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Inventor brings 3-D vision to music

Bill Sebastian inside a prototype of a dome used for displaying visual music content. Sebastian is the founder of Visual Music Systems, which is developing technology to make music a fully visual experience.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Bill Sebastian inside a prototype of a dome used for displaying visual music content. Sebastian is the founder of Visual Music Systems, which is developing technology to make music a fully visual experience.

On the edge of the woods in Falmouth rests the decaying hulk of one man’s youthful ambition. It’s the bones and innards of an instrument that was designed to facilitate a pretty big notion: human contact with another dimension.

The story behind its creation — and rebirth — involves the Vietnam War, New Kids on the Block, the early days of the Internet, and one MIT dropout’s lifelong determination.

Sun Ra performed on keyboards at Nightstage June 10, 1986.

Phil Spring/Globe Staff

Sun Ra performed on keyboards at Nightstage June 10, 1986.

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In the late 1970s, the instrument led to concert appearances with the late, cosmically attuned jazz bandleader Sun Ra. Now Bill Sebastian, 61, the man who built the instrument, has been working in a Boston office on his invention’s digital successor, which he’s almost ready to show the world.

It is a kind of optical synthesizer called the Outerspace Visual Communicator, or OVC.

Designed to let the user “play” with images as part of a musical composition, the original OVC was a custom-built keyboard featuring an array of sensors to be brushed with fingertips (“like fingerpainting”). It created dynamic color changes in the lights on a structure overhead, such as a dome over a concert stage.

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Sebastian performed with the OVC in a few extended runs with Sun Ra and his big band, the Arkestra.

For years, the early OVC lay ignored in the backyard of Sebastian’s home in Falmouth.

David Black

For years, the early OVC lay ignored in the backyard of Sebastian’s home in Falmouth.

The new visual synthesizer — this one in 3-D — is his second attempt to take “the most powerful art form, music, and make it available to our most powerful sense, which is vision,” Sebastian said one recent evening.

‘I’ve already conditioned everyone in the company: First you build it, then you have to discover it. They’re two separate tasks, and they’re both really daunting.’

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“We really feel this is the art form of the 21st century.”

For the past several months, two fellow engineers and computer programmers have been working with Sebastian at his company Visual Music Systems, headquartered in a mixed-use office space above a sub shop near Downtown Crossing.

The team has been working on proprietary computer programs and prototypes of the new OVC, which, in place of the keyboard and buttons, is operated by hand controllers that look a bit like robotic arms fitted with valves (like those of a trumpet) and sliders (roughly analogous to the frets on a guitar). Sebastian envisions applications for the 3-D OVC ranging from planetariums to virtual reality headsets.

In the office, a half-dozen pine desks line the white-painted brick walls, leading to a second work space dominated by a bank of oversized monitors, like an editing suite. On the wall to the right hangs a neat array of colorful photos of Sun Ra and his band.

In the back corner, opposite an open kitchen, is a makeshift 2-by-4 framework closed off with heavy black canvas. Inside, the space is dominated by a large, curved fiberglass screen. Several home projectors fitted with wide-angle lenses target the screen from a raised platform.

Joshua Slocum, an engineer with Bill Sebastian’s Visual Music Systems, models a hand controller (left) for Sebastian’s Outerspace Visual Communicator.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Joshua Slocum, an engineer with Bill Sebastian’s Visual Music Systems, models a hand controller (left) for Sebastian’s Outerspace Visual Communicator.

“Imagine you wanted to record the first sound in your head — let’s say it’s Beethoven — but first you had to build a violin, and ask questions like, what’s a loudspeaker? If you had to build everything? This is kind of like that,” says Sebastian of his operation.

Jeffrey Ventrella is a musician, artist, and computer programmer who studied at the MIT Media Lab in the early 1990s. He helped Sebastian design the “visual language” of the new OVC, creating vividly colored particle systems and “dancing fractals.”

Though Sebastian plays down the notion that he’s a synesthete, that is, someone who “sees” or experiences sound as color, Ventrella says the definition can be broadened. “Bill is really going for something that’s much more of a language, less a sensory wash,” says Ventrella on the phone from his home north of San Francisco. “It’s very much connected to the musical language, and most of us agree there’s a language to music.”

The real core value of the project, Ventrella says, “is that these visual graphics will be performed by a person or several people in conjunction with music. I like the idea that it’s a pure form of artistic expression, which of course can be hard to market or build a business around.”

Sebastian is well aware the concept can sound baffling, and more than a little nutty, to a skeptical audience. As a kid growing up in Texas, he was an “archetypal nerd techie” who loved to take things apart to see how they worked. He came here to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but was quickly disillusioned.

It was the era of the Vietnam War, he says, and he began protesting. “I couldn’t deal with anything but politics. The world was not the place to be an engineer in 1970. There was this massive technological war on poor people, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

Like so many students of the time, he was excited by the music and enticed by mood-altering substances.

“A lot of us were trying everything we could to try to understand anything we could,” he says, after some hesitation, noting that he’s been working in the “straight” world of business for decades. He studied Carl Jung’s “multitiered levels of self-consciousness and the concept of the collective subconscious,” always asking himself, what’s behind the next door?

Listening to artists such as Jimi Hendrix, he began to gather his earliest thoughts about the intersection between music and vision. He sent a design to the Jefferson Airplane, but got no reply.

Then in 1973, a friend urged Sebastian to see Sun Ra at the old nightclub Paul’s Mall on Boylston Street. He was instantly taken by the high-concept, wildly costumed bandleader, who often claimed he was from Saturn, and his “intergalactic” Arkestra (which included saxophonist Pat Patrick, whose son, Deval, is now the governor).

“I said, yep, that’s it,” Sebastian recalls.

He dropped out of MIT and spent the next four years building the OVC, scavenging for used electronics at Eli Heffron’s in Cambridge and devising parts during down time in his job as a machinist. He completed the job while holed up in a farmhouse in the Texas woods, loaded it into a U-Haul and drove it back to Boston to present it to Sun Ra. He caught up with the musician at a Boston show a month after his return.

“I said, ‘Let me visualize soundwaves,’ ” Sebastian recalls. “To him, it was totally natural. Three or four days later, I was driving him back to Philadelphia,” where Sun Ra was based at the time.

“We both had this conception that music is not just sound — it’s a way of communicating alternative realities to people. He probably understood the instrument much better than I did.”

From 1978 to ’80, Sebastian joined the Arkestra for several series of shows, in performance lofts in Boston and New York and one memorable week at Massachusetts College of Art. The OVC reached the pinnacle of its modest cultural success two years later, when the Jonzun Crew released their electronic funk song “Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC).”

“It had all this mystique to it,” says author Dave Tompkins, who wrote about Sebastian and the OVC in “How to Wreck a Nice Beach,” his 2010 book about the origins of the voice-altering tool called the vocoder.

“You assumed it wasn’t real,” Tompkins continues. “It had this sort of sinister dimension to it.”

In those years, Sebastian was sharing a house in Roxbury with members of The Johnson Brothers band, led by Michael and Larry, with whom he’d played keyboards in a soul and funk cover band. Larry, changing his name to Maurice Starr, would soon became a mentor to Boston pop acts New Edition and New Kids on the Block.

Sebastian worked with the producers as an engineer and an unofficial business partner. The old house was chaotic, he says: “My bedroom was the recording room. Peter Wolf called it the ‘House of Hits.’ ”

With the bands blowing up, Sebastian was busy building a downtown recording studio called Mission Control, which was later moved out to suburban Westford. He had no time for the OVC, which was impractical anyway; it took at least a week to set up. Eventually, he moved it to the backyard behind his new home in Falmouth, where he and his wife, Rita, were raising their daughters.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Sebastian worked in fits and starts on the design for a new, 3-D version of the OVC. But he ran out of money for the project, and focused his attention on family life and building his telecommunications compressors — devices that enabled the transmission of increasing amounts of data through limited passages.

“All my daughters’ baseball games and stuff contributed to that 20-year blackout period,” Sebastian said. “I didn’t think about the instrument most of that time.”

While researching his book on the vocoder, Tompkins visited Sebastian in Falmouth one winter day. He had to be coaxed into talking about his sidetracked project.

“It had consumed a big part of his life, and he had to let it go,” Tompkins says. “I’m sure that was incredibly hard.” When Tompkins asked Sebastian to recall what it was like playing with Sun Ra, “He closed his eyes tight. The memories were so intense, it was almost like he was blacking out. He was really living this vision.”

After cutting a few lucrative deals for his compressor devices, Sebastian realized it was finally time to revisit the OVC.

“Certainly, my whole life was about the music and this,” he says. “There’s nothing else in the world I wanted to do.”

Now Sebastian and his team of engineers are on the verge of putting the various elements together. He’s been warning his team that, as with the original OVC, the finished product is likely not to seem so finished at first.

“It’ll be terrible when it’s first done,” he says. “When I first looked at [the original OVC], I said, oh, my God, I’ve just wasted 4½ years.”

But soon enough, they will teach themselves to master the instrument. Sebastian is certain that will be “a magic moment.”

“I’ve already conditioned everyone in the company: First you build it, then you have to discover it,” he says. “They’re two separate tasks, and they’re both really daunting.”

The potential life-changing perceptions he imagines the OVC offering go far beyond simple sensory pleasures, he says.

“That’s how I justify what I’m doing to my wife,” Sebastian says. “My theory is, if you get people to use their minds differently, they’ll look at the world differently.

“It could be a pretty phenomenal experience for the human race. That’s the thing you hope for.”

James Sullivan can be reached at james
gsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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