I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music

The use of non-instruments in place of the traditional concert arsenal is an essential face of instrument-building. “The stealing is one aspect, the recycling is another. It involves looking for a solution,” was how the percussionist Z’ev explained his quest for the sound he wanted to hear. Not surprisingly, the relatively uninhibited field of percussion was quickest to appropriate whatever it needed. Ground—and glass—was broken in the 1930s scores of William Russell: The “Foxtrot” of his Three Dance Movements calls for a bottle to be smashed; Made In America is scored for auto brake drums, tin cans, suitcase, washboard, lion’s roar, a drum kit made of found objects, and a Baetz’ Rhythm Rotor (a mechanical device that produced rhythmic ticks, similar to Leon Theremin‘s Rhythmicon). Russell’s music figured prominently in the percussion concerts Lou Harrison and John Cage began giving in 1939. Tin cans and automobile brake drums were also put to use alongside Asian instruments for their own compositions, which include Cage’s Construction series, Harrison’s Song Of Quetzalcóatl and Simfony #13, and their collaboration Double Music.

This formula of combining American scrap and percussion with foreign instruments also was fruitful for the Hawaii-inspired Exotica Music of composer/arranger/musician Martin Denny. Spike Jones, who introduced the “birdaphone” in “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” enjoyed a vigorous career composing and arranging a gleeful satiric music that employed gunshots, car horns, whistles, cow bells, and much more. The public of course has long enjoyed such music, as evidenced by the unwavering enthusiasm for the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling, which persists decades after they were made. The improvising percussionists David van Tieghem and David Moss have employed novelty devices, such as toys and bottles and vibrators, as much for their comedy as for their musicality. Performances by Triptych MythCooper-Moore, Tom Abbs, and Chad Taylor—involve the audience in building an instrument from whatever’s on hand. For sheer zaniness, the Spike Jones Award must go to the Car Horn Organ of Wendy Mae Chambers, in which auto horns are arranged in the chromatic scale over two octaves and played by a keyboard.

A special tradition exists for appropriating humble debris, as Partch did with the liquor bottles of his “Zymo-Xyl.” The need for a percussion orchestra in just intonation led Harrison and William Colvig to construct an American gamelan orchestra that featured cut-off oxygen tanks, galvanized garbage cans, and a metallophone of cut aluminum slabs with stacked tin cans as resonators. Nicknamed Old Grandad, Harrison wrote several major works for it, including La Koro Sutro and Young Caesar. Barry Hall, along with designing and building his own ceramic instruments, created the “flowerpotophone“: a kind of marimba using tiers of different-sized clay flowerpots. Hubcaps are what it’s about with the “hubkaphone” of composer/musican Henry Threadgill. Stuart Dempster used a plastic sewer pipe as a didjeridu in his ecstatic Didjeridervish – 1976. Peter Van Riper has used cut aluminum baseball bats suspended from a wire stretched across the performance space; played by other bats and by bamboo, wood, or metal strikers, Van Riper describes his “Whomp Whip” (the commercial name on some of the bats) as “a kind of gamelan chimes.” Conlon Nancarrow attempted to create a pneumatic-driven percussion machine that would strike drumheads and wood blocks, but the effort never gelled; he instead turned his attention to the player piano, and the rest was music history. Nancarrow’s check was finally cashed by Matt Heckart, whose Mechanical Sound Orchestra used a computer to play large factory objects.

The more extreme exponents of noise rock have also been ready to appropriate whatever hardware they need. Eugene Chadbourne‘s amplified implements have included rakes and electric drills. Boyd Rice (aka Non) has played a shoe polisher and electric fan through his guitar. Z’ev sought an angry, industrial ecstasy, hammering and hurling tubs and pans and bottles and pipes and springs. Fast Forward found a lot of his percussion arsenal on the street: metal cans, springs, pipes, parking signs, hubcaps. The “Twoba” was made for him by Wes Virginia, using a wheeled coat rack and lengths of cardboard tubing and metal pipes or electrical conduit. Fast Forward’s Dead Thunderbirds combined alarm sirens, steel drums, and hundreds of glass liquor bottles.

The next stop after humble debris is plain old garbage, and this medium has its traditions as well. At its forefront are Skip La Plante and Carole Weber, who founded the composers’ collective Music For Homemade Instruments solely to invent, build, compose for, and perform on instruments made from trash and found objects. Percussion abounds, naturally: marimbas made from cardboard tubes for the “carimba,” and metal electrical conduit pipes for the 31-pitch-to-the-octave “coba.” Partch’s liquor bottles are reborn in the pint wine bottles of La Plante’s “boweryphone.” His string instruments include the zitherlike “kanon,” with 17 strings and movable bridges. He’s also produced panpipes made of glass test tubes and other wind instruments played like flutes, horns, and clarinets. La Plante’s homemade instruments are the center of Keith King‘s music theatre piece Second Species; he’s also set them up as outdoor installations and invited passersby to play them.

“I spent a lot of time with found objects and in junkyards,” recalled Pauline Oliveros, who has clamped telephone dial-changer rods to the beams inside a piano and bowed them. Her “Applebox” pieces were just that: appleboxes with contact mics, which were resonated with various objects. Jim Hobart has created instruments from recycled materials: “Buick,” a fretless nine-string harp using a dome-shaped hubcap as a sounding board; “Doorchimes,” a scrap of hollow-core door found in a dumpster, with seven strings spanning its length, each divided into two notes. Ken Butler has built numerous witty and ironic guitars, using for his bodies exhaust manifolds, bicycle wheels, hockey sticks, tennis racquets, hand tools, and much more. His imaginative, contraption-filled installations use weird amalgams of instrument parts, furniture, and machinery, which are controlled by a keyboard. Butler also delights in reinventing string instruments: His T-Square Quartet, composed for the Soldier String Quartet, supplies the musicians with his own violins, viola, and cello, constructed from such homely objects as LPs and t-squares.

The appropriation of natural materials occurs less frequently. One exception is the Semi-Civilized Tree of visual artist Nazim Özel; made from a section of branches, it provides numerous tiers for harp-like strings that can be plucked, beaten, or bowed. Bart Hopkin‘s instructions on how to build a “driftwood marimba” typify the value of instrument building: “Any driftwood marimba you make will have its own musical personality, based on its particular set of pitch relationships, tone qualities, and spatial layout. It will give rise to its own characteristic music.” John Cage overcame his resistance to improvisation by using instruments that were free of the improviser’s tastes and memories: amplified plant materials for Branches (“You’re discovering them [...] it very shortly disintegrates and you have to replace it with another one you don’t know.”) and water-filled conch shells for Inlets (“You have no control whatsoever over the conch shell when it’s filled with water [...] the rhythm belongs to the instruments and not to you.”).

Appropriation also offers its own spectacles, vast and intimate. Charlie Morrow‘s self-described “event/composition” Toot ‘N Blink Chicago had large boats, anchored in a semi-circle near the shore, sounding their horns and flashing their lights at the radioed commands of a conductor. The Music By Allison of Fluxus composer Alison Knowles used sounds generated by waving various fabrics. La Monte Young‘s Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. employed the sounds made by moving the eponymous furniture.

The mischievous spirit of appropriation is at its most ironic when toy musical instruments are played in place of real ones. Today, the toy piano has earned itself a flock of exponents, with music written for it by such composers as John Cage (Suite For Toy Piano), George Crumb (Ancient Voices Of Children), Julia Wolfe (East Broadway), and Wendy Mae Chambers (Mandala). The Residents restricted themselves to toy instruments for their Goosebumps EP; the band Pianosaurus concertized and recorded playing nothing else.

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

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