What does it take to invent your own instrument? How has pervasive computing technology altered the way musicians compose? When you design your own instrument, does that change how you write music?
These are just some of the questions we’ll be discussing when I moderate a panel (one that should bleed into an ensemble performance) this coming Sunday as part of the Maker Faire, sponsored by the magazine Make, at the San Mateo Fairgrounds in San Mateo, California, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. The subject is “Making Instruments, Making Music,” and it’ll feature three musician-inventors discussing their work: Krystyna Bobrowski, Chachi Jones (born Donald Bell) and univac (aka Tom Koch). And after a Q&A with the audience, they’ll play together.
The Faire runs from 10am to 5pm on April 22 and 23. Our session is 11am on Sunday in the Maker’s Lounge. There’s a ton of other music programming at the Faire, including sessions by Evolution Control Committee, Broker/Dealer and Rick Walker‘s Loop.pooL. For a complete list of music events at the Maker Faire, click here. And visit makezine.com/faire for more info.
THE PITCH: Here is the text of my initial pitch to Make:
Title: “Making Instruments, Making Music”
Format: A show’n’tell panel discussion featuring musician-inventors who have devised their own instruments, from circuit-benders to contact-mic experts to USB-interface enthusiasts. After they discuss their work in a public dialogue, there will be a moderated Q&A session with the audience. And when the Q&A is over, the musicians will jam.
Thesis: There is a growing population of musicians who make their own instruments. The invention of a musical instrument is nothing new, from Wagner’s specialized tuba, to Les Paul’s solid-body electric guitar, to Robert Fripp’s Frippertronic looping hardware. What is new is the prevalence of musical-instrument invention — from Mix Master Mike’s wah-wah pedal turntables to all manner of “virtual” instruments, resulting from the rise in laptop electronica — fueled by such disparate phenomena as the DiY punk aesthetic, the logarithmic adoption of personal computing, and the homebrew-tech sphere celebrated by Make magazine.
There are two key components to this “Making Instruments, Making Music” discussion.
The first is the practical circumstance of making an instrument. Is it a matter of discovery or of experimentation? Does one plan a tool and then figure out how to construct it, or does one fiddle with sounds and materials until one devises something sonorous?
The second is matter unique to this sphere of invention: How does making an instrument alter a musician’s understanding of composition? Traditionally, musical composition has bonded two skills: the ability to develop a musical idea, and the ability to transpose that idea to accepted instrumentation. But when simultaneous to producing music one is producing new tools for the expression of that music, what feedback loop exists in the artist’s mind, and how does that play out in the music that the artist produces?
And to bring the questions full circle: To what extent is the improvisation involved in the invention of a musical instrument like the composition of a piece of music?
THE PARTICIPANTS: Here are the bios of the three participating musician-inventors:
1. Krystyna Bobrowski is a sound artist, composer and musician living in Oakland, California. In addition to French horn she plays acoustic and electronic instruments of her own design. Her collection of original instruments includes prepared amplified rocking chairs, bull kelp horns, Leaf Speakers, Gliss Glass and the Harmonic Slide. Bobrowski received her M.F.A. in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College and her B.A. in Computers and Music from Dartmouth College. She has presented her work in a number of music festivals throughout the US, Europe and Mexico. In addition to performing her own work, Bobrowski plays with the Bay Area-based, improvisation ensemble, Vorticella. Over the last few years she has worked on prototype sound exhibits for the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Currently she teaches and directs the Electronic Music Program at the College of San Mateo. More info at vorticella.com.
2. Hailing from Oakland, California, Chachi Jones has little reason to leave his home. As an electronic musician and editor for S.F.’s Robotspeak Magazine, Chachi (aka Donald Bell) spends lots of time pointing and clicking away at his computer. His unique brand of darkly textured, neck-snapping electronic funk is created in equal parts by homemade circuit-bent instruments and precise laptop composition. His music is filled with emotion and begs to be enjoyed, scrutinized and bumped from car speakers like some kind of Martian hip-hop. Chachi’s distinctive sound bears the unmistakable mark of many hours spent in a bedroom studio delicately refining each moment of audio. More info at chachijones.com.
3. Univac is constantly searching out the detritus of trickle-down technological toys, digging inside for the elusive never-before-heard sounds that cause the designers of the original items to shudder. When univac isn’t turning electronic toys inside out, he is a frequent collaborator with Big City Orchestra, the sound guy for Negativland, a Macintosh tech, and father of 2 boys under 4. He has been bending circuits since 1995, and taking things apart since 1968. Univac’s past creative work includes professional photographer, sound designer, musician, graphic designer, filmmaker, writer, performance artist, sculptor, pizza delivery guy, event producer, technical director and meat cutter. Univac is known by many other names including Prof. Werner V. Slack, God’s Grandparents, Hoyt Shrimpfinker, bumpermeat, TechDweeb, AirSickBags and Tom Koch. More info at techdweeb.com.