I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music

Harry Partch‘s shadow looms larger than ever almost 30 years after his death, and his works continue to be performed on his own instruments (or replicas). His example motivates and inspires others, judging from the DIY music makers who have proliferated in the last three decades. Partch proved that it’s worth the effort, that other people do want to hear music made with its own instruments and tuning. A strict diet of music as it is taught, manufactured, and sold in the United States is bad for you—there are special nutrients in music that comes directly from its maker/player, unmediated by the marketplace.

Partch became an instrument builder in search of a sound: a just-intonation, 43-note-to-the-octave tuning system, put to work for what he termed “corporeal” music: “the essentially vocal and verbal music of the individual.” By the early 1930s he was playing his Adapted Viola, designed with a longer neck and played like a cello. Over the decades, Partch retuned a reed organ into his Chromelodeon, developed string instruments (Kithara, Harmonic Canon), and built an array of percussion, from various wooden marimbas to exotica such as the Cloud Chamber Bowls—sections of 16-inch-diameter, 12-gallon Pyrex carboys—or the Spoils of War, with its seven brass shell casings. He created these instruments as sculptural/dramatic presences for his music theatre works, such as U.S. Highball, Oedipus, The Bewitched, Revelation In The Courthouse Park, and Delusion Of The Fury.

An instrument gets built because that’s the only way the composer/musician can break through an impasse and realize a sound that she or he knows exists but hasn’t yet heard. Construction then becomes as vital as raft-building for someone on a deserted island. Former Partch assistant Dean Drummond summed up this special urgency: “I invented and built the zoomoozophone during 1978 because it was necessary for me to continue composing at the time.” Leader of the performing ensemble Newband, Drummond built his 31-tone-to-the-octave percussion instrument out of 129 aluminum tubes; it’s modular in design and can be played by one to four zoomoozophonists.

Ellen Fullman said it all when she commented that her Long String Instrument “sounds absolutely like nothing else.” Ninety strings of bronze harpsichord wire are stretched some 3 feet above the ground, 3/4 of an inch apart, and attached to a wooden resonator. The Long String Instrument is acoustic and takes the size of the space in which it’s assembled. Both the strings and the player’s hands are rosined, and one plays it by walking alongside it. Glenn Branca devised mallet guitars—three-tiered variations of guitar bodies, the strings hammered with drumstricks—for his Symphony No. 2, so he could work with a greater number of open strings. For his Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, he designed a half-dozen keyboard instruments that pluck their strings like harpsichords. (One rubs the strings with rotating leather wheels.) He used pickups to amplify the partials from the vibrating strings and tuned the keyboards to the first 127 intervals of the harmonic series. Improvisations by Zeena Parkins have combined her traditional harps with a triangular custom instrument featuring multiple pickups and a vibrato bar. Elliott Sharp has created instruments he calls “slabs”: long blocks of wood with bass strings, a movable bridge, and contact mics. He has improvised on his “slabs” and composed music for a quartet of them in Larynx. Two other self-devised instruments from Sharp are the violinoid (a violin neck mounted on a solid wooden body with guitar tuners and pickups on either side of a metal bridge) and the pantar (a steel top from a storage drum fitted with tuning pegs for four strings, with a domed cymbal as a bridge and amplified with a contact mic).

The relative newness of the electric guitar, as well as its continuing innovations, have prompted more extreme instrument building. Emmett Chapman‘s “Chapman Stick” suggests a wide and lengthy guitar neck with ten strings and is designed to be played with both hands independent, tapping and holding the strings against the frets. Guitar-maker William Eaton has created instrument designs that meld the strings of a harp or lyre into guitar bodies. Inspired by the African kora, Bob Grawi has designed and built 24-string “Gravikords,” built of stainless steel and amplified with a pickup.

A charming grassroots string instrument worth remembering is the Dulceola, a unique keyboard-harp that was built by an itinerant artisan who also sold them from the back of his truck while traveling through the South in the 1920s. Its sound can still be heard in two sessions of gospel recordings, from 1927 and 1929, in which vocalist Washington Phillips accompanied himself on Dulceola.

The string will always sing, and thus has a never-ending appeal to instrument builders. Yet percussion making has maintained a certain preeminence in the field. When Moondog was a homeless street musician, he often performed on and recorded with percussion instruments he’d built and enjoyed an aspect of Partchian spectacle when he would wear his Viking-like garb while playing his “trimbas,” “yukh,” and “oo.” Composer Lucia Dlugoszewski turned to the sculptor Ralph Dorazio for the construction of over one hundred percussion instruments she’d designed. They’re featured in several of her major works and are the sole instrumentation for her Suchness Concert and Radical Quidditas For An Unborn Baby. They tapped into Dlugoszewski’s own kind of theatre too, and she would play them onstage as Erick Hawkins danced to Geography Of Noon.

Tom Nunn has specialized in improvising on his own experimental instruments, chiefly his many “space plates” (metal sheets with vertical brass rods that are bowed) and electro-acoustic percussion boards (wooden boards with amplified sound-producing items, such as combs and nails). Musician and instrument builder Grant Strombeck has created an array of witty and original percussion instruments using various media. Richard Cooke, along with having replicated the Old Granddad gamelan of Lou Harrison, built his own tuned-bar instruments, including his Free Notes: sets of individual bar-and-resonator units which can arranged in any sequence desired. Leslie Ross plays her instrument using foot pedals to blow air through rubber tubing and into numerous resonators: wood recorders, waste-pipe horns, scrap metal. The young composer Robert Macht was the first person to write scores for the one-of-a-kind percussion instruments invented by Gunnar Schonbeck. Bart Hopkin, editor of the valuable journal Experimental Musical Instruments, has built a range of clever instruments from wooden saxophones and the “disorderly tumbling forth” keyboard to noisemakers, both electric (“Savart’s wheel”) and acoustic (“open siren”). Jody Kruskal has designed and built instruments mostly for the theatre and been a music director and composer with directors Ralph Lee and Julie Taymor; he also founded the Public Works Ensemble, a community music group in Cambridge, N.Y., which uses homemade and original instruments. Mobius Operandi, the performing group of Oliver DiCicco, has employed his innovative instruments, string (triangular 18-stringed zitherlike “Trylon“), wind (two-player, saxophone-inspired “Duo Capi“), and percussion (graphite-and-wood “Crawdad“). The anonymous art-rock band The Residents can be heard playing homemade instruments on Fingerprince and Eskimo. James Jacson, bassoonist in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, built the Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum out of timber from a tree that had been struck by lightning. His performances, drumming with two long hooked sticks, became highlights of Arkestra sets.

Certain builders find their tradition not in instrument type so much as in material; for them, the medium truly is the message. Note the ongoing enthusiasm for ceramics. The clay instruments of Barry Hall include such hybrids as the Stone Fiddle, which can be blown or drummed as well as bowed, and globular horns that incorporate a membrane for drumming. Composer/musician Brian Ransom has built ceramic instruments that cover the spectrum from string and percussion to various wind instruments: flute, reed, and horn. Some are also handsome sculptures, such as Ransom’s series “Deities Of Sound.” Ward Hartenstein has composed for and performed on his own ceramic percussion instruments, notably drums and marimbas. Inspired by pre-Columbian Indian instruments, Susan Rawcliffe has specialized in clay flutes, from traditional designs to her own radical innovations. The latter range from ball-and-tube flutes and water flutes—both somewhat unpredictable in their tone production—to the two-player Sea Beastie. While living in New York City, Chinese composer Tan Dun collaborated with potter Ragnar Naess to make over 50 ceramic percussion, wind, and string instruments; they were featured in Tan’s Soundshape and Nine Songs, a ritual opera.

Darrell De Vore’s heart belongs to bamboo, from which he has constructed flutes, singing tubes, outer-air aerophones, and an array of percussion instruments, from chimes and marimbas to his own stamped or scraped Bootoo sticks. The Glass Orchestra performs exclusively on instruments that use glass either as the main sound source or to modify the sound. (Yet another beloved medium is trash.)

Instrument building also has its traditions for different kinds of spectacle. How could a classicist like Partch not appreciate the Colosseum-like spirit behind what might be called Danger Music? Barry Schwartz had to wear insulated gloves with metal tips on the fingers to strum his “fountain harp,” in which each 16-foot-long string carried 15,000 volts, and balls of electricity traveled the strings. Scot Jenerik donned gloves wired with contact mics in the fingertips to perform on his “faustschlag”: a sheet of steel covered with flaming lighter fluid. D.A. Thierren, founder of the Comfort/Control group in Phoenix AZ, has worn his “body drum”: The 240 volts and 200 amps touch insulated pads on his skin, and he is then played by a musician who uses equally charged 3/4-inch steel drumsticks. The Damoclesian “hoverdrum” of Timothy North is suspended from the ceiling with the performer inside it, serving as its motor while struggling to maintain control over the instrument. These musicians have one foot in the realm of performance art and endurance art; they share a tradition with the work of Chris Burden, as well as with the sculptors of kinetically violent machines, such as Mark Pauline or Jean Tinguely.

The field of sound sculpture has seen noteworthy work from Norman A. Andersen, Peter Chamberlain, and Bill Fontana. The focus of this study, however, concerns a distinction provided by sculptor and instrument builder Tom Jenkins: “The instruments I build all produce sound when manipulated by the user. The sculpture, however, operates using an energy source.” Of course there are overlaps here too: John Driscoll has built sound sculptures that the public can play; the amplified screens of Richard Lerman are sculpture as “Sound-Seen,” but can also be used in performance as transducers; composer-musician Butch Morris has collaborated with different visual artists to create his “music machines”: music boxes that combine an original design with an original composition.

Installations and site-specific works are closer in spirit to performerless sound sculptures than to music, yet most artists working in these areas inevitably get drawn into instrument building as well, because the nature of the site dictates the kind of instrument to be used. Patrick Zentz‘s large-scale mechanical structures are designed to “translate” environmental forces, with wind or sunlight or water triggering sound production; his urban-themed “Crank” has drums triggered by photoelectric cells that respond to traffic density. The “Terrain Instrument” constructions and installations of Leif Brush represent a different attempt to sound the music of a landscape. Peter Richards‘ “Wave Organ” arranged lengths of pipe along a seashore to monitor and modify sea sounds. The more hands-on siteworks of Nicolas Collins, such as Water Works, Niche, and Sweeps, have made static architectural spaces flexible by adjusting a tent of sails.

The tradition of American instrument-building also accommodates people who function at the fringe of the musical circles of their day, suggesting an overflow of creative energy that cannot be confined to music’s professional arenas. Their work exists in its own zone, where avant-garde music overlaps sheer eccentricity—they are the “outsider artists” of American music.

Most come to build music through their experience with sculpture. Fred “Spaceman” Long attaches pickups to his one-of-a-kind junk-metal constructions for his series of “Jokers.” The metal sound sculptures of Reinhold Marxhausen produce a tiny fragile music just for their player’s delectation: His “Stardust” series and “Cosmic Cubes” are shaken close to the ear; his “Manual Walkmans” sit right on your ears, like headphones, only the speakers are replaced by clusters of spines to be plucked. The stainless-steel Waterphone of sculptor Richard Waters produces tones on metal rods which are bowed or beaten; the sound is modified by the water within the instrument. Art teacher Bob Bates has developed a series of Converters that create sustained bowed tones through the use of wheels controlled by foot pedals, which continuously rub the strings. A taste for Partchian spectacle informs the elaborate musical sculptures of Arthur Frick: His “Tug” employs reeds that are sounded by a large bellows which two musicians must ride like a seesaw; the “Beepmobile” turns a huge horn into an even larger tricycle.

A few instrument builders, however, come to create music from an inner need, and are, if you like, called to it. One such was Arthur K. Ferris, a New Jersey landscape gardener and autodidact in music and woodworking, who began constructing handsome string instruments in the mid-1920s, when he was about 50 years old. He made an array of them, small and large, over the next 20-odd years, setting harps over the viol’s fingerboard and face to enable its one or more players to combine plucked and bowed sounds.

The multi-traditionalism spawned by instrument building also includes the trend of composers writing for the instruments other composers or musicians have invented, such as John Zorn and Anne LeBaron composing for Partch instruments, or John Cage and Joan La Barbara making pieces for Dean Drummond’s zoomoozophone. Such cross-fertilizations are just one more instance of the enduring value of the instrument-building spirit in American music.

from I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music
By Nicole V. Gagné
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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