A Visit to the Workshop of Bart Hopkin

Becoming an Instrument Builder

FRANK J. OTERI: When did you first become interested in building instruments?

BART HOPKIN: It’s hard to answer that question because when I was a kid, I did things like this all the time without really thinking about it. Most kids do the business with glasses and different amounts of water and spoon. I also remember standing by a fence post with barbed wire. If you strike the barbed wire with a stick, each length has a different tension on it so it’s going to have a different frequency. They’re subsonic frequencies so you’re going to hear a lot of rattle. If I think back, I think that I was always messing around with things like that. I still have instruments around that I made when I was pretty young. When I was in junior high, for some reason I made this thing that was a pie tin with a way-too-thick soundboard on it, which had a neck. It was a lute-like thing and, instead of frets, it had great big pieces of copper pipe and that means you could press the strings and bend between the frets.

FRANK J. OTERI: To get microtonal intervals?

BART HOPKIN: I was a very microtonal kid! [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Were you trained in music formally? On old-fashioned instruments?

BART HOPKIN: In the long run, yes. I have a degree in the Folklore and Mythology Department of Harvard University specializing in Ethnomusicology, and later I got another bachelor’s degree in music education at San Francisco State. I was a school teacher for a long time.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you grow up on the East Coast or the West Coast?

BART HOPKIN: West Coast. I grew up in Berkeley.

FRANK J. OTERI: What was the musical background of your parents?

BART HOPKIN: They had a record of South Pacific and that’s about it!

FRANK J. OTERI: So what did they think of this kid of theirs building all these crazy instruments?

BART HOPKIN: I don’t think they thought about it too much.

FRANK J. OTERI: So in your early years, when you were playing around with barbed-wire fences, were you studying music? Were you also playing the piano or the violin or the guitar?

BART HOPKIN: I always played classical guitar, and I still do on weekends. I play pop and other stuff on the classical guitar. So I did do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the guitar came first?

BART HOPKIN: I guess. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with guitarist as identity, so I sort of would rather say that what came first was me being a kid playing on my bike rather than saying I was a guitarist, or I was a serious guitarist, or I loved Jimi Hendrix, or anything like that. I’d rather say I played guitar in between playing baseball with the kids down the block.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you study composition?

BART HOPKIN: No. I’ve never studied composition, and I don’t call myself a composer. But when I was in college I met a Jamaican Jesuit priest who was a composer of sorts. He was a songwriter, but was not musically literate. I ended up being his arranger. He was in the Boston area. I ended up living in Kingston, Jamaica, for several years, teaching school, just to be working, and being his arranger. That was interesting because it was something I was completely unqualified to do. He was writing liturgical music and there was a place for it to be performed. We were talking about symphony orchestras… I was arranging for a full choir when there were composers who studied and who were doing their homework who should have been doing that writing. And they were big works. He would have these grand conceptions but all he could do was hum the melody and put the words to it. I got to the point where I could almost write it as fast as he could sing it and then the rest would be for me to do. So I got a real serious education—without knowing what I was doing—in orchestration and composing, or at least in arranging. It was great. But I made a lot of mistakes. I wrote some stuff that was hard to sing. You can imagine what that would be like.

FRANK J. OTERI: What was his name?

BART HOPKIN: His name is Father Richard Ho Lung, and he’s still in Jamaica. He also does a lot of social work. He’s very committed to working with poor people. As I mentioned, he started out as a Jesuit. Jesuits make a serious investment in their people. He did something outrageous: At one point, he decided he wanted to start his own order, which is a radical thing to do. It’s a bit like saying, "I’m going to start my own country." But he did it, and it involved a lot of going through the church hierarchy and jumping through a lot of hoops and meeting a lot of challenges. It’s actually been extraordinarily successful in several respects. One has been that he’s gotten a lot of young men interested in religious life and aspiring to the priesthood, which is a big deal because the Catholic Church has hardly anybody. So that makes him much appreciated by the Vatican. He’s now got missions in Uganda and the Philippines and Haiti. He has vocations coming from all over the world. It’s a big thing in that world. It’s also a big thing in the world of street people. There’d be nobody taking care of them if he wasn’t taking care of them, if his group wasn’t doing this kind of work. And also, all this time he’s continued to compose. He’s got somebody else doing what I used to do who’s doing a great job of it.

FRANK J. OTERI: To bring this back to music, I see him as a role model for you in two areas. First, you were doing his arranging which made you pay closer attention to timbre, which might have led you to an aesthetic of building your own instruments. And, also, he had an influence on you by being someone who founded his own order. Being an instrument builder is, in a way, about creating a new order, creating a new set of things.

BART HOPKIN: But as an instrument builder, I don’t get vocations!

FRANK J. OTERI: Ideally, these instruments would attract other players, though.

BART HOPKIN: That’s actually a very interesting question, whether instruments attract other players. That gets to the heart of some very important questions about instrument making.

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