Monday, June 25, 2007

Instrument Building

From time to time I do some instrument building, either to follow up on an acoustic lead, as an adventure for its own sake, or to fulfill a need in a composition in progress. Lou Harrison put it this way:
"to make an instrument is in some strong sense to summon the future. It is as Robert Duncan has said of composing, "A volition. To seize from the air its form." Almost no pleasure is to be compared to the first tones, tests & perfections of an instrument one has just made. Nor are all instruments invented & over with, so to speak. The world is rich with models ~ but innumerable forms, tones & powers await their summons from the mind & hand. Make an instrument ~ you will learn more in this way than you can imagine."
The best job-job I ever had was working summers and holidays for Charles Chase at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, CA, where I helped to organize his instrument collection, did some instrument repair, and very often, Charles and I would get lost together in an instrument building project. For me, it was practical training in organology and potential instrumentation, with some poetics and old left politics on the side.

I learned quickly that I was not to be fine luthier, as that would have been a job for a parallel lifetime, and I discovered that I was not going to build my own orchestra, like Partch, or my friend Kraig Grady. But I am handy at repairs on the spot for a good number of instruments, and occasionally like to make an instrument or two specifically for my own compositions.

At the moment, my work in progress needs some high sustained sounds matching the pitches of my gamelan (I have a small sléndro set in my studio; doesn't everyone?) , and I've been experimenting with stroked aluminum rods, following an instrument design of Robert Erickson. The sound -- haunting, bright -- is right, but I'm not yet certain how to turn the ensemble of rods into a reliable instrument. In particular, I'm not sure how best to suspend the rods, but the experiments have just begun.


Civic Center said...

Man, what fun.

Daniel Wolf said...

sfmike --

Exactly. Too often, in making serious music, we forget how much fun it's supposed to be.

Prent Rodgers said...

Bob used to fasten the middle of the rods to a frame using a small clamp-like device. The important feature is that the node is in the exact middle of the rod. He mounted a dozen rods on each frame. After a while the frames would begin to deteriorate, and would have sympathetic vibrations with the difference tones of the rods. Not pretty.

Tom said...

You can see my friction rod instrument here