Rolf Gehlhaar: The musical genius who helped the disabled play

Rolf Gehlhaar

Rolf Gehlhaar - Credit: Archant

These days there is a greater awareness of the needs of disabled people and much more is being done to give them an equal chance in life.

The success of the Paralympics is perhaps the brashest testament to how the disabled are no longer as ‘invisible’ as they once were, but there have also been many, smaller yet just as significant, efforts at inclusivity that predate the Games.

Composer Rolf Gehlhaar, was well ahead of his time when he developed Sound=Space in the mid 1980s.

This interactive music environment allows people to walk into an open space and generate music through their movements.

An ultrasonic echo-location system (the same way bats and dolphins navigate) detects movements and enables those with disabilities to create music to a standard they couldn’t do otherwise.

“When people walk into the space, the computer knows where they are and how they are moving,” explains the German-born composer. “It uses that information to control a synthesizer to makes the sounds.

“I travelled around the world with that system and, when I was in Lisbon, we had a bunch of disabled kids come into the space.

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“They went completely nuts, they loved it so much – they were running around, rolling on the floor, throwing their crutches aside. They were overjoyed at the chance to make music.

Today, Gehlhaar, of Belsize Park, is also technical director of the British Paraorchestra – a group of 21 players, three of whom play using a computer.

Gehlhaar developed his skills and expanded his horizons in the 1960s under the tutelage of renowned composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The Paraorchestra, set up in 2011, is the world’s first top-class ensemble of disabled musicians.

Charles Hazlewood, its musical director, discovered Gehlhaar’s work when he was told how his now right-hand man had made an instrument for Clarence Adoo, a quadraplegic former professional trumpeter, 14 years ago.

“He wears a headset and with that he can control a computer,” explains Gehlhaar. “I have written some software which looks like a musical instrument on the display. “Clarence also plays another instrument that my son Vahakn and I developed for him, it is like a little xylophone. He holds a beater in his mouth and can start, stop and control the sounds by touching little ‘pads’ and using his breath.”

“One of the other things my son and I are working on is an instrument that someone can play who does not have control of their arms and hands.

“It is essentially a mouthpiece with lots of sensors, so they can play an instrument professionally. The working title is Typhoon.”


The Paraorchestra has gone on to perform with Coldplay at the London 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony and to record the backing music to the Queen’s Christmas address the same year. “We want to show that disabled musicians can play music professionally,” he says.

Later this month, Gehlhaar will mark his 70th birthday by hosting a concert of his music, which will be performed by many of the people he has worked with to give disabled musicians a chance to play.

He is hoping it will be a chance to herald the accomplishments he and disabled musicians have made since the origins of Sound=Space.

The concert will be recorded and broadcast by Resonance FM (104.4). Meanwhile, a live conversation about Gehlhaar’s life and music with Diana Mavroleon will take place on September 12 at 8pm.

n The concert is at St Yeghiche Church, Cranley Gardens, South Kensington, on September 16 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £11, available at or or on the door on the night.