June 1997

More Summer Reading

by Paul D. Lehrman

This month I’m continuing my recommendations for your get-your-face-out-of-your-damn-computer summer reading list. Last month, just in case you missed it, I talked about two impressive and very readable books. "Tube: The Invention of Television", by David E. and Marshall Jon Fisher (Counterpoint) reminds us that the development of the most important entertainment technology of the 20th century was marked with corporate intrigue, legal machinations, political backbiting, and egomaniacal personalities who make Bill Gates look like Shirley Temple. "Electric Sound", by Joel Chadabe (Prentice Hall), does a fine job of telling the century-old story of electronic music, from Thaddeus Cahill and Leon Theremin, to Moog, MIDI, multimedia, and beyond. Please go out and get these, now–as my grandmother used to say, God forbid you should learn something.

The other new book to grab my attention recently is one that is both readable and listenable. In fact, it’s one of the few examples of "multimedia" I’ve seen come down the pike that I consider truly successful: it’s a book about music that comes with a full-length audio CD. So what? I hear you cry. Well, this may be a small (and obvious) step to you, but if you think about it, it’s the sort of thing that really wasn’t possible until a few years ago. Oh, folks have been packaging recordings and literature together for years, but the results have always been less than satisfactory.

For example, when was the last time you got an LP packaged with a book? (The last one I got was the horrific Morse code training program I endured as a pre-teen.) Of course, there was the ubiquitous Sound Sheet (TM?), but few turntables could track them well (if your platter had ridges on it, playing these was a great way to bend your stylus cantilever out of all recognition), and they rarely held up after more than a couple of times through. Cassettes made for bulky and somewhat fragile packages, and people’s playback equipment was so variable it was hard to rely on the quality.

But manufacturing CDs is now cheap enough that they are a practical addition to almost any decent-sized book, and indeed there are thousands of such titles available today. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these are books about some aspect of computers, with CD-ROMs included containing a few relevant documents and several hundred megabytes of shovelware (not to mention an AOL browser). Or else they’re really record albums, which happen to come with exhaustive liner notes. Perhaps I’ve missed something, but to my knowledge, this is the first product I’ve seen in which the book is given top billing and accompanied by a full-length, audio-only CD.

Of course, the sheer innovation value wouldn’t be worth much if the content was no good (how’s that for a revolutionary concept?), but I’m happy to say that the book I’m about to tell you about is an admirable piece of work on all counts. While either the book or the disc can be enjoyed separately, and either one could make for an enjoyable few hours, as a whole they are greater than the sum of the parts, and together make for a unique and delightful couple of evenings.

"Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones", was written and produced by Bart Hopkin, the editor of Experimental Musical Instruments, a quarterly journal out of northern California, and published by a feisty new "new media" house in New York called "ellipsis arts..." It’s about musical instruments that you’ve probably never heard of, and without the benefit of this book, never will.

As Joel Chadabe so well documents in his book, most of the development of musical instruments in this century has been centered around electronics: either using electronics to enhance the sound of existing instruments, like the electric guitar, or to create totally new sounds that could not exist in nature. In the last dozen years, this progress can even be said in some regard to have turned back on itself, as electronics are increasingly put to use not to create new sounds, but to simulate and replace older instruments.

But science in this century hasn’t just been about electronics–it’s also been about new materials and manufacturing processes, which have inspired quite a few inventive souls to come up with brand-new ways to make music that rely not on knobs, voltages, and bits, but on fingers, arms, feet, lips, tongues, and breath. Not many of these devices have caught on, because unlike with keyboard synthesizers, Joe Average Musician can’t just sit down and make awesome sounds with them.

In "Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones", Hopkin takes us on a tour of some three dozen unique and often bizarre specimens of the instrument maker’s art. A few might be familiar to students of the esoteric–the Theremin, Don Buchla’s Thunder and Lightning, or the 43-note-per-octave string and percussion instruments of Harry Partch–but the majority are totally new, certainly to me. The instruments run the gamut of materials, complexity, sizes, and even who is supposed to play them. Some are virtuoso instruments, like William Eaton’s stunningly beautiful harp-guitars and lyres. Others are designed to be played by amateurs: Godfried-Willem Raes’s "Pneumophones" are a bunch of air-filled cushions, connected by hoses to compressors and various types of air outlets, which make sound when people sit on, squeeze, or hug them.

A lot of them fit into the realm of sculpture, like Reinhold Marxhausen’s "manual walkmans", which are metal helmets with spikes sticking out of them that transmit, resonate, and amplify tiny sounds from the world around to the listener in a kind of private micro-concert; or Brian Ransom’s haunting Deities of Sound, which are ceramic flutes and horns that take on organic, sometimes human shapes. Some are extremely playful, like Arthur Frick’s Beepmobile, a giant three-wheeled horn, or his Tug, which is a large reed organ driven by two people sitting on a see-saw. Many comment on modern civilization by incorporating castoff objects into their design, like Wendy Mae Chambers’ Car Horn Organ, which is precisely what its name says it is (and reminds one a great deal of PDQ Bach’s legendary "hardart", as revealed in his "Concerto for Horn & Hardart"); or Ken Butler’s Voices of Anxious Objects, a room full of Rube Goldberg-like mechanical "musicians" which are operated from a two-octave keyboard.

There are some extraordinary historical instruments too, like the unique oboe/saxophone built entirely out of bamboo by Sugar Belly, a Jamaican musician in the late 1950s; and the monstrous Dr. Moreau-ish hybrids of harps and bass viols built by Arthur K. Ferris in the 1920s and ‘30s, some of which required two people (preferably a man and a woman–he called them "courting instruments") to play.

All of the medieval elements are represented: Jacques Dudon builds instruments filled with water, whose resonance changes as the liquid moves around. From the earth comes Nazim Ö zel’s Semi-Civilized Tree: a branch cluster from a live oak tree, stripped of its bark and strung with strings in every possible direction to create a kind of three-dimensional harp. From fire we have Michel Moglia’s Fire Organ (the "pyrophone" of the title), which uses thirty-foot stainless steel tubes filled with flame to produce huge, preternatural noises. Other instruments are made of clay, plastic, glass, brass, stainless steel, and all sorts of combinations.

What’s a Whirly? Simply one of the corrugated plastic tubes you see kids spinning around at outdoor concerts and on the beach, which make those unearthly howls. Australian sound artist Sarah Hopkins (no relation to the author) makes art with them, using custom-made tubes up to 12 feet in length (she calls those "The Deep Whirly Mother") in a performance ensemble she directs. And the Gravikord? Sorry–you’ll have to find that out yourself.

This is not a weighty tome. If you’re looking for a definitive history of alternative musical instruments, or detailed plans on how to build these babies yourself, you won’t find them here. Unlike the two books I wrote about last month, I don’t see this one showing up in too many college courses. On the other hand, it is gorgeously produced, with beautiful full-color close-ups of the instruments and their creators. And while perhaps the text is short on detail, there’s enough there to understand both the instruments and what induced their creators to make them. And it’s obvious that Hopkin loves his subjects.

There’s a funny and trenchant foreword by singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who relates his own experiences with non-standard musical instruments, which started when his wife suggested he sing through a bullhorn. "It’s possible to do the same thing with an equalizer," he says with typical irony, "but nothing beats the drama of a bullhorn." Before long he was scouring hardware stores and dumpsters for the unique sound-producing objects they contained, stuffing microphones into the springs of old upholstered chairs, or taking the rubber off of windshield wipers and recording them squeaking on the glass. "With the digital revolution wound up and rattling," he concludes, "the deconstructionists are combing the wreckage of the age." Like much of Tom Waits’ work, I’m not sure what it means, but it certainly sounds good.

Hopkin tells about some 40 innovative instrument makers in all, most of whom have created whole families of unusual sound machines. The CD, which runs a full 72-1/2 minutes, shows off 18 of these creations, not just little snippets, but whole pieces up to six and a half minutes long (the shortest piece, mercifully, is the Car Horn Organ’s 90-second rendition of New York, New York). About a third of the cuts have appeared on recordings before, but probably not recordings you’d know, and the remainder are available here for the very first time. The recordings are uniformly respectable, and some are exceptional. The juxtaposition of the pieces, which range from meditative, ethereal washes and forest-like ambiences, to percussion-filled battle zones and Caribbean dance music, is pretty jarring, but with the book as guide, the programming works quite well.

As in the book, the CD is a little short on detail, and it would be nice to know at least a little more about the recording processes. Given the highly unusual nature (and sometimes enormous scale) of some of the instruments, I suspect that there’s a motherlode here of truly bizarre miking techniques. If you think miking a steel drum or a bagpipe is hard, imagine trying to capture the sound of Jean-Claude Chapuis’ roomful of glass harmonicas and other crystalline instruments, or Harry Partch’s gargantuan Marimba Eroica.

Perhaps above all, one is impressed with the sheer physicality of the instruments described in "Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones". Music is about human gestures, these instrument makers all say–even the electronic ones like the Theremin and Lightning involve intricate motions of hands and arms through space. No one is pushing buttons, tweaking tiny knobs, or writing code to make these sounds. This book is a wonderful reminder that the making of music is a human endeavor, and while the machines that help us are invaluable, it’s our control over them that makes them sing.

Paul D. Lehrman used to play 11 different instruments, all of them completely normal.

These materials copyright ©1997 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing