Starting from scratch In the spirit of Harry Partch, local musicians invent instruments from post-industrial scraps
By Liz Sizensky
Harry Partch didn't take anything for granted. When the Oakland-born iconoclast began investigating music in the 1930s, he started from scratch. First, he devised his own scale divided into 43 tones (instead of the 12-tone-octave scale commonly used in Western music). Then he designed and built instruments to play this microtonal scale. Finally, he composed music and played his compositions in highly theatrical performances where the instruments became sculptural elements of the stage set.
Among the more fanciful of Partch's well-crafted creations were the Mazda Marimba, made of tuned light bulbs severed at the socket; the Zymo-Xyl, a contraption with suspended liquor bottles, hub caps and oar bars; and Cone Gongs, made from airplane fuel tank sections. His tuning system never gained a wide following, but his instruments, constructed out of items salvaged from the scrap heap, have encouraged a growing number of musicians in the Bay Area, who are hunting junkyards and hardware stores for cheap, accessible materials to create their own sound-making devices.
They build their own instruments for a variety of reasons. Brenda Hutchinson is a sound artist who like to explore the physics of sound and the acoustic properties of different materials; lately she's been making music with long steel and aluminum tubes.
Multimedia artist Victor Mario Zaballa, a Nahua Indian from central Mexico, likes to experiment with elements of his heritage to create contemporary music. His drums are often based on pre-Columbian instruments, but he alters the design or materials to create exactly the sounds he wants.
Chico MacMurtrie, Bruce Darby and Rick Sayre build robot-like instruments that are explorations of the human body and its relationship to music and visual art.
Chris Brown began designing his own electro-acoustic instruments to make it possible for him to produce a wider range of sound in improvisational performances. Yet he's also composed a piece for an orchestra that features his original instruments and that was designed to imitate some of the things Brown likes about improvisation.
Improvisation is the one element that unites the music made with these unique instruments. In local artisans' hands, making your own instrument is part of the improvisation process -- it's the first step toward finding your own musical voice and getting back to the source of music.
"The reason I use instruments that I make is because I make instruments specifically for improvisation," says Tom Nunn, who began crafting his own music-makers over 15 years ago. "I make them very complex and varied so that they always come up with surprises for me. I always feel like the instrument plays the player as much as the player plays the instrument."
The elfin-looking, scholarly Nunn's interests include chaos theory and international improvisation styles. He plays solo and in a number of bands, most notably C-SIDE (California Sonic Instrument Designers Ensemble), a new group comprised solely of original-instrument builders. Besides Nunn, the group includes Richard Waters (inventor of the Waterphone), Darrell DeVore (who makes flutes and percussion devices) and Bart Hopkin (who makes percussion instruments and a slide clarinet, and is the publisher of Experimental Musical Instruments, an international newsletter with a devoted following).
Made from "by-products of our post-industrial culture," Nunn's instruments have names like the Bug and the Crustacean, reflecting their anthropomorphic look. The three-legged Bug has a hardwood board for a back, on top of which Nunn thoughtfully places nails, threaded steel rods, plastic combs, springs, bronze rods, music wire and scratchy, non-skid surfacing material. Curled steel antennae give the Bug its name. Nunn uses common, inexpensive materials "to make art accessible and to suggest that art is within each of us -- it just has to be given a chance."
When he demonstrates the Bug for me, Nunn's long arms are a blur of motion. His usually serious face beams with delight as he bows and strikes. "It just makes a funny little sound," he grins, plinking a bit of music wire. While tapping threaded steel rods with a super-ball mallet, he explains "The technique evolves out of the instrument, because each one is extremely unique in what you have to do to make it sound." In addition to his fingers, he'll use a guitar pick to pluck or a bow to rub the music wire, a comb to scratch and scrape the non-skid surfacing, and the super-ball mallets as well as aluminum knitting needles to strike the rods and nails.
Nunn is a seasoned improviser, able to produce an incredible array of tones out of the compact Bug: Sometimes it sounds like a harp or xylophone, other times like rushing water, a ukulele or gongs. His improvisations are stunning, thoughtful explorations of rhythm and timbre.
Nunn prefers making acoustic instruments because he likes the richness and complexity of acoustic sound. But some of the sounds the Bug makes can't be heard if they're not amplified, so Nunn places a contact microphone in a "sweet spot" on the underside of the board to pick up these microacoustic vibrations. In addition to amplifying them, he digitally processes the sounds, to bring them into a style that works with electronic music or amplified acoustic instruments, and to extend his repertoire of sounds.
Such electro-acoustic instruments appeal to Oliver DiCicco as well. By day, DiCicco runs a busy, Grammy-nominated recording studio, Mobius Music, that has recorded albums by such local luminaries as Henry Kaiser and the Dead Kennedys. But for the past two years, in his precious free time, DiCicco has been building sculptural musical instruments. He amplifies the entire body so that the whole instrument can be played. Amplification also allows him to bypass the laws of physics and be more free in the shapes he can choose for the bodies of the instruments.
The shapes are an important consideration for DiCicco because his instruments double as abstract sculptures. "What I'm trying to do is meld two different disciplines together," he says. "You look at traditional instruments and they're like pieces of sculpture that have hundreds of years of development in them."
The family of shiny aluminum and steel sound sculptures he's built from salvage yard castoffs include the triangular, stringed Trylon; the cylindrical, metal-headed Drone Drum, with strings down its side; and the Timbajo, made of aluminum cake pans exactly the size of drums with adjustable sticks across the head to modify the sound.
His only wind instrument is the Due Cappi ("two-headed cappuccino machine from hell"). A "joke instrument," it has two saxophone mouthpieces connected to a twisted maze of microwave tubing. When two people blow into it, one person's breath affects the other person's playing, producing some "weird harmonics."
DiCicco calls his musical sculptures "post-industrial folk instruments" because they're "homemade instruments constructed from what's been discarded from industry."
For DiCicco, building instruments is a way of finding his own form of musical expression. "Synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines -- they're all tools and they're all valid -- but I'm really sick of the music that's produced by them," he says. "I want to create a new sonic landscape that doesn't come out of a box. I want something that's more visceral, more interesting to look at.
The tall, curly-haired native New Yorker plays his visually striking instruments with his group Mobius Operandi. World-renowned avant-garde musician Fred Frith, who is a good friend of DiCicco's, gave workshops to help the group get started. "Give someone a new instrument and they don't have the luxury of falling back on techniques that they already know," DiCicco says. Each member of the band brings something different to the playing technique.
One of the more unusual methods they've developed is "flossing," which involves threading several strands of fishing line between the keys of a giant stainless steel kalimba. In performance, band members move freely among the instruments in a free-form jam that has no rules. Fascinating to watch, they'll use hands, super-ball mallets, sticks and bow to pull twangs, whines and rumbles from the instruments.
The group primarily improvises, but member Peter Whithead, who also makes his own wind and percussion instruments apart from the group, has composed a few pieces for DiCicco's instruments using pictorial notation.
In depressed economic times, making original instruments has fiscal as well as musical advantages. Partch himself started building his own during the Great Depression. Ahead of his time, he often felt isolated from his musical contemporaries. He withdrew once for a period of eight years, riding the rails and hitchhiking around the country in the company of hoboes and other wandering souls; some of his most evocative compositions give voice to these people's lives.
Toward the end of his life, weary of his status as an outsider, Partch grew bitter. Like all true visionaries, the value of his work was most appreciated after his death. In Tom Nunn's Bugs, Oliver DiCicco's sound sculptures and the creations of other Bay Area instrument inventors, Partch's legacy lives on.
For more information about instrument making, Experimental Musical Instruments is available from Box 784, Nicasio, CA 94946; cost is $20 a year for six issues.
Instruments in action
Tom Nunn plays his two newest Bugs with Stritch Thurs, July 30, at 9:30 pm at the Heinz Afterworld Lounge, 59 Grand Ave, Oakland, (510) 834-8048.
Brenda Hutchinson improvises on her Long Tubes in a midnight performance with Beth Custer and Nao Bustamante on Sat, Aug. 1, at the Asian American Theatre, 403 Arguello, S.F., 751-2600.
Hutchinson cuts her aluminum and steel tubes to different lengths to tune them. The tubes have resonant frequencies that create interesting acoustical phenomena when Hutchinson sings into them: Sometimes her voice will disappear; other times it will skip, pop or waver.
She also built a Giant Music Box that consists of a large revolving drum covered with magnetic strips, washers and a row of brass bars tuned in quarter-tones. She says, "I always liked music boxes and I wanted to make one that you could program yourself." The player attaches the washers to the magnetic strips and the washers hits the brass bars, producing notes, when the drum revolves. The Giant Music Box will be on exhibit for the public to play beginning early Sept. at the Exploratorium. 3601 Lyon, S.F. Call 561-0360.
Chris Brown will play his Gazamba and Chromatic Wing during a performance of his 1983 composition Alternating Currents at the Cabrillo Music Festival on Sat, Aug. 15, at 8 pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church. Call (408) 429-3444.
The Gazamba is a portable instrument similar to a prepared piano. Each key has its own percussive sound, made by twisted wires, springs and other small metal objects. Brown amplifies the sounds and, and in Alternating Currents, has them pan from one speaker to another.
The Chromatic Wing is a stainless steel plate with tuned bronze rods attached to its surface. The plate rests atop an inflated balloon in a bucket and Brown bows or strikes the rods. Because of their elasticity, the balloons allow the plate to vibrate freely, producing extremely resonant tones that Brown amplifies and sometimes electronically processes.
Victor Mario Zaballa plays his self-designed drums and performs with other musicians every Friday from Sept. 11 through Oct. 9 at the LAB, 1807 Divasadero, S.F., 346-4063.
Throughout the same dates, Zaballa will have an installation in the LAB's gallery that will display some of his instruments. He's made drums out of large plastic sewer pipes and recently constructed a large wooden water drum based on a long-forgotten Mayan instrument. Some of his drums use non-Western or microtonal scales. His performances often combine his instruments with electronic music, and sometimes he plays ceramic ocarinas (a type of wind instrument), handmade by Sharon Rowell.
Chico MacMurtrie, Bruce Darby and Rick Sayre are collaborating on Trigram, a robotic opera that will surround the audience Dec. 10-20 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, S.F., 621-7797.
Their instruments are sculptural metal outlines of the human body that house percussion, string, chime and horn sound sources, including a 19-foot-high percussion figure that Zaballa helped build. Some of the "robots" are played by musicians, others play themselves, controlled by pneumatics or computers. --Liz Sizensky
Typed by Cheryl Vega 6-14-95