Sunday, February 17, 2008

What do these things sound like?

I'll slowly add links to some short sound samples here so you can help me imagine what this whole show might sound like. Just multiply by 20 and add 40,000 children and outdoor sounds and you'll get the picture.

Flintstone Gamelan
Membrane Pipes
Balloon Flutes
Rumble Strip

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Team Webster

I will be working with 5th and 6th Grade students from Webster Magnet School in St Paul (Burroughs School I will meet with next week). Webster has the advantage of a woodshop and drama hall so we can make stuff, play with it and store it all nearby. Both schools will prepare instruments and develop parallel performances, but Webster will have things like the Rumble Strip and Car Tire Taiko to make and practice on.

Jan Louise Kusske and Jonathan Hess are going to be fabulous partners. They will identify around 20 students who can meet every Tuesday 10:20 – 11:50am and bring at least some rhythmic skills with them (some of them play in band, and Sowah Mensah has taught African drumming there!).

We will start on March 4 with the class meeting on site at the Ordway so we can experience the place together and try out some ideas. I will bring a few stones, tubes, and flutes to hear how they sound in the echo canyon between the buildings. We will then return to school for some listening, moving and sounding games.

Subsequent meetings will be on March 11, 18, 25, April 8, 15, 22, 29, May 6, 13, 20.

May 27 will be an all-day setup and installation with the Ordway staff, maybe collecting the large instruments early that morning from Webster in a truck.

Wednesday May 28 we will meet and rehearse on site at 8:30am and give the first performance around lunchtime. Webster will repeat the performance on Thursday 29 and Friday 30 (with maybe only a brief rehearsal). Saturday and Sunday the festival continues with a supervised open jam on the instruments but no composed performance. Some of the school kids with experience can mentor the newbies at the weekend.

We will coordinate at least one day when both schools can observe the other’s performance.

All this is being ably coordinated by the stars of the Ordway Ed Department, Shelley Quiala and Elizabeth DeWerff

Ideas about the piece: The Triumph of Time

The Triumph of Time is a 1574 engraving by Pieter Breughel the Elder. It depicts the inexorable, unstoppable progress of Time as it trundles over everything in its path.

Using that as a starting metaphor for this performance I imagine a group of diverse individuals, each moving forward with a dreamlike slowness of speed, along the path of time. Like Butoh dance with frozen gestures and expressive movements, the performers will travel down the path in one direction only, from birth to death.

It will not be a march, a race, a fashion runway, or a parade, but a glacial human flow, with distinct characters and a feeling of being suspended in time. The performers will be 5th and 6th Grade children but I can imagine a few very senior adults at strategic spots, suggesting the idea of youth to old age.

The movement will all take place on the 100’ long path, which doubles as the noise-making Rumble Strip. The backing of the Strip is painted bright red but materials are glued on it at various points, and calligraphed poetry (on the theme of Time?) is inscribed in the spaces.

With a total of 20 performers available, some will be moving on the path silently while others are playing instruments nearby, in pods or strung along the side of the path.

Instruments include:
10 car tire taiko drums (in 2 groups of 5)
10 stones comprising the Flintstone Gamelan (again spread out, far apart)
20 balloon flutes
20 bloogle tubes (whirlies)
20 Stamping Tubes
5 balloon membrane flutes
3 oildrum gongs
3 Airzookas
20 Sonic Brooms (to activate the Rumble Strip)
Voices; plenty of singing long tones

Separate but nearby stands the Camera Obscura Drum to observe the proceedings.

Motion along the path (all super-slow) can explore all the ways of moving from A to B, eg
Egg and Spoon race (eggs go with the birth to death theme)
Three legged race
Gunnysack race
In a wheelchair…

All performers will be in simple costumes and masks/hats. Maybe something that symbolises a particular age, eg baby’s bonnet, mortarboard, wigs, ballcaps, gardening hat, deerstalker, fedora, bowler… They also might indicate different professions or walks of life.

Primarily limit color pallette to Black, Red, Yellow, Gold and Sky Blue. Certain items can be rainbow blends or details designed to pop.

The Rumble Strip can be made to mimic the sound of the human voice, with gaps between words, and approximate sounds of vowels. The class-composed poem will be reflected in the arrangement of the materials.

There are two tracks to the path, making it stereo, each 2 feet wide. One side will represent each school’s poem.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Rumble Strip

This is one weird musical instrument. You have seen gourd scrapers, maybe even those wooden frogs which you rub on their backs to make them croak. Driving a road with grooved edges makes your car vibrate, sometimes in an interesting way. Well this will be about 100 feet long and 8 feet wide, with two parallel paths you can go down. Maybe by wheeling luggage or with specially supervised skateboarders. But the easiest way to get a rhythmic timbral noise out of them is to run or walk while dragging a Sonic Broom (see earlier post; there are many kinds and each one sounds different). In this case the track itself does not make the noise (as a gourd would); it is the scraper that broadcasts the vibrations and is therefore the instrument.

I have found a few suitable textured materials that can be cut, arranged and glued to the backing board (which will be painted); lucite lighting screens, slip-resistant stair covering, and artificial turf. Each makes a different sound. How to compose them?

Maybe I will just lay them out in an interesting musical sequence that has a climax and some surprises along the way. I have also thought about using them to model something about the occasion and place: it is the 150th anniversary of the state of Minnesota.

What if the path were 150 feet long, each foot representing one year, and I placed significant noises at years where there was extreme weather (it has happened every few years since 1858 with some regularity).

Or a slice of the state's terrain from south to north? There could be some freaky sounds towards the north woods and lakes.

Or even the location of coffee shops throughout the state? (Thanks, Google Earth!)

Now I have heard the effect of the prototype Strip I think it could be made to resemble speech. It has a gravelly vocal quality to it. What if I could take a recorded speech (what one should it be????), analyze the rhythm and basic inflections of the voice, and measure it out over the whole length? You could cause the pathway to speak something almost intelligible if you ran along it at just the right, steady speed...
Here, for instance, is 30" of Paul Wellstone's 1996 victory speech. It has some repetition of simple phrases that could be interesting, even if the content itself isn't earth-shattering.

Yet more

Meet the new Skullphone. You put it on your head and run around. The mylar tape falps and howls around you, tingling your ears and vertebrae.

Here's a previous one in action.

Some of the available pieces for the Flintstone gamelan. Hope to get more big ones from the stone yard when the weather gets warmer.

The Camera Obscura is a dark room/tent with room for 3 of 4 people inside. A rotatable mirror and lens on the roof projects a live 3D color image on a screen inside. The screen is also a frame drum, so you can move it around and hit things as their image goes by. A form of musical espionage.

Here's the inside with a scene of Northfield.

It doesn't get much simpler than Stamping Tubes. Packing tubes, closed at one end, cut to proportional lengths. You can hold one in each hand and allow it to drop on hard pavement; it will sound a tuned Boop. With practice you can make an interesting group music of interlocking hocketing rhythms.

I am excited that the good folks at the Ordway, Shelley and Elizabeth, have been able to arrange for this project to be developed at two terrific schools: Webster and Burroughs. I look forward to meeting the teachers and students there so we can create some of these instruments together and work on a composed performance using them all during the festival. I promise it will be crazy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More instruments

The cartire taiko ensemble. Craigslist has used tires for $1. Clean them up and strap them tightly with 3M Packing Tape and you have a decent and durable drum. Prop up the rear end with a brick or something and it resonates well. Practice unison and interlocking rhythms with a little bit of Africa, Japan, and Detroit flavor.

A collection of Whirly tubes (corrugaphones), some made from sump pump tubing. These are twirled overhead to make a hooting harmonic series; several of slightly different lengths make clouds of chords.

Large membrane reed pipes, made from PVC or ABS tubes with balloons over one end. Stretch the mouthpiece and blow so it flaps against the diaphragm, and it makes a deep bassoon-like latex drum sound (or a snoring goose).

Some embryonic instruments

The Rumble Strip will be activated by dragging simple amplifying contraptions to make the vibrations travel up a rod and be spread into the air. Here a 1/2" wooden dowel pierces an expanded polystyrene faucet cover for an effective sound diffuser (like a giant record stylus).

3/4" PVC pipe with a fipple hole towards one end and balloons at both ends. This sounds like a rubbery ocarina with unpredictable pitch changes.

Gongs made from sliced tops of 55 gallon steel drums.

The Flintstone Gamelan: shale (or shist) flagstone from Montana placed over a cartire for support and resonance. A collection of these can be arranged in any configuration and played by one or many people. The stone sounds like a hollow xylophone when struck with a suitable mallet. This can be made from a post crown attached to a handle.

More about the site

There is a canyon between the Ordway and RiverCentre (near Rice Park) that has a variety of interesting echoes and delays. Clapping or percussive sounds made in this space reverberate in subtle and complex ways because of the parallel walls. Many of the instruments will use this percussive impulse tones so the whole sound sculpture and performances will be site specific and tuned to this space.

View from the park side where there will be a tent and gateway containing the portable items and the Camera Obscura.

The original proposal

Rumble Strip

Sound Sculptural Installation proposal for
Flint Hills Children’s Festival
May 27-June 1, 2007

Kids love to run and make noise. Running a stick along fence railings is an old pastime. The Rumble Strip takes advantage of acoustic principles and the kinetics of youth to create a fun musical experience. The Strip is a four-foot wide pathway with carefully planned surface texturing, laid outdoors on firm flat ground. Traveling from one end to the other with wheels (Sonic Broom [see below], skateboard, bicycle, wheelchair, luggage, or a walking cane…) you experience tactile sound colors in composed sequences; a rubbed song.

The Strip is about 100 feet in length and is made of 10’ sections that bolt together to make for smooth transitions. The order of the sections can be changed to create different musical patterns.

The sections each have patterns of grooved surfaces; some are close to each other, some farther apart, and some are irregular. Spaces between these sections are smooth and offer little friction hence no sound, corresponding to a musical rest. Pitches in music are nothing more than discrete rhythms sped up until they form an impression of continuity; above 30 cycles per second or so you hear tone more than rhythm. The Strip will play with this ambiguity as well as provide stimulation for aural pattern recognition when sections repeat and vary.

The sections are constructed of 2’ x 4’ lengths screwed together flatwise as rectangular frames. Inside each frame lies a 2” thick expanded polystyrene; this provides support for weight on top of the surface as well as acting as an acoustic amplifier (the air bubble structure acts as a solid-state soundbox). Over the top of this solid frame lie the various pattern of textured surface boards (usually 3/8” thick hardboards). The weight of the structure and the fact that each section is bolted together means the track as a whole does not need to be anchored to the ground.

There are various ways of rubbing the surface to excite sounds from the track. For those who do not wish to don skateboard protective gear there are different kinds of Sonic Brooms. These are specially designed sticks you can hold in your hand and drag behind you as you move along the track. These are adaptations of the suitcase principle, where rolling a piece of luggage over a grooved surface uses the case itself as amplifier. These will be simple in construction and can be made (and decorated) by children in school workshops ahead of time.

A typical basic Sonic Broom would have a broom handle attached at one end with a small board. Over this board would go a block of styrofoam, all bound together with large rubber bands. By dragging the Broom behind you (or two if you are adventurous) small vibrations caused by going over the grooves will be transferred up the length of the handle, spread out across the board, and amplified to audible levels by the foam block. These are simple and, if not indestructible, then easily repairable.

A more elaborate Broom would be like a ruler attached to a shoebox principle: a long flat stick is held and rubbed over the surface. Half way up the stick, it is attached to a hollow soundbox made from plywood or cardboard. You could also make a modified Berimbau (Brazilian music stick with one string used in martial arts). The stick would be placed under slight tension by the addition of a taut string on one side passing over a resonator such as a Dixie cup. This could also be played in the traditional way as a musical instrument by striking the string with a small stick.

Any number of players can play the track at one time; some may run the entire length in a race, some stand in one place and rub a favorite section.

Safety is the number one consideration so all sharp edges and unexpected surface changes will be carefully monitored. The maximum drop at the edge would be 1.5” probably into soft grass. Minimal supervision would be needed to monitor the use of the track during festival hours.

School activities

In terms of making the structure of the track and the Sonic Brooms we need:
Transportation for large boards and wooden materials to a woodshop with storage space and basic machine tools (saw, drill, sander).
Adult help for moving pieces around.

Once basic frames have been built and a few sample surfaces attached we need a children to test the ideas in practice; seeking the best sounding materials and suggesting different patterns. If they are taking a shop class they could make these changes themselves; if not, we will make them and bring the new versions for next time.

If any kids are competent skateboarders we need their help. Likewise, any special needs children in wheelchairs who can hold a stick and offer feedback are welcome to critique the prototypes.

The Sonic Brooms are good classroom projects; we can provide basic materials, drilled as needed, and they can choose from the various models to make. They can then paint, sticker and decorate their Broom to personalize it for the event.

Prior to the school fabrication sessions I can hold a workshop for teachers in which we perform several simple improvisational sound compositions. These are my verbal instruction scores designed for any age or level of ability; some involve operations on texts, whispering and vocalizing. All have simple instructions that teachers can then go back to the classroom and use with their students.

Festival performance
While the Rumble Strip will be fun and available any time for people to play on, it will be enhanced by planned performances and additional sound-making devices.

The intended site forms a long corridor with walls on three sides. It has a special acoustic property; when you clap at one end a very clear delayed echo is returned a second later from the far wall. I will provide a simple stone lithophone to one side of the track to make percussive sounds with a resonant pitch, perfect for exciting the echo and playing with the delay. These large flat, heavy flagstones are a shist material and usually used as paving; some of them, not all, resonate with a clear tone like a xylophone. Each stone can be placed on a rubber support or hose pipe and then on the ground. Heavy beaters (wooden mallets) are used to play them.

The Berimbau instruments can be used in performance and I can also provide conch shells and flutes to have a variety of sounds. Once I know what is available I can compose a simple verbal instruction score (or with live cues) so each class can perform its own symphony for Rumble Strip and Odd and Ends.