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Every time my house's heat kicks on during this curse-cold October, the hushing wind that blows through the ducts and up the vents lowers my blood pressure as it raises the temperature. White noise makes the anxiety go away. There's a low hum coming from the basement, and it puts me at ease—even though my basement's instrumentation is limited to a furnace (and, of course, an inoperable pipe-organ made from the bones of generations of family enemies). But some basements 'round these parts are more generously outfitted—some basements, in fact, are downright crowded—with Hammond organs and Rhodes electric pianos and timpani and oscillating radios (and, of course, cow bones), all begging to be allowed to sing along with the low, rushing rumble of the furnace.
Curiously, a local mad scientist and basement-dwelling hermit has answered that call. He's disassembled and reassembled and tinkered, tinkered, tinkered until wires, boards, motors, and bones have all come together in a droning device fit to belt out duets with harmonic vacuum cleaners or unstable suspension bridges. His name is Dave Krejci, and he calls his creation the Cleophone.
The un-Dr. Frankenstein-like Krejci, a lanky and bespectacled man who named his invention in honor of his young daughter, must stand to play his Cleophone, as its main component is a horizontal piece of wood that sits just above waist level. He occasionally performs on the little stage at Acadia, a coffee shop and performance space that nurtures the Twin Cities' experimental music scene. The African hardwood board has 12 old piano wires strung across its length. Resting on a rickety frame of copper plumbing pipes, it wobbles a bit when Krejci hits the strings especially hard. The thickest piano string is responsible for the constant drone, the ever-present low mmmmmmm that is the beatless heartsound of the Cleophone.
Krejci strikes the piano wires with any one of the assortment of oddities he may have on hand. "I might just grab anything on the way out the door to a performance," he explains. He has a bass bow he can use on the strings, or he can emphasize the percussive element by hitting them with a cow bone he's polished and tinted with homemade beet-juice dye.
After the wires are struck, the vibrations are picked up by magnets wrapped in copper wire. As Krejci slides the magnets' housing (a wooden hemisphere that arches over the string board) nearer to or farther from the striking point, he creates variances in the tone. This sound is broadcast through a mismatched pair of Leslie speakers. Leslies are visually dramatic: Each speaker cabinet contains a spinning, turbine-like cylinder that can be seen whirling away through cut-outs in the cabinet wall. More important, they're responsible for the warm-yet-warped amplification of the string's thrumming drone. "I use pedals to control the spinning speed of the Leslies, but I don't use any effects pedals," Krejci points out.
The resulting music is shape-shifting and atmospheric; the pitch and tone of the notes modulates and mutates as the Cleophone's mood takes over a room. It's a decidedly dark mood. For all its richness, the instrument conveys a narrow range of emotions, from mere seriousness to ominous foreboding. You know that part in a movie when the characters have set some plot into motion, and even though there hasn't yet been any action, you are visited with an uneasy certainty that the endeavor is fated to go horribly, violently wrong? The Cleophone is a one-stop-shopping center for orchestration of eerie moments like that. It's the score to a school bus driving on curving roads during a blizzard, to the distracted lookout shuffling through the gas station for snacks and soda prior to the bloody heist, to the unfaithful wife putting on lipstick in the car before she walks into the hotel to meet her lover.
Even when the mood lightens, it's never far from lonely. Yet that doesn't seem inappropriate coming from a labor of love and solitude constructed in a basement. "I like to listen to music I can concentrate to," reveals Krejci. "It's not that I don't like a catchy hook or that I don't like melody or lyrics—I really do like those things when I'm in certain moods—but I don't often want the imposition of them."
Krejci records his music underground as well, assembling podcasts that he posts on iTunes. Like little messages in a bottle floating out to sea, they go out into the world with their recipients—the Cleophone's fan base—unknown.
"Last time I looked I had 6,000 downloads," Krejci says. "I want to know who they are, 'cause they sure don't live in Minneapolis. I've never had one person email me. There's actually more people in China who've downloaded it than from the U.S."
That fact may not be so surprising, when you consider that harmonic droning is a common element in many types of Eastern music. Somewhere on the Mongolian steppes, it would seem, a teenager with an iPod has gotten a completely misleading idea of what is meant by "the Minneapolis sound." If so, the poor kid's party mix is about to take a decidedly unfunky detour. This is music for sitting it out, for meditation, reflection, and solitary time. After all, Krejci has only built the one Cleophone.
Yet if this winter is as productive as the last, Cleo (the instrument) may get a sister. "I have more piano wires left," Krejci says, "and I'm trying to string them together in a shape like a spider's web." He's already got a name for it: the Arachnophone.