The AUMI story begins in 2006 with a conversation between an occupational therapist and drummer named Leaf Miller, and her friend, the internationally renowned composer, improviser, musician, humanitarian, founder of the Deep Listening Institute, and distinguished professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in nearby Troy, Pauline Oliveros. Miller led a weekly drum circle at Abilities First, a school for children and young adults with disabilities in Poughkeepsie, New York. She asked Oliveros for help in making the musical experience more inclusive for those whose mobility limitations did not allow for physically grasping a shaker or stick, or playing a hand drum. Oliveros, whose life’s work had been about what she called “expanding the improvising community,” consulted colleagues Curtis Bahn and Don Milland and assembled a team. She asked for a meeting with the three students at the school with the least mobility and brought her own students from RPI to work on a way to create an instrument that would adapt to any body, thus opening opportunities for autonomous musical participation for all participants.
In 2007, Zane Van Duzen, then a senior at RPI, created the prototype for such an instrument, using MAX/MSP/Jitter and a simple webcam. Zevin Polzin led the development of AUMI, continually updating and improving the instrument, until 2010. Since that time, many talented developers and programmers have worked on the AUMI Tech team, furthering the intentions set forth in the initial project. Oliveros maintained that an accessible instrument needed to be affordable; therefore the software has been available for download on Mac or PC free of charge since its release. The iPad version, developed by Henry Lowengard in 2013, was initially priced at a nominal fee, but is now also available for free. There have been many changes in the AUMI over the years across different platforms, but all versions employ the front-facing camera on a laptop or desktop computer to track the movement of a particular part of the body. It can be set to a nose, a finger, anything that moves. The movement triggers sounds, selected from a vast library of possibilities. The range of motion needed to trigger the sound can be adjusted on the computer screen to fit the range of motion of each user. All users were considered researchers from the very beginning, and many of the improvements and changes over the years have resulted from the feedback offered by people with disabilities, caregivers, occupational therapists, music therapists, teachers, family members, and others.
The first performance involving AUMI was done for the Board of Trustees of Abilities First in 2010. The board was so impressed that they requested that a community concert be given at Abilities First School for parents, and trustees of AFI and DLI. This concert involved most all of the 50 students at AFI as well as the therapists and aides. Led by Leaf Miller her drumming students with physical abilities drummed and students who had little if any motor control of their limbs played AUMI.
Dr. Oliveros had already used some of Henry Lowengard’s iPhone software for a piece she wrote and performed called DroniPhonia (2009). He also lives in Kingston and participated with Nancy O. Graham in a few of Deep Listening’s Dream festivals. He was approached in 2012 to write the iOS version of AUMI, and the first release was available in the app store in June 2013. Lowengard continues to maintain and develop the iOS version of AUMI.
Thomas Ciufo started in 2013. His first big undertaking was to help get the Mac and PC development in sync and released as version 3.
Dr. Oliveros sustained the instrument by continually expanding the circle of collaborative researchers with diverse skillsets, who continue to update, use, and research the AUMI, even after her passing in November, 2016. In 2009, she invited the participation of fellow members of the Improvisation, Gender, and the Body research group, within the larger initiative, Improvisation, Community, and Social Practices (ICASP), a grant-funded 7-year project based in Canada. Members of ICASP team visited Leaf’s drum circle, and then began launching AUMI improvisation research in their own communities and institutions. In 2013, the AUMI Consortium was formalized, comprising six institutional sites with community partners.
In 2011 the DLI was transferred to the Center for Deep Listening at RPI, where it is directed by Tomie Hahn. The AUMI is headquartered in the Center for Cognition, Consciousness, and Culture at RPI, directed by Jonas Braasch.
The AUMI training program was developed by Leaf Miller and Jaclyn Heyen after years of using AUMI in a drum group for students with disabilities. Workshops have been presented at universities, schools, rehabilitation centers and conferences both nationally and internationally. Trainers bring AUMI technical training along with World Drumming in a half day, full day and multiple day trainings.