Musicians (WAAM), a foundation Stewart has led since 2012 that enables people who may otherwise experience physical or social barriers to making music. Stewart chose 1125@Carleton because the lab facilitates collaboration between Carleton researchers and the wider community.

Stewart sees the installation as a way for people to come together while promoting social inclusion, as it can facilitate group music-making for people of all ages. The instrument is designed so eight people can stand at the instrument and face each other.

“The goal is to create inclusive musical environments that allow us to enter into meaningful musical conversation in a way that doesn’t erase difference, but celebrates difference,” Stewart says.

The Octamasher is the only instrument of its kind in the world. Each keyboard fulfills a different musical function and each key triggers a different musical sample, all of which have been beat-matched to complement one another musically. One keyboard is made up of various drum loops, while another consists of vocal samples that allow performers to integrate one-liners from Sir Mix-a-Lot and other pop culture icons.

The instrument was created by electronic musician and songwriter Moldover, who is based in California. Stewart first connected with Moldover more than five years ago while exploring CD and LP packaging for his music and visual culture class at Carleton. Now the stars have aligned as the instrument has been shipped to Ottawa and installed.

Stewart will be using the instrument in collaboration with the Indigenous Culture Media Innovations (ICMI) program and Minwaashin Lodge, a support centre in Ottawa’s east end for Aboriginal women and youth. He will also partner with the Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre and the Pathways to Education program to bring high school students from the Britannia Park area to campus in order to make music on the Octamasher and experience a university environment.

“I have been very fortunate to develop and foster relationships with various not-for-profit organizations and the communities that they support,” says Stewart.

“Bringing them to campus is very much in keeping with what I understand 1125@Carleton to be all about, namely bringing different communities together with the aim of trying to make a positive difference in the world,” he says.

“Everything that I do as a composer, musician, instrument builder, community activist and professor is predicated on that idea.”

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