A Visit to the Workshop of Bart Hopkin

Playability and Musicianship

FRANK J. OTERI: Some experimental instruments have really complicated designs. Should playability always be a factor?

BART HOPKIN: That gets back to what I was saying earlier about gesture. Some instruments are easy to play and some instruments are difficult to play. When an instrument is easy to play and is polyphonic and you can get a lot of notes out of it, that’s extremely useful and that’s a good thing. Some instruments that are difficult to play, it becomes part of their personalities and can mean something, perhaps to the audience, perhaps even more to the person who’s playing it. It’s very good to be very playable but I also think that it can be worth something to somebody to have a totally recalcitrant instrument.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, are there instruments you’ve built that you can’t play?

BART HOPKIN: Well, sure. I’ve made some instruments where I don’t have the chops. I made this big long alphorn once just for the fun of it and I thought, well, I guess I did a good job… Then when I gave it to a trumpeter who can play way up in the overtone series, it was great; I was thrilled.

FRANK J. OTERI: That leads to another question. The question of proficiency and, eventually, virtuosity. How do you get other people interested in playing these instruments? And once they’re playing them, how do you get them to develop their technique?

BART HOPKIN: Again, that comes back to one-of-a-kinds versus standard types. Another way of saying one-of-a-kind, which is a way of giving it some sort of proper sounding name, is to call it sound sculpture. Sculpture implies one-of-a-kind and implies value, so just by saying sound sculpture you can have a whole way of looking at one-of-a-kinds and say that’s good.

FRANK J. OTERI: Sound sculpture also leads to a different issue. The standardized instruments that have evolved not only sound good, they also look good. But it’s more important that they sound good. Sound sculpture almost implies that they look extraordinary, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and that’s part of the whole aesthetic of experimental musical instruments. No one wants to make an instrument that looks exactly like a violin but makes entirely different sounds.

BART HOPKIN: The appearance usually flows from the acoustic requirements.

FRANK J. OTERI: But to get back to the question of other players, you get someone else interested in playing one of these one-of-a-kind instruments, then you have to give the instrument away. You can’t get five different musicians interested, because there aren’t five instruments.

BART HOPKIN: That’s why I say think in terms of sound sculpture. Partch had this big problem. He used to say something like, "Don’t let my memory be trapped by my legacy." Well, the fact is he did develop a legacy and now there’s this big problem about the Partch instruments. Are we supposed to make many sets of the Partch instruments which some people are trying to do? How do you deal with this? One way to deal with it is you don’t think that there are composers and composers have legacies or that there are performers who devoted their lives to learning certain instruments. You just think, I made this thing. I like the way it sounds. I’m going to go sit in the sand by the beach and play it for a while. You don’t have to think anything more than that.

FRANK J. OTERI: But that’s a limitation. There’s only so far that you can go with that. Maybe it’s not the only goal, but you can’t create a late Beethoven string quartet that way, or a recent orchestral piece by John Adams

BART HOPKIN: And thank God John Adams is doing that because the music is so great. Meanwhile I like sitting by the beach on a sand dune playing an instrument I just made.

FRANK J. OTERI: You also can’t create John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme that way!

BART HOPKIN: Well, I’m less sure of that because John Coltrane was so idiosyncratic. And, in that way, I think you can do something that has a similar kind of idiosyncrasy to it, and if you had as much depth as John Coltrane, you might create something comparable.

FRANK J. OTERI: But part of that requires interacting with others. That record is so great because four people came together and made it happen. I guess you could do something like that by getting together and playing with other instrument builders. Do you collaborate?

BART HOPKIN: The right answer to what you’ve just said is: You should go to one of these jam sessions! What happens is—and this is the same thing that happens with a lot of jazz—you get long periods of time when it’s not clicking, but when it does click you go somewhere really special and it’s not a place you could have gone under any other circumstances. The kind of thing that happens when you have instrument makers having a jam session is you have three or four or five people coming together (hopefully not too many more than that); each of them shows up with a trunk full of their instruments. The first thing that happens is everybody oohs and aahs over each other’s instruments and tries out each other’s instruments, and then you start playing. And the way you start playing is generally—these things are sort of an organic thing that happens, there’s not some kind of rule—somebody starts making sounds on one of their instruments, and somebody else goes to an almost instinctive process of what’s going to work well with this with one of their own instruments, or one of their neighbor’s instruments, and starts trying to find ways that work well with that. A lot of times, many of the instruments have definite pitch but many of them weren’t tuned to particular scales with each other, so you get tonal chaos sometimes, but when you arrive at a place where they work together tonally, it’s usually some place you never would have imagined. So, it really can be a very unique experience and one of some Love Supreme-like depth, at least if you’re one of the people who is part of it, if you have a certain patience about the fact that it’s not always going to click.