Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones

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In this, Ellipsis Arts’ second book-plus-CD compendium of experimental musical instruments, editor Bart Hopkin demonstrates how one person’s percussive pile of rubble can be another person’s Zgamonium. With 16 entries, Hopkin presents a variety of examples from the ever-spouting fount of musical creativity. In each of these instruments one can detect the musical personality that created it. Some are highly sculptural or, as Ela Lamblin puts it, "Sculptaural." Lamblin’s creations, such as the soundcycle and the orbitone (a sort of musical swing), utilize beautifully designed metal constructions and often require a great deal of physical interaction to release the curious sounds.

Several of the contributors, like Lamblin, view sound as a living thing to be cultivated, but not necessarily completely controlled, by the players. Other instruments are finely tuned and controlled, such as the American Gamelan of Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig. These two American originals translated the musical instruments of Indonesia into electrician’s conduit, precision-tuned like its Southeast Asian counterpart.

Whatever their views on the nature of sound and music, all involved demonstrate innovative approaches. Hopkin also enlists some big-time names to illustrate new ways of musical thinking. There’s a nice little primer on John Cage, whose prepared piano sounds as alien as ever. Richard D. James, the Aphex Twin, checks in with his cutting-edge, computer-generated electronica. Tom Waits babbles in an unknown tongue over a creaking door-sewing machine, rhythm section sonic collage. And the normally unbearable cast of STOMP! (think Neubauten meets Lord of the Dance) sculpt out the hidden rhythms of water.

Even with these big names, though, there are still plenty of names that will be unfamiliar, unless you’ve been subscribing to Experimental Musical Instruments, the quarterly journal that Hopkin edits. Overall the package, with plenty of photos, presents this oddball musical vanguard skillfully. The accompanying book is now digest-sized and hardcover – unlike the original, flimsy packaging of the first volume, Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones, which is now available in hardcover format, too. The writing and interviews, simultaneously intelligent and accessible, are as colorful as the subjects. It’d be nice to see Hopkin do this on a yearly basis.

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