|Title: Sound Hound
Source: Foreword by Tom Waits to Bart Hopkin's book/ CD: "Gravikords Whirlies & Pyrophones - Experimental Musical Instruments." Publisher: Ellipsis Arts. October, 1996. Transcription by Larry Da Silveira, as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist: August 10, 1999
Date: published October, 1996
Key words: bullhorns, Chamberlin, Strata Dumpster or the Dumpstalele, EMI magazine, Experimental Musical Instruments, Bart Hopkin, photon clarinet
Singer-songwriter Tom Waits is a long-time follower of author Bart Hopkin's work. In this introductory note, he writes about some of his own musical discoveries, and describes a 1993 encounter with Hopkin and some fellow music pioneers in northern California.
Here's something I stumbled upon at my daughter's birthday party: I rubbed the outside of a large tight balloon and obtained the familiar screaming warble you hear when clowns are making balloon animals. I found if you put cornstarch on your hands and "play" it, it sounds very much like an Eric Dolphy solo, or a monkey with his hair on fire.
I read recently about a gentleman in Patterson, New Jersey, who instead of junking a favorite old car decided to salvage all of its parts and turn them into musical instruments. The windows were removed, leaving only the door frame, and he strung each one with harp wire. The hood became a grand resonator which he also strung. Result: a Hood Harp, a Door Harp, and the rebirth of a beloved old car.
Around 1982, my wife Kathleen encouraged me to try singing through a police bullhorn to make my voice stand out in relief when incorporated with instruments of the same color. Of course, it's possible to do the same thing with an equalizer, but nothing beats the drama of a bullhorn. My engineer Biff Dawes(1) purchased me my first, and it was love at first sight -- I never record or tour without it. I also try to buy a new one every year, because they continue to "improve" upon them. I find the older 80s models (the Falon is available at Radio Shack for about $29.95) superior; they're warmer to the ear. Also interesting to explore are the ones made for children, that can change a voice from monster to spaceman to robot. I found humming through them can give you a sound much like Blue Cheer's guitar sound on "Summertime Blues." In addition to these I also own a 1944 electric megaphone, issued by the Navy Bureau of Ships and made by the Guided Radio Corps of New York. The bell is 24 inches in diameter and it's battleship gray. If you want to feel "Federal", it's the one for you.
One early morning while on the road many year ago, I awoke in a hotel room in Kansas City, Kansas with the TV tuned in to the most beautiful music. A young man in a suit was demonstrating an instrument he had designed and built himself. It was a metal frame about seven to eight feet long that stood at shoulder level. Hanging from the frame were 25 to 30 crystal dowels like glass nipples, each a different length and at two-to-three inch intervals---running the length of the frame directly beneath was a trough filled with water. The man in the suit would wet his fingers in the water, then pull on the dowels as if milking a musical cow. He played his own composition entited "29 Psalms", and I was riveted. With a constant stirring of the water in the trough, and the almost human sound of its voicings, it was like a titanic organ at a midget wedding.
In 1985, I answered an ad in The Recycler, and bought a Chamberlin Music Master 600(2) from two teenage surfers in Westwood, California. The Chamberlin, created by Richard Chamberlin (not Dr. Kildare), is an early 60s analog synthesizer that stores all of its voices (over 60 in total) on tape loops, and with a series of pulleys and chains and springs plays an eleven second "memory" of prerecorded sound stored on the tape. Then a spring snaps it back to the beginning, and it's ready to play again. It's a keyboard instrument, and I believe I own one of the early prototypes, because the "preset" instrument menu is written in longhand. It contains some of the most haunting sounds I have ever encountered, including an operatic human voice (both male and female), Portamento trombone, pizzicato violin, chimes, gong, squeaking door, thunder and rain, train whistles and chugs, acoustic bass, cello, clarinet, applause and various birds and dogs. The Rube Goldberg mechanism inside is as fascinating as the curiously strange sounds it holds in its tape bank.
Although I can't fix a toilet to fix my life, the hardware store has developed more pull for me than the music store. I always bring a couple of mallets and a violin bow with me---I get to hear things I've never seen before. All hardware items must be admired for their sonic properties, pitchforks, egg beaters, crowbars, fireplace grates, shovels, anvils, rebars (the structural reinforcement rods used in poured concrete), trash cans---the list goes on and on and they're all waiting to be played.
Like most dogs, I'm also drawn to dumpsters. They have a better sound than any bass drum or timpani, so I took a "4 Cubic Yard Debris Box", the kind with two hinged tops, welded the top shut and used a cutting torch to make a two-foot diameter hole in the center of the side panel. I then attached seven very choice strings from a salvaged upright piano and stretched them across the hole, fastening them to the surface with two welded bridges. You can play it with a silver dollar or a guitar pick, or bow it if you're man enough, and you can also use a wine bottle for a slide---the sound is train-like and huge, like trash day with a purpose. I call it the Strata Dumpster or the Dumpstalele (distant cousin of the uke).
I have a series of recordings I made of the peculiar rhythms and inner voices available from close-miking old upholstered spring rocking chairs(3). The rhythms are machine-like in their cyclical pattern of metal squeaks and chugs. The springs give the feeling of a printing press, typewriter or rusty cuckoo clock. You can vary your tempo depending on how fast you rock, and the older the chair the more interesting the rhythms will be.
Windshield wiper blades on older automobiles are a great source of unusual rhythms and found sound. You can achieve some scary impossible harmonics with rusty blades on a hot day with a dry window. Try taking the rubber off and and just allow the metal to scratch the glass, or inhibiting the wiper's movement by adding rocks or other prepared items to the glass.
I am paying more attention to the sounds produced by dragging chairs across the floor. Metal folding chairs with the missing rubber knobs in empty rooms or on bare linoleum can't be beat; they turn the whole room into a resonator. Drag a ladder, high chair or stool across the floor---some will sustain a note that reminds me of bad bus brakes.
I await the arrival of my EMI (Experimental Musical Instruments) magazine(4) every three months with great anticipation. Bart Hopkin continues to present a plethora of bizarre inventions and thinkers, even some modern day DaVincis. Each issue is a gathering of the whimsical, the ghastly and the awesome, from historical to contemporary to futuristic. For the concerned and daring musican there's no better or essential publication available. It's the Bible for the player and the builder, and provides an invaluable dialog for those living and working in the often isolated world of unusual exploratory sound sources.
One night in '93 I was invted by Bart Hopkin and Richard Waters to bring an instrument of my choice and attend an improv session of "Democratic" music(5) at a barn in an apple orchard in a small town in northern California. Some of the musicians featured in this book were in attendance. Bart Hopkin played a reed instrument made from a dried and varnished piece of seaweed that was fitted with a clarinet mouthpiece. Tom Nunn played the Bug(6) (like a miniature metal vertical marimba), Richard Waters the Waterphone(6) (like a cascading crystal waterfall of light amidst the songs of a whale), Darrel De Vore his Wind Wands(6) (with rubber bands stretched tight on a frame, you whip the air like a propeller) and Bob Hobbes his homemade percussion. I'm not sure what happened, but "went out to the meadow" that's for sure---everything was permitted, suspending all logic and direction. The sound was more insect ritual than human.
Bart has compiled a gathering of some of the best minds in the field, including Qubais Reed Ghazala, whose photon clarinet(7) (I own one) sounds like a keyboard lobster dying on a campfire. It is only one in a series of wizardly deivces designed for the nonconformist. With the digital revolution wound up and rattling, the deconstructionists are combing the wreckage of our age. They are cannibalizing the marooned shuttle to send us on to a place that will sound like a roaring player piano left burning on the beach.
(1) My engineer Biff Dawes: long time collaborator engineer since Swordfishtrombones (1983). Engineer for: Van Morrison (assistant engineer), John Stewart, Bob Dylan (Street Legal), Woody Herman, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Percussion Profiles, Frank Sinatra, USA For Africa, Blondie, Richard Pryor, Rollins band, Huey Lewis & The News, Pat Benatar, Motley Crue, Mitch Hedberg, Megadeth, John Lee Hooker, Great White, Matthew Sweet, YES, Devo, Loverboy. Westwood One's Chief Engineer (Design FX Audio). Further reading: Who's Who?
(2) Chamberlin Music Master 600: The Chamberlin was the original US keyboard instrument from which the Mellotron was copied, designed by Harry Chamberlin in the USA during the 1960's. The Chamberlin used exactly the same system as the Mellotron for playing back tape samples yet had a sharper more accurate sound. Compared to the Mellotron, the Chamberlin is a bit harder to play, requiring a rather heavy and consistent hand on the keys. Further reading: Instruments
(3) Close-miking old upholstered spring rocking chairs: as in the intro for "Murder In The Red Barn" (Bone Machine, 1992)
(4) EMI (Experimental Musical Instruments) magazine: This quarterly journal ran from 1985 through 1999, producing a total of 70 issues. In its 14 years of publication, the Experimental Musical Instruments journal also published reviews of hundreds of CDs, LPs and cassettes featuring music of unusual instruments. Further reading: Experimental Musical Instruments
(5) An improv session of "Democratic" music: similar (or the same?) sessions later released as "Gatmo Sessions". "Moanin' Parade. Gatmo Sessions Vol. 1". C-Side/ Petit Mal & guest musicians, Jackalope, 2000. "Swarm Warnings, Gatmo Sessions Vol. 2". C-Side/ Petit Mal & guest musicians, Jackalope, .2000
(6) Bug/ Waterphone/ Wind wands: Further reading: Instruments
- The Bug: An electro-acoustic percussion board (designed and manufactured by Bay area musician Tom Nunn) that is played with plastic-tubing tipped aluminum knitting needles, and sounds like a combination of marimba and thumb piano.
- Waterphones (invented by Richard A. Waters) are stainless steel and bronze monolithic, one-of-a-kind, acoustic, tonal-friction instruments that utilize water in the interior of their resonators to bend tones and create water echos. The rods can be played with superball mallets, by hand or with a bow. When the tonal rods are sounded some of the fundamental tones and/or harmonics are sympathetic to the bottom & top diaphragms. When the attitude of the Waterphone is changed from vertical to horizontal and all in between the water is being moved on and off the bottom diaphragm as the tones are being sounded. The water acts in 2 ways: (1) to bend tones via the weight of the water on the bottom diaphragm which lowers the tone when the Waterphone is in the vertical position and raises the tone when in the horizontal position and (2) creates acoustic, schiziosonic, modulations as in pre-echoes via the motion of the water and the relative speed of sound in water, air and metals.
- Wind Wands: Wind Wands (invented and manufactured one-of-a-kind by Darrel DeVore) produce the buzzy bass of a light saber when sliced through the air or twirled. They're constructed ofwooden dowels, hand-carved adjustable bamboo bridge, and thick vibrating rubber-bands. Others also claim to be the inventor of the Wind Wands.
(7) Photon clarinet: Photon clarinets are played without touching. Waving a hand over the right-hand sensor steps the pitch through arbitrary notes, as in an alien keyboard; a hand over the left-hand sensor smoothly sweeps the notes, as in a theremin. Very high to very low range light-sensitive instrument. All models have a range control for setting the frequency of the "free" note that the unmodulated instrument returns to, a focus switch that phases the ends of the note envelopes, an internal speaker with on/off switch, power switch with blue LED pilot lamp, red envelope LED and gold-plated RCA line output. All operate on a single 9V battery, contain the same circuitry as well as sound and play the same. (Source: "Waits in Wonderland" Image: Rip Rense. December 13, 1992).Further reading: Instruments