A few months ago, I stumbled across a rare musical nugget. Actually, it was sent to me, but for these purposes let’s pretend I had that magical person-disc encounter that all of us dream about. Orbitones, Spoon Harps and Bellowphones was a small book, the dimensions of a CD jewel case, but a bit thicker. Inside, there were close to a hundred pages with liner notes and color photos to accompany the disc tucked into the back flap, a collection of music made by some of the most unusual and unique instruments I’ve ever heard.
Listening to the disc by itself yielded little above curious noises, but reading along with each selection and finding out about the intricate nature of the instruments making those weird sounds transcended coolness. It’s such a cliche to claim to be fed up with the state of popular music, but the compositions here were from people who were abandoning not only traditional styles of creating compositions but also the accepted means of playing them, instead forging ahead with instruments of their own design and creation.
I interviewed Bart Hopkin, writer and producer of Orbitones and a previous, similar volume, Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones, via e-mail; his lucid and descriptive answers cut short the need for any more preamble…
How do you find out about the people/instruments that you write about?
The reasons that I’ve come to know a bit about who’s doing what in creative musical instrument making all have to do with the fact that, for fourteen years now I’ve been putting out the quarterly journal Experimental Musical Instruments, devoted to interesting and unusual instruments of all sorts. Because I’m here doing the job of editor for the journal, all kinds of fascinating stuff comes across my desk, and if someone’s doing interesting work in innovative instrument making, it’s likely that I’ll hear about it sooner or later. When I first started EMI all those years ago, I didn’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’. I didn’t know if I was working in a vacuum, or if there were many, many people doing this sort of work. I just made it my business to make all the connections I could, starting from scratch. Now the most interesting work tends to find its way to me, one way or another. That’s not to say that I’m passive in the process, though — I do seek out interesting stuff, however I may happen to hear about it.
How far have you traveled to do research?
Regrettably, I’ve done very little of that. EMI’s scrawny budget doesn’t support a lot of travel. One of the challenges in producing EMI and in producing the Gravikords and Orbitones book/CD sets has been the fact that it’s hard for me to know about people doing interesting work in remote parts of the world, and therefore hard to present a balanced and diverse picture. It’s easy to find and communicate with people in the industrialized world — Europe, Japan, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and similar places where the currencies are reasonably stable, wages are enough to make phone bills and magazine subscriptions affordable, lots of people are on the internet, etc. — but much harder to find the things most worth writing about that are hidden in, say, Southeast Asia. (Though, as it happens, EMI has had articles on a really fascinating Vietnamese instrument maker.) The Gravikords book/CD had material from the Caribbean island of Jamaica; that followed from the fact that I lived and worked in Kingston for many years, and so knew a bit about who was doing what there. Had I lived in Haiti instead, I would probably have come up with something equally wonderful from there.
How do you feel access to technology changes the instruments and music people come up with? Some of the more primitively constructed instruments (like the Jamaican ones you mentioned) seem to make being uniquely off-pitch part of the music they play.
Actually, I think that Sugarbelly, the Jamaican maker of the bamboo saxophone featured in the Gravikords set, does a good job of playing in tune, and other Jamaican instruments, such as the characteristically Caribbean/Latin American rumba box or marimbula, are typically made well in tune as well (the serious, non-tourist models, at least). But you are onto something when you suggest that “primitive” nature of an unconventional instrument can become part of the character of the music in a way that enriches the effect rather than diminishes it.
In asking how access to technology changes the character of the music people come up with, I’m guessing you mean sophisticated current technology. I always think that, whatever the technology, the physical nature of the instrument and the manner in which it’s constructed is integral to the personality of the instrument and the resulting music. Which is just to say, music is a physical process in the real world; I’ve never been impressed by composers who boast that when they put their music on paper they hear it all in their head; some even say that, as a result, they don’t need to actually hear it performed and put up with the inevitable flaws in the actual event — it seems to me that by de-physicalizing music in that way they’re missing something essential. But I’m off the subject of your question.
Fancy technology, particularly electronics, does make a lot of things easier. And, yes, it makes it very to easy to refine away all the charm and character of an instrument and of instrumental sound. I tend to think, by all means, use the technology you have access to when it’s useful — but, then, try to keep an especially keen ear out for what you might be losing in the process; be ready to try to come back to whatever might have been lost when the time is right.
Do you think that more and more people are striking off on their own? Has the increased ease of releasing music allowed a lot of these instrument makers to make their creations heard?
That’s a good question, and I’m not confident of the answer. I’m certainly aware of many people going off into worlds of instrument exploration in an adventurous sort of way these days, but there may have been just as many doing it years ago, before I was looking to see who might be doing it. As for the second part of your question: In their work habits, a lot of people who are into creative instrument making benefit from the increased ease and affordability of home recording that we’ve seen in recent years. And in one sense that certainly makes it easier for them to let their work be heard, because it’s now possible to get high quality recordings into other people’s hands more affordably than it had been in the past. On the other had, the audience for such music — much of it highly unconventional — remains small in spite of that. So even if recordings are more feasible, the number of listeners is still modest. Our two Ellipsis Arts releases — the Gravikords collection and the Orbitones collection — have been one of the most prominent efforts to make the music of inventive instrument makers more accessible to a wider audience … we’ll see how it works out.
Part of my own attitude toward this business of letting the music be heard by more people is: Shoot, it’s so much fun making the instruments and seeing what they want to do musically, I’ll be happy with that and won’t be heartbroken if it turns out that the resulting music doesn’t reach a large audience. For many of the makers featured in these two collections, the idea that music can be more participatory, from the making of the instrument on up through the following stages of music making, is more important than the glory of a well-distributed performer reaching a large (but non-participatory) audience.
Are you trained in any traditional instruments?
Am I trained in any conventional instruments? Yes. I was a credentialed high school music teacher for many years, so I was, supposedly, qualified to teach almost any standard instrument. In theory, I could have taught your child to play the sousaphone. Ha! Be glad that I didn’t actually teach your child. But in the process of getting a BA in music education and subsequently getting the teaching credential, I did go through a class entitled “strings” and another entitled “brass,” and so forth. I really loved those classes and I got a lot out of them. They put an orchestral flute in my hands, and a viola, and a trombone, and an orchestral marimba, and so forth. In fact, I did teach kids lots of those instruments, though of course my teaching was formulaic and, to say the least, not informed with the kind of depth that a real player/teacher of the instruments would have. The knowledge I gained from having had all those instruments in my hands, and having continued to fool around with a few of them over the years (admittedly in a completely half-assed way) has been of huge value to me in my work with experimental instruments. Also, like every other kid I played guitar — in my case, in those days, mostly classical — and I’ve continued to play guitar quite steadily. I have a two-nights-a-week wallpaper-music gig at a local eatery, and that means that I’ve kept my chops up, and kept active in the world of not-weird music.
Have you yourself built your own instruments?
Yes. Of course, I end up spending so much time at the computer dealing with writings about other people’s instruments that I don’t spend nearly as much time fooling around with my own designs as I’d like, but I still manage to do a lot in that area. One of my other books, called Musical Instrument Design: Practical Information for Instrument Making, is designed to present a general overview of underlying principles of instrument making in the most practical and useful sort of way I could manage, and to do that, in addition to reading lots of books and talking to lots of makers, I had to spend quite a lot of time in the shop myself. I’m a rather poor craftsman, so I try to make my ideas and designs interesting enough that they’re worthwhile even if they’re not beautifully made. I’m happiest if whatever I’m making at the moment is as different as can be both from other things that others have made and from whatever the last thing I made was. Like what? It would take a while to answer. If you’re interested, ask me about Savart’s Wheel, one of my reasonable successful and quite unusual instruments.
OK — I’ll bite.
Correct my above words to “reasonably successful,” not “reasonable successful.” I’m not sure the instrument is what you’d call reasonable. Savart’s Wheel is sort of an events-per-second generator. Imagine you have a ridged surface… I somehow got hold of some rubber matting, made, I think, as a non-slip walkway surface, which has ridges spaced about 1/8″ apart. Now imagine that you drag a stick over this ridged surface. The stick will bump along over the ridges at some number of bumps per second, depending on how fast you drag it. If the bumping frequency happens to be in the hearing range, then you’ll actually hear the corresponding pitch. Of course, that pitch wavers, because it’s impossible to drag the stick at a perfectly steady speed.
I made a series of disks out of 1/8″ plywood, graduated in size from about 4″ diameter to, um, about 16″. I mounted them side by side on a rotating spindle, driven by a speed-controllable motor. Around the outer edge of each disk I glued a 1/2″ wide strip of the ridged rubber matting. Now when the spindle turns, you can hold a stick against the ridges on one of the disks and you’ll hear a clear tone coming out, this time steady in pitch because the rotating speed is constant. The bumping frequency is lowest for the smallest disk, because, while all the disks take the same amount of time to complete one rotation, the smallest disk has the fewest ridges around its circumference to go by in that rotational time; so it produces the lowest note. With the largest disk, the ridges whiz by much faster, since the many more ridges on its rim have to go by in the same rotational time. So it produces the highest note. By calculating the disk diameters carefully, I was able to arrange for each disk to have a calculated number of ridges around its periphery. The ratios of the numbers of ridges from one disk to the next amounts to the frequency ratios between the disks, which amounts to making a scale. I did a straight-ahead 12-tone equal temperament scale over two octaves. These are only pitch relationships we’re talking about here; the actual pitches are determined by the speed of the motor (which is adjustable).
Bumping over the ridges with a stick doesn’t produce the best sound. I use a pair of special plectra/sound-radiators made of styrofoam cups with plastic pick-like shapes (but much larger) glued on. See, the sound you hear is not so much the percussive sound of the stick striking or scraping the ridges on the matting. It’s primarily the sound radiated off of the stick itself, vibrating at the bumping frequency as the ridges go by. The surface of the stick drives the surrounding air much as a soundboard on a violin or whatever does. So by replacing the stick with something like a plectrum with lots of added surface area but very little weight (that’s the attached styrofoam cup), I get a much fuller and more responsive sound.
Different plectra give different sounds depending on various factors. In general I can say that the sound of Savart’s Wheel is extremely irritating. But in interesting ways. Very harsh, reminiscent of distorted electric guitar. I love it. I could go on about it, but I’m sure this is already much more than you can use…
Hopkins’ books, as well as subscriptions to the quarterly journal Experimental Musical Instruments and various other things, can be obtained from direct from Hopkins at Experimental Musical Instruments. Visit the website for information at http://www.windworld.com/emi, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone/fax (415) 662-2182, or snail mail to P.O. Box 784, Nicasio, CA 94946.
Ellipsis Arts, publisher of the Orbitones and Gravikords books, can be reached at 1.800.788.6670 or Elliarts@aol.com.