A Visit to the Workshop of Bart Hopkin
FRANK J. OTERI: At some point you had a major success with a book and CD combo Gravikords, Whirligigs and Pyrophones. That was something that put this whole movement on the map in a big way to the general public. How did that come about?
BART HOPKIN: It was a matter of having a publisher who was really good.
FRANK J. OTERI: Ellipsis Arts…
BART HOPKIN: They’re outside of New York, and their thing at that time, they’ve changed a little bit, was taking things that were a little fringe that had the potential of being more popular and presenting them in a way that hopefully worked with a lot of people. They did that thing and gave it a lot of promotion and so it did well.
FRANK J. OTERI: Did you approach them?
BART HOPKIN: They approached me. I had had in the back of my mind that it would be great to do a coffee table book with a CD of all these people building these beautiful instruments and then they came along, so it worked nicely.
FRANK J. OTERI: To take this into the realm of education, there’s so much talk these days about the lack of musical education being the chief culprit in the decline of serious music appreciation. Our musical standards are eroding because nobody knows how to read music anymore and nobody cares about serious listening, nobody has an attention span past two minutes in our society—two minutes is probably an eternity at this point—it’s more like 15 seconds… The thing that comes to my mind being in the San Francisco Bay Area is that the first time I was here I visited the Exploratorium and there were so many wonderful things there that involved music and the connection between science and music. Maybe a way to get young people interested in music is not just playing it, but the actual making of things that make sound as well. Have you worked in schools?
BART HOPKIN: I’ve done a little bit, but a lot of other people have done a lot more. The Exploratorium is a very good example. The people at the Exploratorium are a great bunch of people, and part of their mission is the connection between science and the arts. And it is a fact that musical instruments and musical instrument making and the kind of questions you address when you are making new musical instruments do work very well pedagogically. So a lot of people have worked on this, kindergarten teachers as well as teachers of older people have worked with this idea of instrument making as a classroom exercise.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to go back to something you said at the beginning. You said you don’t define yourself as a composer but you’ve certainly created your own music for the instruments you’ve built and there’s a statement you made in the notes for your CD that I thought was very interesting. You said that you hoped people would come away hearing the CD and be thinking about the music and not thinking of it as just a documentation of the sounds of these instruments. And I thought it was. It was a very fulfilling listening experience.
BART HOPKIN: Thank you. I actually have felt disappointed because people who know a lot about this area or who know about what I have been doing have said that it really succeeds in doing this thing of showing off the quality of the instruments while at the same time sounding musical and compositional. I really like the way that music hits people, and that’s why I like pop music so much. I think it’s harder to do good pop music than to do any other kind of music because hitting people just right, nobody knows how to do it. I could never do pop music, but I did want to do something that—for people who had no special intellectual interest in the kinds of questions that this CD brings up by having all the unusual instruments—would still hit them as nice music. In the end I felt like it didn’t really succeed. I base that on a couple of reviews that it got where it’s clear that it just didn’t hit the reviewer and the main thing they could say is, "This guy makes interesting instruments." I felt disappointed in that.
FRANK J. OTERI: They’re wrong!
BART HOPKIN: Well, thank you!
FRANK J. OTERI: I was delighted to discover this disc existed. Your own music making is a very well kept secret to some extent.
BART HOPKIN: There’s a reason for that. It’s because I’m a person of such deep humility [laughs], but also because with Experimental Musical Instruments I thought it was important not to be promoting myself. Charles Amirkhanian was on KPFA and for years and years ran the new music department at KPFA. I’m probably getting this story all wrong, so Charles if you see this…
FRANK J. OTERI: He will!
BART HOPKIN: …I just have this memory, and it’s probably an incorrect memory, but it illustrates my point. He was running the program and he was doing a terrific job of bringing music from all kinds of people forward. And then one day, he decided to play a couple of his own pieces because he’s also a very fine composer himself, and a bunch of people wrote in and complained. "How dare you play your own music on your own show; that’s a conflict of interest!" So, with that kind of thinking in mind, I tried not to put myself forward. I didn’t mind putting myself forward in Experimental Musical Instruments in connection with talking about instrument building techniques. If I thought I’d learned some shop trick that would be useful I’d talk about that. But I didn’t want to say, "I do real good music, and I hope you like it!" I didn’t want to be another ego in connection with that, so that’s one of the reasons I’ve been very reluctant to jump forward with this stuff.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk about the aspects of the music on there because it speaks to what we where talking about at the very beginning of this conversation about developing repertoire. The disc is almost entirely your own music, composed and improvised. I would imagine that a lot of it is improvised because, as you described earlier, the instruments play you as much as you play them. But you also cover pop songs on there, and that leads to another about new instruments. Are new instruments at their most perceptible to the general public playing new repertoire written for them, or doing arrangements of already existing music?
BART HOPKIN: You know, I don’t think I can answer that except to say that I guess I favor the idea of them doing their own music because of the reason I described before: to bring out the character of the instrument, especially if you have an instrument with a very special character it’s better to let them come forth with what they want to come forth with. I’m a great believer in—although probably not very successful at it—not letting precepts determine what the music should be. Hopefully, you get lucky and come out with something that feels good to people. That’s my main intellectual precept. I’m like everyone else and tend to get some idea, and then the idea dominates. I get off track because I was following the idea too much instead of just going where the music wanted to go. My main feeling is that if you’re really lucky—it’s a wonderful thing if you can do this—you just somehow stumble on something feels good to people. That’s all you can try to do.
FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of writing for these instruments, do you write ideas down? Do you use music notation to write?
BART HOPKIN: In many cases I do end up writing them down. They end up looking totally scribbly.
FRANK J. OTERI: Standard music notation or…
BART HOPKIN: Yes.
FRANK J. OTERI: Do any of these instruments demand their own notation?
BART HOPKIN: For the instruments that really don’t play a standard scale for instance, I’m more inclined to just blow. Many of them are written in 12 equal. That’s sort of a decision I’ve made for practical reasons. Either that or have my tuning be so sloppy that it doesn’t matter where I’m going.
FRANK J. OTERI: And you shied away from electronics except for purposes of running motors and amplifying things. Is there a reason? Is that an aesthetic?
BART HOPKIN: I’ve just never gotten into it. I’m not a guy who is good at the stuff. I’m not drawn that way, especially when it comes to computer stuff. My goal in life is to spend less time in front of a computer.
FRANK J. OTERI: The future of instrument building, both the future of your own instruments and the future of other people doing it, where is this going?
BART HOPKIN: I don’t know. I think it’s a little bit of a daydream for people to think that these really unusual instruments will be used in mainstream composition. Nobody is going to invent some new instrument that will become something like the saxophone, which we can pinpoint the time when it was invented, although the guy who invented it actually stood on the shoulders of everyone else that had ever built instruments. I think that that kind of thinking is usually a dead end. That leads us back to the question of whether people can develop an aesthetic that allows for more of individual instruments making their individual sounds, and whether that aesthetic can continue to grow or whether it’s always destined to be a fringe kind of thing. I sort of think it’s destined to be a fringe thing. But what a nice fringe thing, I hope it keeps going.