Father and son, make music history with magic baton

The Armenian Institute has lost a dear friend this year. A constant and encouraging presence at AI events since the beginning, Rolf Gehlhaar’s deep curiosity about the world fit well with AI’s eclectic approach to programming. His astute observations and discussion points quietly offered following a variety events over the years were part of his warm and continuing participation and constant support. His broad interests were brought together in his highly creative inventions and compositions, inspired by his desire to have as many people as possible share all aspects of enjoying music and music-making. He will be greatly missed.

Rolf leaves behind his beloved wife Nouritza Matossian (a long-standing supporter and Executive Committee member of the Armenian Institute) his sons Hagop and Vahakn, grand-daughter Sequoia and brothers.

Father and son, make music history with magic baton

by Nouritza Matossian


Rolf and Vahakn Gehlhaar Matossian have been working for the last eight years with their company, Human Instruments, in order to create instruments for disabled musicians by adapting technology that will enable them to play like any other musician. "We want a level playing field for everyone" Vahakn told me, and last month they did just that.

International conductor Charles Hazlewood had, for a long time, been keen to rehearse and conduct the Haptic Baton with a mixed orchestra of sighted and visually impaired musicians in classical and contemporary music. It was to be a first. Nowhere else in the world had as many blind players sat as equals in an orchestra. Each time Hazlewood requested a beat or briskly moved his baton, he would trigger a signal to the musicians in the form of a physical sensation. The musicians with disability, in turn, responded and played in time with the rest of the orchestra. How was it possible?

Rolf Gehlhaar has been called the father of Interactive Music. Composing a large body of instrumental and vocal works for conventional instruments and working in electronic music studios, he has created sound installations in the last three decades. People can make music without touching anything, just by moving about in a specially defined space. The most famous was the Sound Space in the 1985 exhibition Les Immatériaux at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. It struck Rolf forcibly while dancing in the space that this was a gift to a blind person to move safely by their hearing alone. After that he devoted himself to creating digital instruments for professional players who had become disabled.

Vahakn ran his design career and received multiple awards in parallel with his musicianship.

The Paraorchestra was co-founded in 2011 by Rolf and Hazlewood; an ensemble of disabled musicians who made such gorgeous music that they were invited to play at the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games. Clarence Adoo a famous trumpet player, paralysed after a car accident, played in his wheelchair on a no-hands laptop instrument designed for his specific needs by Rolf for that very concert.

Father and son prototyped other instruments, tested and built Hi Note and Touch Chord. The Haptic Baton came on a brain wave to Rolf, and Vahakn developed and refined it through several months of persistent trials.


On November 8th, 2018, at a private concert in Bristol, we witnessed its resounding success as every downbeat of the Haptic Baton in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was played in perfect unison. Hazlewood and the disabled musicians, led by South Korean virtuoso percussionist Kyongho Jeon, were elated and  gave moving testimonials. "For the first time this has made visually impaired players proactive instead of reactive!", Hazlewood declared.

The aim is to make the magic baton available worldwide to orchestras and conductors. This would allow the large numbers of excellent visually  impaired musicians , currently condemned to playing solo or with small ensembles, to join the great orchestras of the world and take their place even as leaders and soloists.

See the BBC report for more information: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csww8h

To donate to Human Instruments and be a part of the future of accessible music performance please visit justgiving.com/crowdfunding/humaninstruments2

Rolf Gelhaar (1943-2019)

Rolf Gehlhaar (born 30 December 1943, died 7 July 2019) was a composer of instrumental electronic and computer music. He was a pioneer in musical interactivity and developed a system named SOUND=SPACE. Other works included generative visuals and music, computer-aided composition and performance instruments and computer controlled kinetic sculptures exhibited at Kinetica Museum London and in private collections internationally. He was a founding member of the Electro-Acoustic Music Association of Great Britain and British Paraorchestra as well as their technical director. In 2002 he became Senior Lecturer in Design and Digital Media at Coventry University and at the time of his death he was Professor in Experimental Music at Coventry University, School of Art & Design.

Rolf studied Philosophy and Science at Yale University and postgraduate studies in Music at the University of California, Berkeley, he was hired by Karlheinz Stockhausen for three years after which he became a freelance composer and performer. He received over 50 major commissions, prizes and appointments at the worlds leading international electronic and computer music research institutions.

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