August 02, 2003

New Instruments - Where the Action Is?

A gentleman in Colorado has created the largest timpani ever, 70 inches, and he's been commissioning and performing pieces with it at the Aspen New Music Festival.

The Big Drummer Man

This brings to mind, the experimental instrument group that IRCAM was supposedly setup for. What has happened to the creation of new acoustic instruments? One would think with the resources for physical modelling that all types of new acoustic instruments would be under way. But it seems that the experimental instrument scene is still ghettoized. One constantly interesting resource in this realm is Experimental Music Instruments Magazine. EMI Magazine has a few CD's that are extremely interesting, if not purely for the sampling potential, hint hint...


Perhaps what is needed is just an instrument like this to get people thinking, why can't we have a bass flute that doesn't require lungs of steel?

Posted by jeff at August 2, 2003 02:00 PM

I made bass flutes that were very easy to play back in the 1970's at U.C.S.D. They were made from 2" diameter plastic pipe, around 6" long, with balloon membranes on each end. The flexible membrane lowered the resonant frequency to the C below middle C. The sound was very soft, and I used to amplify it by placing a small microphone against one of the balloon membranes. I placed a single hole at the midpoint of the pipe, and changed tones by gradually diminishing the movement of the membrane. I called them balloon flutes, and I had ones from small (1" long by 1/2 " diameter), to large (6" long by 2" diameter).

I must admit I haven't done anything physical in years. With Csound on the computer, most of my experimentation is done there these days.

Prent Rodgers
Mercer Island, WA

Posted by: Prent Rodgers at August 4, 2003 07:50 PM

I think EMI went a long way towards fighting the ghetto-ization. In quantifying what was out there, Hopkins and co took the necessary first step: we have detailed account of important contributors to the field that IRCAM etc missed - Bill Colvig, Ivor Darreg, Reed Ghazala, Hans Reichel etc. That journal is sorely missed - I was a longtime reader. An great thing about that journal was the VAST array of perspective presented - from Folk Art to Darmstadt Academia. You could pick up an issue and witness, within pages of each other, instructions for building styrofoam and paper-tube cellos, and an in-depth discussion of the monocord, complete with historical perspective, exhaustive bibliography and, of course, construction tips. Everyone should go grab a back issue - I'd suggest starting with the last one. In it's last gasp, EMI's final issue is double the size of a regular issue. A beautiful article on photosonic disks, a 9-pager by Ghazala etc.

When you ask "Perhaps what is needed is just an instrument like this to get people thinking, why can't we have a bass flute that doesn't require lungs of steel?", do you mean EMI as the 'instrument'? This magazine is/was a tremendous catalyst to my work - the wealth of ideas and perspectives, presented in such a laid-back manner, are very inviting.

As far as the 'What has happened to the creation of new acoustic instruments?', the same thing has happened that has happened to structured (and unstructured) improv, avant rock, electronic (see your thread on Squarepusher) and the like: the academic establishment, for whatever reason, has failed to embrace another facet of contemporary music. I tend to fault insular university culture, but is it as simple as that? This board is great for probing this essential question - why the gulf between academia and popular culture?
Phenomena like Harry Partch would be a coup nowadays, but there are rare, similar things happening. A friend of mine at Oberlin played in a group called the Gongs, in which all the instruments were homemade acoustic/electric hybrids, and all members were music students there. There are pockets of artists in every major city making their own instruments and playing them. In Seattle, I can see Trimpin, Ela Lamblin, Degenerate Art Ensemble, the DorkBot collective, and rebreather for instance.

I see lots of creation going on; I think academia's failed to document it.


Posted by: Ben McAllister at August 6, 2003 02:41 PM

I am really intrigued with drones, clusters, and timbre. As a percussionist, I have never felt limited to "just percussion"... recently I have been trying to design a metal tube-zither loosely based on the Indian _tambura_, Japanese _biwa_ and various South East Asian tube-zithers. Any advice, ideas, suggestions, etc. is most welcome!!!

Posted by: Hanuman Zhang at August 13, 2003 08:10 PM

I don't think it's true that new acoustic instruments are not being built. We have an entire travelling gamelan made out of tin cans and drapery cords, and a new instrument called a Katagotan which is a sort of cross between a koto and a guitar. Others are building things too. I agree with ben that people just aren't looking hard enough. There's plenty of new instruments being built -- Warren Burt even teaches a class in experimental instrument creation at the university! There's never been as much activity in the scene as there is nowadays. On top of all this, Partch's designs are no longer experimental, but are now established instruments that are built by artists throughout the world.

Posted by: Hillbilly Tincamelan Orchestra at October 29, 2003 02:19 AM