various artists: Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones: Experimental Musical Instruments

various artists
Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones: Experimental Musical Instruments
Ellipsis Arts

Egalitarian musicologist Bart Hopkin takes the DIY truism that anyone can play an instrument one step further, arguing that anyone can--and should--create one of their own. In the interest of popularizing this ethic, Hopkin, a Northern California native, started putting out the quarterly fanzine Experimental Musical Instruments, and, subsequently, the books Making Simple Musical Instruments and Musical Instrument Design: Practical Information for Instrument Making.

Often the amazing inventions Bart advocates sound as if they were smithed in some alternative universe where Harry Partch is Les Paul and Tom Waits is Elvis Presley. Take, for instance, the bellowphone. According to the liner notes of the recent Hopkin-compiled CD Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones, the instrument "is basically a random cluster of homemade organ pipes which are powered by squeeze balls." On the CD's final track, bellowphone inventor Leonard Solomon--who, according to Hopkin, "is likely [the only person] to have the patience to learn to play it"--demonstrates his invention by performing what sounds like a marching song from an old Max Fleischer cartoon. Now consider the soundcycle, Ela Lamblin's five-wheeled, foot-pedaled moving sculpture with tuned spokes: basically a bicycle with an amplified, ringing chain, and handlebars that when rubbed produce pealing overtones.

In that tradition, Orbitones presents the cast of the musical Stomp, contributing a rhythm exercise on waterlogged copper tubes and bowls. This is as much fun as it sounds--particularly in the hands of actual song-crafters like Tom Waits and Aphex Twin. Waits's track, "Babbachichuija," builds a bustling, bristling rhythm track from a clothes dryer, a creaking door, and a sewing machine, while Aphex's "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball," takes its rhythmic logic from a mangled sample of a bouncing rubber ball.

But Orbitones' adventurousness brings up a nagging question. Since it's based on weird musical instruments, not songwriting or composition, does anybody who isn't into sound-for-its-own-sake really need this? Certainly, the beautiful packaging (a hardcover book with exotic design and 96 pages of colorful liner notes edited by former City Pages staffer Will Hermes) will make instant converts of those who buy CDs for the coffee table as much as the stereo. Yet when that appeal wears thin, Orbitones continues to thrive on its inventors' musical ingenuity, not just their engineering acumen. Luckily, most (if not all) of the pieces collected here work as songs as well as sound. Only a couple of these cuts qualify as novelties.

It seems somehow appropriate that the best selections--John Cage's mesmerizing "Sonata XIV" (played on prepared piano) and the Brazilian percussion troupe Uakti's "Arrumacao" (various handmade pipe drums)--sound like they were performed on preexisting instruments. Cage's work recalls the xylophonelike African marimba, while Uatki's track suggests the Zimbabwean mbira, a kind of thumb piano. Both, like the album they're compiled on, are ear-openers in the best possible sense.

 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Minnesota Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • September
  • Mon
    1
  • Tue
    2
  • Wed
    3
  • Thu
    4
  • Fri
    5
  • Sat
    6
  • Sun
    7
Loading...