A close-up view of a digital theremin violin shows the robotic wiring of the instrument. (Evan Cantwell/George Mason University)

As a kid, Daniel Lofaro built instruments — a few guitars, some mandolins, other little things. Now, as a grown-up, Lofaro works with robots as an assistant professor at George Mason University, teaching in the engineering school. But he still carries a love for music.

When he came to Mason, Lofaro concentrated on his robotics work. But after a while, he grew hungry for another challenge. So a friend introduced him to another professor: Edgar Endress, an artist who also teaches at the university.

And that is how Lofaro, a robot guy, and Endress, an art guy, came together for a project: To make music.

Lofaro and Endress are creating a high-tech ensemble at Mason, pieced together with secondhand instruments that could no longer be used for their intended purpose. The small collection of automated instruments, called the Narrative Machine, is on display at Mason’s Fairfax campus.

These reconfigured instruments can look a little wild. There are wooden towers that hold guitars, with speakers perched atop. One banged-up cello has found a new life as a drum. A violin, called a digital theremin violin, is covered in wires.

The instruments are connected over a communications network, Lofaro explained. In this case, they are connected through something called MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.


Detail of a display in The Narrative Machine exhibit at the Center for the Arts. (Evan Cantwell/George Mason University)

“It’s kind of like the Internet for music,” Lofaro said. “So when you press a key on a keyboard, that sends a message over that network. And other devices listen to that message, and if it corresponds to one of the notes on the cello drum, it will play that,” he said, giving an example.

So these automated instruments aren’t robotic in a sci-fi movie way. But they communicate with each other, Lofaro said, and they act in the real world.

“Most MIDI-based instruments, it sends that message and then it just makes a sound, out of a speaker,” he said. “But in this case, you press the key, and then something in the physical world moves to make a sound.”

The project uses instruments donated to Mason Community Arts Academy, a community programming arm of the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. An academy program refurbishes old instruments, which are loaned to community members, students or anyone in need. More than 800 instruments have been collected, said Libby Curtis, executive director of the Community Arts Academy, but some just can’t be fixed.

“But one of the things we don’t want to do is just toss them into the garbage,” Curtis said.

So several years ago, the academy started to provide their unfixable instruments for art projects. Those once-rejected instruments are what Lofaro and Endress now use in work that is not just visually interesting, but also makes music.

“We’re thrilled,” Curtis said. “Because it does take it to this whole other level of creative expression and how these instruments can really be used.”

The effort, Curtis said, offers a chance to see STEAM — science, technology, engineering and math, with a bonus element of the arts — in action.

“We talk about doing STEAM initiatives all the time,” she said. “But this is like — it’s on steroids.”

These instruments might not sound like what you would expect. A cello drum does not sound like a cello, for example, because it’s been reconfigured to serve as a percussion instrument. The violin’s sound has an alien-abduction vibe.

“There’s a real movement toward sound art now . . . re-creating sounds in a whole new way, and what that means to our ears and how we conceptualize things,” Curtis said.

Lofaro and Endress look at the project and imagine how it can grow. Lofaro envisions a maze of robotic instruments. He can see a string section, a brass section, percussion instruments and guitar towers, all played through keyboards.

“Our ultimate goal is to have an opera, specifically, written around the capabilities of our instruments,” Lofaro said.

For Endress, the dream is a bit more complicated. Yes, he sees an opera and a grand, large-scale production. But he hopes to find a way to weave data into the work, to map information about social issues, such as poverty or housing or race, into the music. So what does that look like?

“Now,” Lofaro said, “that’s the question.”

“We don’t know,” Endress said.

Years ago, Endress traveled to Paraguay, where a nonprofit was trying to help children who were living in poverty. Endress was looking at how creative experiences could help people address serious issues.

“What this nonprofit did, it was brilliant. It commissioned the parents to make instruments from garbage,” he said. “So they just found whatever object they can find­ . . . and just went and constructed an amazing instrument.”

From that experience, Endress learned that sometimes plans crafted with the best of intentions still have to adapt to conditions and concerns. But it also made him think about the value of an instrument.

“Why does this instrument need to be this pristine or precious object that is expensive?” he said. “Why can’t it be made from anything that is available?”

This project isn’t particularly well funded, something Endress and Lofaro hope to change. They want to add a master’s or doctoral student to the group, said Lofaro, someone who is excited about the work and committed to making it “their baby.” Maybe that person is an art student, someone who would gain technical know-how.

“Now for the engineers, their creativity will be brought out,” Lofaro said. “Because that’s something that is kind of lacking in engineering right now. We teach them all these formulas, we teach them all these methods, but they have creativity in them. It just needs to be brought out.”