Music Reviews

Orbitones, Spoon Harps and Bellowphones

Experimental Musical Instruments

Ellipsis Arts

Once upon a time, I hit on the idea of wiring a pogo stick for MIDI and playing synthesized tones by bouncing around on stage like a damn idiot. I thought it was pretty clever at the time, but it’s nothing compared to the genius exhibited by the artists on this collection.

Orbitones follows up on the popular Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones, a book/CD combo that detailed the music created by wholly original and customized instruments. This time around, writer/producer Bart Hopkin introduces us to even more amazing feats of engineering and musicianship. A classic example: Les Phônes, who on their track play a sort of musical ping pong table and then dance around on something akin to organ pipes on stilts. It might be enough to bring some of these amazing instruments from concept to reality, but the truth is that without exception, every artist on here transcends their invention, using its uniqueness not as a goal, but as a path to expressing musical ideas.

Better-known names include Aphex Twin (who qualifies by building a lot of his own electronics) and Uakti, a Brazilian ensemble with at least one record out on Philip Glass’ Point label. Tom Waits tosses in a collage of found sounds. John Cage, a real pioneer of musical deviation, is represented with one of his pieces for prepared piano. And Stomp chips in with an amazing percussive barrage. Still, that’s only five out of the sixteen artists here, and I can guarantee that each is completely different from the last.

The accompanying full-color book, with a foreword by Robert Moog, is the size and proportions of a CD jewel case, and offers great insight into the workings of the instruments heard here, with copious photographs; knowing what exactly is causing all these strange sounds adds a significant dimension to the disc. I’ve enjoyed this more than just about any box set I can think of – about the only think missing is an accompanying video, hint hint. Hopkins has a straightforward, conversational style, and it’s easy to share his enthusiasm for these strange contraptions.

If you’ve ever wondered what music lies outside the traditional bounds of old-fashioned instruments, this is your field guide. Ellipsis Arts, P.O. Box 305, Roslyn, NY 11576


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