A Visit to the Workshop of Bart Hopkin

Tone Quality Considerations

FRANK J. OTERI: What are the sort of things you want in tone quality?

BART HOPKIN: You’re getting at something. You’re forcing me to say something that is great because I haven’t really thought it through fully. I do like to make pretty sounding instruments, but once again, I know I’m never going to make anything that sounds as lovely as a shakuhachi, so the tone quality questions that I get into a lot of the time are about making something that is very different. The standard Western instruments have the market cornered on beautiful tone quality, emphasizing the lower frequencies of the harmonic series, like the clarinet, since it’s the example we’ve been using. But, really, this is true of all the orchestral instruments; they tend to have a very lovely balance of the first six or eight overtones of the harmonic series—a very strong fundamental and clearly harmonic pitches above that in the timbre. That’s not true of instruments from other places. It’s very hard to generalize, but you know just by consulting your ear memory, a lot of instruments in other cultures emphasize higher harmonics.

FRANK J. OTERI: But then there are all these instruments in India with sympathetic strings that really bring out overtones

BART HOPKIN: In general, Western instruments tend to emphasize the lower overtones, Eastern instruments are harmonic but emphasize higher overtones, and then you can point to several very prominent African instruments which have very widely spaced non-harmonic overtones—that’s true of kalimbas and marimba-like instruments, and drums. Somebody’s going to say you’re generalizing too much and find counter examples.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, good. That’s what our Forum is for!

BART HOPKIN: Every one of them is a wonderful sound world. So, what do I look for timbre-wise when I make my own instruments? I look for things that are not going to sound like something else because I want to do something that sounds different. Somebody’s already built a beautiful clarinet. So that tends to lead me to slightly outrageous tone qualities for some of these instruments. One of the things that has interested me a lot lately is vibrational patterns that are forced. What makes musical instruments go (we’re talking about acoustic instruments now) is something with a springy quality—that might be air or a string or a vibrating prong of some kind or a bar or a membrane—which is somehow displaced. It has a natural disposition, it’s displaced, it’s released, it wants to spring back but it overshoots and goes back and forth, and you tend to get a nice smooth vibration pattern and in most cases you get something pretty close to a sine wave. That’s a gross simplification. I’m interested in things which aren’t nice and springy like that, but something where you’re somehow forcing something to go back and forth at some frequency hearing range, but because it’s forced is not likely to make a nice sounding sine wave. And I just happen to have in this very room a musical instrument which illustrates this