Introducing the Infinitone

It looks like a saxophone but plays 512 notes — many you’ve never heard before

How a jazz musician created the Infinitone to challenge Western musical ideas.

By Tony Rehagen

In 2017, Subhraag Singh was on a flight from his home in Stuttgart, Germany, to Atlanta, wondering if anyone else could hear the music in his head.

It had come to him in his dreams — this amazing, almost atonal soundscape. But whenever Singh awoke and rushed to his saxophone or keyboard, the sound was just beyond his grasp. Nothing felt quite right. Unable to recreate what he had experienced in his sleep, Singh realized this music existed outside of the rigid 12-note structure of Western music, in which he had been trained as a jazz musician. He needed an instrument that could access the subtle tones between those notes — so he spent two years and his life savings creating one.

Once he had a working prototype, Singh, 37, entered the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, an international showcase for the newest ideas in music, held annually at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And now he was flying to Georgia with his homespun brass horn — dubbed the “Infinitone” — stowed in a makeshift sheet-metal case in the plane’s cargo hold. This was the moment of truth: In front of the entire world, industry professionals would either tell Singh that they believed his invention was the future of music, or that he had simply lost his mind.

The Infinitone, an elongated pyramid of brass, resembles a futuristic soprano saxophone, with the usual mouthpiece, reed, and ligature. But while a sax’s keys attach to valves that open and shut, the Infinitone has five motorized slides that give it the flexibility of a trombone or guitar. The horn plugs into an iPad, which controls the slides. Rather than playing the instrument directly, the player touches the screen to play a colorful spectrum of 512 notes — 256 per octave, instead of the usual black-and-white 12.

In Atlanta, Singh and his Infinitone would go on to win first place and $5,000. The judges included Mike Adams, the CEO of Moog Music — a company that had created another paradigm-shifting instrument — and Alfred Darlington, also known as electronic musician Daedelus, who raved about the possibilities that Singh’s invention opened up.

“It looks like a soprano sax,” Darlington said in a recent interview. “But what it’s able to do defies the held beliefs of what an instrument should express.”

Today, Singh is poised to release Infinitone DMT, a software based on the eponymous instrument, which will allow anyone to access notes they’ve only dreamed of. “Just like painters can paint using a palette of almost infinite shades,” says Singh, “musicians can also make music with infinite varieties of musical intervals.”

Western musicians have been pushing the accepted boundaries of tonality for as long as there has been a standard scale. Musicians elsewhere, including India and China, have always operated outside of those confines. The hope is that Singh’s software might make such experimentation more easily accessible to artists everywhere. Western music teachers usually indoctrinate their students with Western notions about what is acceptable and what sounds good, says Anthony De Ritis, a composer and a music professor at Northeastern University. “A tool like this could open windows,” says De Ritis, “as long as people like what they hear.”

Singh has never been hemmed in by the conventional. When he was in kindergarten, the teacher played a song and asked the class to draw a picture of what the music made them feel. Most of the students drew trees, birds, or green grass. Young Singh scribbled a mess of impressionistic colors. “To me, music has always been something that has transcended language,” he says. “I can say things with music that you can’t say with words. Where words leave off, music continues.”

The improvisational wilds of jazz drew Singh in. After taking up piano at age 7, he turned to the saxophone at age 11; his heroes were virtuosos like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. He grew up to study composition and performance at Purchase College at State University of New York under jazz heavyweights like Lee Konitz, Gary Bartz, and Larry Ridley. He blew his alto sax on stages from The Blue Note jazz club in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“For 250 years, piano has held court. We’ve been under the tyranny of that emotional palette, and we don’t need to be.”

Alfred Darlington, also known as electronic musician Daedelus

But even playing his own works, Singh says he got bored. So he dropped out of school and moved to India, where for three years, he worked under Bhai Baldeep Singh, the North Indian master of composition and several instruments. While in India, he converted to Sikhism and adopted his Sikh name, which means “all music.”

Indian music is structurally different from the Western school. In addition to using different tunings and scales, notes are divided into ragas — ascending and descending patterns that are sort of a combination of what the West considers a scale and a melody. Each raga corresponds with a different mood, season, event, or even time of day. Indian music also divides each octave into 12 swaras, which roughly correspond to the Western chromatic scale, but there are only seven notes per octave, as opposed to 12 in the West. This new musical language expanded Singh’s idea of what was possible — and that’s when the dreams began. But he still couldn’t find a way to bring those imaginings into the waking world.

Singh playing the Infinitone

Frustrated, he began to dig into temperament — the musical term for the adjustment of sound. “Equal temperament,” the commonly known tuning system, wherein the octave is divided into 12 equal-sized semitones, has only been the standard in the West for a little more than 200 years. It was adopted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the modern piano became the standard instrument for composition and vocal accompaniment.

Prior to that, one could travel the globe and find an almost inexhaustive range of instruments, notes, and tunings. Digging beyond those rigid Western parameters “was the light bulb moment,” says Singh. “There are more than 12 notes. Just like when you tune a piano from one note to the next, there are all those frequencies in between. There is an infinite spectrum of tonality.”

All Singh needed now was an instrument that would enable him to easily access this infinite spectrum. He set up a workshop in his basement and went to work. “Once I got into this world of tonality, it was as if I was on a ladder and all the rungs behind me fell off,” says Singh. “There was no going back down.”

More than two years of mistakes, false starts, and YouTube metal-working tutorials ensued. But by the end of 2016, the Infinitone was real.

“The degree of control that the Infinitone allows is impressive,” says Darlington, who is now an assistant professor and founding principal of the electronic digital instrument department at Berklee College of Music. “For 250 years, piano has held court. We’ve been under the tyranny of that emotional palette, and we don’t need to be.”

After winning the Guthman competition and securing an investor (his uncle), Singh turned to marketing the instrument. Adams, the Moog CEO and Guthman judge, suggested getting the Infinitone into the hands of artists who could harness its power and use it to create works that would catch other musicians’ ears.

“It’s easy to get started, but takes lifetimes to explore,” says Singh. “You can just hit a scale and start jamming. As you learn more, you can adjust parameters, access traditional tunings from other world cultures, and then you’ll create tunings of the future. I see this as being in the toolbox of every musician.”

While Singh’s brainchild is a unique and groundbreaking instrument, he’s far from the first modern musician to explore outside of the 12-tone scale. The early 20th century saw several composers push against the boundaries of standard tonality, including Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Kyle Gann, Harry Partch, and La Monte Young.

And Singh hopes that his newest technological advance will allow more musicians to access his broad range of tones. For interested composers who play something other than saxophone, Singh and his associates have developed Infinitone DMT (Dynamic Micro Tuning), a software plug-in based on the idea behind the instrument. When the application is released this spring, it will enable any music-minded artist — or anyone who’s merely curious — to explore a wider world of musical expression.

All they’ll need is a computer and a dream.

Vienna’s unpredictable Vegetable Orchestra


They’ve played 300 shows around the world – and most of their instruments don’t make it through the set.

by Eliot Stein

It’s three hours before showtime and members of an orchestra are seated onstage in the garden of a 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery outside Cologne, Germany. On cue, the neatly coiffed, black-clad musicians slowly raise their instruments, purse their lips and begin playing the opening passage of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Just then, a sound technician abruptly cuts them off. The carrot flutes were too strong and he couldn’t hear the leek violin.

“One more time,” he says. “Starting with the cucumber.”

In the past 21 years, Vienna’s Vegetable Orchestra has played nearly 300 shows all around the world (Credit: Credit: Heidrun Henke)

In the past 21 years, Vienna’s Vegetable Orchestra has played nearly 300 shows all around the world (Credit: Heidrun Henke)

This is Vienna’s Vegetable Orchestra: a 10-piece ensemble from the city of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart that plays music with instruments made entirely from fresh produce. Over the past 21 years, the group has played nearly 300 shows at packed venues around the globe and performed everything from classical with cabbage to techno with turnips in a rich, rhythmic ratatouille. The orchestra recently released its fourth album after a successful ‘Krautfunding’ (‘herb-funding’) campaign and is showing the world that, actually, you can play with your food.

“Vegetables are unpredictable,” said Susanna Gartmayer, who plays the carrot marimba, radish bass flute and a dozen other edible instruments in the group. “No two pieces of produce are the same. It’s a challenge.”

Unlike traditional instruments, which can last for hundreds of years, vegetable instruments quickly go bad, so the orchestra has to create new ones each time it plays. The morning of every show, this group of artists, novelists, architects and designers goes to local markets with a detailed shopping list and carefully combs through the crates. After pounding on the pumpkins, pawing through the parsley and peeling back the onion skins to select just the right produce, the musicians carve, slice and drill their fresh finds into performance-ready instruments. Once the veggies are peeled and cut they may only last about six hours, and whatever the musicians don’t use gets boiled down into a soup that’s served to the audience after the show.

But as the group arrived back at the Brauweiler Abbey that morning and unloaded their haul for the evening show, they noticed a big problem: someone forgot the aubergines, and there weren’t enough courgettes.

While a runner hurried back to the market, the remaining musicians grabbed their knives and power drills, transforming the dressing room of this Zen-like monastery into a construction site. During the next two hours, hollowed-out carrots, cucumbers and calabashes slowly became horns and flutes; severed peppers morphed into trombones; and sliced celeriac and pumpkins turned into bongos and drums. Each musician makes between eight and 25 instruments per show, and as the performers gradually tested and twisted their produce into tune, a cacophony of trilled scales, percussive thuds and surprisingly resonant notes sang through the sanctuary.

“It all started as a joke,” said founding member Matthias Meinharter, scanning a room full of veggie guts and breathing in what smelled like a compost bin. As he remembers it, he and three of the orchestra’s other members had signed up for a performance-art festival at their university in Vienna. “We were brainstorming what we could do, and we thought: ‘What is the most difficult thing to play music on?’,” he said. “We were making soup together at the time, and one idea led to another.”

It takes two hours and up to 50kg of vegetables to create the orchestra's instruments (Credit: Credit: Heidrun Henke)

It takes two hours and up to 50kg of vegetables to create the orchestra’s instruments (Credit: Heidrun Henke)

Twenty-one years later, the orchestra has played at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Shanghai Arts Centre and was invited to a Ukrainian oligarch’s mansion to perform at Paul McCartney’s 60th birthday. “I think he liked it,” Meinharter said. “He’s a vegetarian.”

The group has also been listed in the Guinness World Records for ‘Most concerts by a vegetable orchestra’ and has inspired a few other biodegradable ensembles to sprout up around the world, including the London Vegetable Orchestra and Long Island Vegetable Orchestra. While the project may have started as a gag, these days its members take their craft very seriously.

“Many people think we’re kind of cabaret or just a funny performance,” Gartmayer said, drilling holes to make a carrot xylophone. “But they’re surprised to understand that there’s actually a lot of sonic potential in vegetables, and that we want to make really interesting music.”

There’s actually a lot of sonic potential in vegetables

The orchestra has invented more than 150 instruments over the years – and for many members, that’s half the fun. Some are ready-made items from the market: crunching dried onion skin in your fist sounds like a rainstorm, thumping a pumpkin with your palm resembles a bass drum and rubbing two leeks together as a bow and body creates a squeaky string section. Others are cut-and-carved creations resembling traditional instruments: parsnips, courgettes and peppers make good wind and brass instruments, while hollowed-out gourds are percussive. The most complex are transformer-like hybrids that combine two or more vegetables. Want to imitate a saxophone? Attach a severed bell pepper to the end of drilled cucumber, add a carrot mouthpiece and you’ve got the ‘cucumberphone’. Need a slightly deeper pitch? Swap the cucumber for a courgette and you’ll have a ‘courgette clarinet’.

“One of the most fascinating things about touring is learning how food differs around the world and coming up with completely new instruments,” said calabashist and pumpkinist Jürgen Berlakovich. In South-East Asia, the group discovered an elastic garlic grass that made a great bass string. In the US, they found markets that sell giant agave leaves, which can be used to shake kidney beans like a maraca. In China, the water radishes are bigger. In Italy, the cucumbers are smaller. In Siberia, the vegetables are expensive. And in England? “Turnips,” Meinharter said. “Lots of turnips.”

Despite covering a few Kraftwerk and classical pieces, the Vegetable Orchestra mainly composes original material, which can range from dark and hypnotic electronic sounds to beat-oriented house tracks. To do this, they attach tiny condenser microphones and little pickups to the veggies to amplify their natural tone and, as Berlakovich said, “to make them come alive”. But when they first set out, learning how to play the parsnip wasn’t the only challenge: there was no way to write music for food.

Because veggies are shaped differently from crate to crate and country to country, they can sound different, too. So instead of notes, the group developed a sort of timeline showing when the instruments come in and a graph of high and low pitches. “No-one else could read it,” Berlakovich said. “It’s like a secret code.”

Before showtime, the group covers this turntable with beans and uses a bean tip as a needle (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Before showtime, the group covers this turntable with beans and uses a bean tip as a needle (Credit: Eliot Stein)

At the end of their sound check, the orchestra descended from the abbey’s outdoor garden stage and quickly re-wrapped their instruments in moist towels. The show was set to start in 90 minutes, and the veggies were in trouble. “It’s unusually hot today, which makes the vegetables brittle and break,” said founding member Barbara Kaiser, holding up the severed head of a cabbage. “But they like to die dramatically on stage.”

When the sun descended under the abbey’s spires, a team of tuxedo-clad ushers lit fire torches around the complex’s manicured courtyard and opened the doors. Soon, hundreds of well-heeled Germans were strutting through the vaulted walkway, many asking one another if they had ever heard of this Gemüsegruppe (‘vegetable group’) on the way to the Champagne bar and their seats.

As the all-black-clad troupe took the stage and steadied their water radishes, a few nervous giggles echoed through the garden. Berlakovich soon kicked into the warbling root prelude with a thumping bass pumpkin beat, two members tapped wooden spoons on dried squash, and the carrot section looped in a fluted melody, sliding the song into a trance-like tribal rhythm.

The group uses distortion pedals and microphones "to make the vegetables come alive" (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

The group uses distortion pedals and microphones “to make the vegetables come alive” (Credit: Eliot Stein)

By the third song, the audience was tuned in to the texture of the ambient compositions: the crackling of celery stalks, the rumbling urgency of onion skin, the groovy claps of aubergines and the wind-like effect of rubbing two parsley bouquets together like pompoms. By song four, nearly everyone at the 500-person show was bobbing their heads along – except for one serious, older-looking woman wearing a black dress in the front row.

Towards the end of the set, bits of dried veg-struments were flying off the stage with each tap, clap and pluck. The group shook the abbey’s foundations with a take on German Krautrock, hooking distortion pedals and microphones into heads of cabbage and strumming their waxy leaves like guitars as shredded greens littered the stage. By the time the orchestra culminated their final song by rolling a legion of legumes and potatoes down a ramp, the once-clean stage looked like an exploded farmers’ market. The orchestra then bowed to a standing ovation and began mopping it all up.

“For me, this is still multi-sensory performance art,” Meinharter said. “The audience can hear the music, smell the music, see the music and then taste the music.”

Whatever vegetables the orchestra doesn't use are boiled into a soup and served to the audience (Credit: Credit: Heidrun Henke)

Whatever vegetables the orchestra doesn’t use are boiled into a soup and served to the audience (Credit: Heidrun Henke)

After the show a swarm of people surrounded the musicians, eager to buy CDs, snap pictures with the group and taste what they’d just heard. In keeping with a 21-year tradition, the performers offered their instruments to anyone who might want to go home and practice jamming on the produce themselves.

Gartmayer asked if anyone was interested in her pepper trumpet, and the older woman in the black dress reached out her hand, stuffed it in her purse and walked briskly towards the exit. When she thought she was out of sight of everyone, she pulled the pepper from her purse, put it to her mouth and gave it a good, long hoot.