Jesse Chorng's 'Synthshredder'

Synthshredder creator and UCLA student Jesse Chorng makes music from skateboarding.

Imagine a skateboard bowl that makes music. What about a machine that helps you spin a basketball on the tip of your finger, or a gyroscope that illuminates skateboarding's unfathomable 360 flip? UCLA student, artist and grown-up kid Jesse Chorng explored some of these great mysteries in his thesis project, "Hacking Cool." He summarized his work as "a series of devices and mechanisms that attempted to accomplish stuff I wish I could do as a kid." But it's so much more than that: It captivates adults and restores the wonder of those younger years.

Ask an imaginative 5-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and you'll get answers like "fireman," "astronaut," or even "President of the United States." As years pass, kids leave the sandbox and take their pursuits to the streets, gaining the understanding that you win some, you lose some. Chorng grew up determined to make his childhood fantasies reality.

"Everyone I knew skated when I was a kid. I grew up at the same time street skating was taking off. You couldn't avoid skate culture even if you tried," explains Chorng, a recent masters in fine arts graduate from UCLA.

Chorng's "360 Flip Gyroscope" visually explains the dynamics of one of skateboarding's fundamental tricks: the 360 flip. Mounted on a slab of concrete, with its concentric circles of rolled steel spinning around an isolated skateboard, which rotates perfect 360 flips on the axis, Chorng's homework looks a lot like artwork.

"The 360 Flip Gyroscope is my attempt to understand 360 flips and how they work. Growing up, landing a 360 flip was essentially what separated the men from the boys. I unfortunately never got close. Still, it served as a kind of threshold between 'real skaters' and posers," says Chorng.

Chorng

The inner workings of the "Synthshredder."

Another childhood trick that distinguished the captains from the kids who were picked last on the team was the achievement of spinning a basketball on your fingertip -- a feat of gravity, centripetal force and momentum. For some it comes naturally; for others the ball disappointingly falls to the ground. Although the technique might have eluded him as a kid, Chorng's invention, "The Basketball Spinner," has righted that wrong. Mounted to a wall, "The Basketball Spinner" consists of two plates faceted with four skateboard wheels on each side, and a motor to power the spin. The user puts a basketball in the cradle created by the wheels on the fixed plate and when the door is closed the electric motor sets the ball in motion. From there the user places their finger under the ball and releases the door, resulting in a finger spin worthy of a Harlem Globetrotter.

The piece de resistance of Chorng's thesis project is called the "Syntheshredder." It's a wooden skate bowl wired for sound -- a synthesizer that can be skated.

"The relationship between skateboarding and music is rooted in style: Both activities are highly improvisational and rely on the performer's ability to create within given parameters," Chorng explains. "The idea was to explore this relationship by literally making a platform where skateboarders, musicians and artists could collaborate," continues the mad scientist behind this revolutionary invention.

The construction of the 20-foot-diameter wooden bowl is pretty typical, with the exception of the 76 thin ceramic microphones that are embedded beneath the surface. Using the same equipment that amplifies acoustic instruments, Chorng created a revolutionary means for capturing sound.

"Essentially, the 'Syntheshredder' works on two levels: as a sort of microphone that simply picks up and amplifies the sound of wheels moving along the plywood, and also as an interface that feeds into a computer. The contact microphones can act as sensors and relay information to software. In this format, the bowl acts more like a controller which can trigger, well, pretty much anything."

Since Chorng's wild array of talents doesn't include making music, he found his partner in recording artist Sean Rowry. Chorng said, "I realized really early on that if I wanted it to produce more than just noise, I needed to collaborate with a musician who could work with this unique instrument. Besides being my best friend, Sean makes music that's very atmospheric, which I thought would work well with the 'shredder. Not to mention, he has a keen ear for experimentation."

The results are captivating and the tracks draw the listener in, especially if you've got an ear for skateboarding. You can hear the pumping through the transitions in the samples recorded by the "Syntheshredder." The skate sounds hold down the rhythm section, like a skate video without visuals.

Incredibly, the "Syntheshredder's" capabilities are still in its infancy -- "It's definitely still in its prototype stage," Chorng continues. "It works sometimes, then decides not to. Sean Rowry and I were able to squeeze out some interesting samples and noises for the record. I still think it has enormous potential, but the combination of my graduate work, moving to the East Coast and running out of funding has put the project on hold for the time being."

Although the "Syntheshredder" is currently packed away in Chorng's dad's garage, there's hope that he'll be able to make it fully operational and create even more extraordinary jams. Ever the visionary, when asked which skater he'd be most excited to see and hear skate his bowl, without a moment's consideration Chorng stated, "Daewon Song." No doubt the "Syntheshredder" and Song would make beautiful music.

With such imaginative projects completed, Jesse Chorng is an exciting creative mind to follow, as his progression and invention are sure to bring more unexpected, never-been-done concepts to fruition. To stay up to date with Chorng's work, visit his blog at Jessechorng.com.

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