View From the West: Experimental Instruments and Sound Sculpture

View From the West: Experimental Instruments and Sound Sculpture

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

Newly invented instruments offer a world of possibilities to composers. There may be a limited number of possibilities in terms of sound production (percussion, vibrating strings, or columns of air, and the like), but the potential forms and sonorous possibilities are virtually limitless. More than a handful of composers, sculptors, instrument builders, and inventors have concocted a plethora of new instruments demonstrating imagination and vision as well as resourcefulness.

The Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo (an important forerunner not only to Partch, but important for Varèse and Cage, among others) wrote a manifesto called “The Art of Noises” (1913) in which he encouraged the use of noises, derived from or inspired by industrial sounds, as components of an aural art or music. He even went so far as to create, with his brother Antonio, so-called “intonarumori” or noise instruments. Similarly, the Russian Constructivists suggested the sounds of the industrial world in compositions such as Alexandr Mosolov‘s Music of Machines (1923) also known as Iron Foundry, which uses a thin sheet of metal that is shaken as one of the instruments.

Henry Cowell, around the same time, claimed to have discovered 160 ways to make sound with the piano, in addition to the traditional, orthodox manner. In his book New Musical Resources (1930), he also suggested, among other things, the use of player pianos, a suggestion later taken up so successfully by Conlon Nancarrow. Cowell’s string piano (i.e. playing directly on the strings), while not a newly invented instrument, looks into new timbral resources which eventually led to Cage’s prepared piano and a host of performers using extended techniques, from Steve MacLean’s “Piano Drop,” in which a piano is dropped from a height of about 100 feet, to the bowed piano, best known through the works of Stephen Scott.

Of course, the central figure in the arena of newly invented instruments is Harry Partch. He opened up new musical vistas with his magnificent instruments that have inspired generations of followers. His instruments are not only functional, created to play in his 43-tone just intonation scale, but they are also stunningly gorgeous sculptures. Indeed, Partch always intended that his instruments not only serve his musical needs, but be aesthetically pleasing, if not compelling, to the eye as well.

Since Partch’s forays into the field of invented instruments, legions of others have followed suit. Some are composers/musicians seeking new musical possibilities. Others are artists, sculptors, and inventors who come to music by way of their instruments. Some make instruments that are a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, while others focus on the sound rather than the appearance. In other instances, a simple, even crude looking instrument is part of the aesthetic and the visual appeal.

The (relatively early) pioneers in instrument building are a diverse, if not motley lot. Among these are sculptors whose creations have a sonic component, including the French brothers, FranÁois and Bernard Baschet, who have created numerous sound sculptures and have worked with composers and performers, including Jacques Lasry, as well as his son Teddy Lasry, Stomu Yamashta, and more recently Michel Deneuve, to write compositions for and perform on their instruments. [Some of their CDs appear on the FMR Records label, which also has recordings by other instrument builders including Hugh Davies and Steve Hubback.]

Harry Bertoia typically created sound sculptures characterized by a plinth supporting a series of long, thin vertical metal rods which can be brushed and stroked, causing the rods to strike one another. Composer Daniel Goode created The Bertoia in the Yamasaki Building—Princeton for one of Bertoia’s sculptures.

Among a younger generation, Seattle-based sound sculptor Ela Lamblin creates works that range from small hand-held instruments to larger fantastic contraptions, some of them trapeze-like or rocking chair-like sound sculptures which are both played and ridden. He has collaborated with UMO, an experimental theater group, as well as choreographers and dancers.

One of the best-known contemporary sculptors to emerge in recent year is the German, Trimpin, also living in Seattle. Combining musical training, a background in engineering, electronics, computers, and acoustics, he has collaborated with Conlon Nancarrow including an arrangement of one of the Studies for Player Piano to be played by a Macintosh-controlled array of mallets striking 100 Dutch wooden shoes. A major installation resides at the Experience Music Project, the rock’n’roll museum in Seattle, where Roots and Branches, a massive multi-story guitar tree comprised of hundreds of guitars, as well as other instruments, some of them MIDI-controlled (the instruments are even tuned by computers), plays various styles of American vernacular music. Other works include a computer-controlled water drip system that “plays” complex and intricate rhythms and pitch combinations as drops of water splash on hand-blown glass vessels. Trimpin has even worked with flames in his dramatic FireOrgan.

Though it is an area beyond the scope of this column, at least for now, some artists use sound as a medium to sculpt, define, and describe space, as in the work of Bill Fontana, Michael Brewster, Max Neuhaus, Alvin Lucier, and even La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela (their Light Box).

Leon Theremin, a pioneer in electronic instruments, created his namesake instrument, one, which more than any other until keyboard synthesizers were invented, helped advance the public awareness of electronic music. From the film score to Forbidden Planet by Louis and Bebe Barron to its central role in Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys‘ “Good Vibrations,” the theremin became a kind of sonic icon of the space age. Raymond Scott, probably best known for music adapted and arranged for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies by Carl Stalling, was also a pioneer in electronic music in the 1940s. He eventually designed and built an early keyboard synthesizer patented in 1956, more than a decade before the appearance of Robert Moog‘s keyboard synthesizers hit the market.

In addition to being the iconoclastic street musician/composer, Moondog played a few invented instruments, including the fancifully titled Oo, Trimba, Yukh, and Tuji. And jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk‘s simultaneous usage of two refitted wind instrument hybrids which he called the stritch and manzello was tantamount to performing on a newly-invented instrument. Perhaps not central to their work, the invented instruments were emblematic of their eccentricities.

Lou Harrison, with the help of his partner, instrument builder Bill Colvig, devoted a considerable portion of his career to works for his so-called American gamelan, newly invented instruments modeled on the Indonesian forerunner.

Some instrument builders focus on specific media and types of instruments. The Glass Orchestra from Canada and also Annea Lockwood created a series of pieces for a variety of instruments made from exclusively of glass. Daniel Lentz has, for many years, incorporated rubbed wine goblets made of fine leaded crystal and filled with wine which is consumed during the performance to alter the tuning and the brain chemistry of the performers.

Those who have taken to instruments with very long string lengths include conceptual artist Terry Fox (one piece had 2 300-foot lengths of piano wire using a church door and a wooden covering of a crypt as resonators, and the entire cathedral as resonating chamber), audio artist Paul Panhuysen, and composers Ellen Fullman and most recently Paul Dresher. These instruments may be plucked, as with Fox, with unexpected and amazing results. Fullman discovered that longitudinally “bowed” long strings (using rosined hands or gloves and rubbing them along the string length) create intense, loud, and rich buzzing tones.

Susan Rawcliffe has concentrated on instruments in the flute family and especially ocarinas and, more recently, Judy Dunaway has written compositions for balloons, which serve as wind instruments (e.g. double “reed” instruments using the open end of the balloon as a double reed), percussion, and more.

For some reason, invented instruments have been associated with a number of free improvisersóincluding artists and groups such as AMM, Hugh Davies, Fred Frith, and Hans Reichelówho use extended technique which verge on instrument de-construction and re-construction. In the case of Reichel, he eventually re-built his guitars, in essence creating new instruments based on the guitar model with multiple pick-ups in unorthodox positions, two necks heading in opposite directions, and the like. Later, he invented the Daxophone, small but lovely carved strips of wood which are bowed and manipulated by a “Dachs” yielding a nearly vocal, but idiosyncratic and bizarre sound. Avant-garde ensembles incorporating new instruments include the Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band, Nihilist Spasm Band, and ZGA, among a host of others.

Invented instruments have even invaded popular culture from time to time. The fourth release on Brian Eno‘s groundbreaking record label, Obscure Records, a series of a mere ten records which was an important gateway to experimental music for a sizeable adventuresome crossover rock audience from the mid- to late 1970s, was New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments by Max Eastley and David Toop. Yoko Ono‘s 1971 album Fly prominently featured the automatic instruments of Fluxus artist Joe Jones

in which very small electrical motors connected to small pieces of rubber, used as beaters, were used to very delicately play a drum or the strings of a harpsichord or zither. A more traditional jazz style is found in the music of Uakti which incorporates popular Brazilian jazz styles and elements of minimalism with their invented PVC tuned percussion instruments. Uakti has not only released their own recordings, but has been featured on recordings by Paul Simon, the Manhattan Transfer, Milton Nascimento, and Stewart Copeland.

A number of rock bands and artists, both obscure and well known, have incorporated newly made instruments in their music, including French progressive rock chanteuse Catherine Ribeiro in her group Alpes, with cohort and instrument builder, Patrice Moullet (Moullet continues to build instruments, though his rockin’ days are long over), Wurtemburg and Magma‘s Yochk’o Seffer. While they did not invent the instrument, Lothar and the Hand People made the theremin a central part of their brand of rock music. Indeed, Lothar was not the group leader, rather the moniker given to the band’s theremin. Today, there are innumerable groups using (and often building their own) theremins. Tom Waits has not only made and used invented instrument in his recordings, he has become a champion of the genre, writing the Introduction to Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments, the book and CD anthology edited by Bart Hopkin.

Some composers have collaborated with instrument builders. One of the largest such collaborations is to be found in Beth Custer‘s Vinculum Symphony, a composition in which the composer solicited the involvement of a number of instrument builders/performers including Krys Bobrowski, Darrell DeVore, Oliver DiCicco, Bart Hopkin, Brenda Hutchinson, Chico MacMurtie, Tom Nunn, Susan Rawcliffe, Trimpin, and Peter Whitehead. Several of these are San Francisco Bay Area residents.

Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Area appears to be a hotbed of instrument building. Tom Nunn is an important and long-standing figure in the Bay area/invented instruments scene as well as the local improvisation scene. His electro-acoustic instruments typically feature a large amplified soundboard to which are attached threaded metal rodsóin essence, long, often bent screws which are variously plucked, rubbed, bowed, scratched and struck.

Oliver DiCicco is the leader of Mobius Operandi, a new music ensemble that performs on instruments of his design and construction. Splitting the difference between free improvisation and avant-pop songs by the group’s two female members, the instruments, mostly amplified, range from woodwinds to percussion (drums, marimbas, kalimbas, etc.), to elaborate string instruments, from harps to giant steel guitars. As DiCicco notes, after the instruments are built, it is up to the members of the ensemble to figure out how best to play them. The types of sounds, the techniques used to play them, the effects used to color the sounds are not prescribed but discovered as the music evolves and as the group rehearses and develops.

Peter Whitehead, a former member of Mobius Operandi, makes simple instruments, most of them plucked strings modeled after guitars, zithers, and harps and made from found material, hardware store items, and junk. Recently he has allied himself with like-minded artists, including instrument builder and songwriter Elaine Buckholtz and a small coterie of ensembles featuring invented instruments on a collectively owned record label, Out of Round Records out of San Francisco.

It seems that Skip La Plante and his partner Carol Weber have been making instruments forever. With a collection of over 250 instruments made from unlikely materials including cardboard mailing tubes, Styrofoam boxes, table legs, cigar humidors, and tennis rackets, they offer an annual series of concerts at their Bowery loft in Downtown Manhattan with an ensemble, appropriately titled Music for Homemade Instruments.

For years, Z’ev worked with found objects, frequently made of sheet metal, that he dragged, scraped, and hurled on hard floors, creating a magnificent din that was sonically stunning and performances that were visually and viscerally compelling. The theatrical and movement components his work suggested the energy and rage of punk.

From Scratch is an ensemble from New Zealand led by composer and instrument builder, Philip Dadson whose aesthetic derives, in part, from Cornelius Cardew and his work with the Scratch Orchestra (hence the group’s name), and whose music derives from that of the minimalists and hocketing. Their works are performance spectacles that bring together political statements and an over-riding spiritual center and focus.

A few samples of Chas Smith’s handiwork.
Photos courtesy Chas Smith

Composer and pedal steel guitar player Chas Smith, who studied with Morton Subotnick and Harold Budd at the California Institute of the Arts, makes a living as a metal worker. Skilled with the torch, he designs and constructs fantastic metal electric and acoustic instruments. His instruments have become a focal point in his recent work documented on CDs (two already issued and one forthcoming) on the Cold Blue Music label.

Wendy Mae Chambers is perhaps best known for her car horn organ made from twenty-five car horns and a homemade keyboard powered all by a car battery. Her best-known work is her endearing arrangement of the song “New York, New York.” How apropos.

Bart Hopkin, the man behind Experimental Musical Instruments, offers many resources for those interested in newly invented instruments. Experimental Musical Instruments began in 1985 as a journal that was published regularly until 1999. Along the way, cassette tapes, books, and CDs have been published and Experimental Musical Instruments is now a Web site offering not only back issues of the journal and all of their other publications, but also software, various hardware for instrument building and amplification systems, news, articles, and lots and lots of links. EMI is a terrific resource for the would-be instrument maker.

All of this only scratches the surface of the many possibilities in the world of instrument making. There are many, many other instrument builders and composers who use and create such instruments. This is but a brief survey of a handful of these.

This is not a plea for all composers to start inventing and building their own instruments, rather it is offered as food for thought. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

Next month, an in-depth look at an important new(ish) work utilizing invented instruments: Sound Stage by Paul Dresher

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.