After several months of being pommeled by the advertising industry telling me what I "need" this past holiday season, I seriously contemplated becoming more of a Luddite than I already am, until I came across this little set-up that transported me back to the techno-fantasy world that often prevails.
This is a far cry from trying to take apart my old "Speak & Spell" or is it?
All too often people, whether serious about making music or just want to have some fun with sound, are deterred by the price tags on equipment or the idea that they lack the talent to play. One of my favorite musical memories came from just that- play. A friend and I were wasting away the early morning hours eating pancakes at some suburbia hole-in-the wall, when he whipped out a pocket knife and started carving holes into and beveling the end of a straw: "Straw flute!" he declares. A few notes and we were decisively extricated from our seats. So, away we went to the nearest 24/7 convenient store, purchased a box of 100 drinking straws and proceeded until daylight with every permutation of hole configuration, length and bevel angle we could conjure. Were we making music? That's debatable. Playing? Definitely! If you've never watched a toddler get down with a set of pans and plastic bowls, do yourself a favor...or just do it yourself. You can bet there's some great, greasy grooves amidst all that clatter. Is musical success dependent on the recipe, whether or not you care that anyone likes the flavor, or with what kind of pots you're cooking...or playing, as it were?
Some of the most sublime sound has come from manipulating or simply reinventing for what a thing is "supposed" to be used. A recent "iPhone Symphony" post is a perfect illustration of how something that has become part of our everyday experience can transport us into an entirely different atmosphere of sound if we allow ourselves the creative license to transpose the thing. I have also had the joy of witnessing some of Minneapolis' finest talent brandish everything from screwdrivers to toilet-bowl scrubbers and successfully pass them off as instrumental accoutrement. I caught one of my favorite local jazz drummers, Jay Epstein (Firebell, The Dan Musselman Quartet) at a gig this summer; cooler than cool, without missing a beat, he pulled out a pair of plastic handled, nylon bristled toilet-bowl scrubbers. I was astounded! The sound was a little heavier than traditional "brushes" and perfect for the piece. Similarly simple in presence and just as innovative in thought, was guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker's (Alpha Consumer, Andrew Bird) performance at the Modern Guitar Fest, held a few weeks ago. He began by precisely finessing a screwdriver behind his strings, then after looping and building upon this beautifully humble beginning and filtering through layers of distortion, he arrived at the simple static of an out of tune radio held up to an amp.
Ylvisaker's radio became a quite echo of his masterful guitar work and a reminder that what we have may not be as important as what we do with what we have. Actually, the performance, with it's use of simple artifacts juxtaposing a modern instrument, seemed to bring full circle the ideological conflict between manual and technological manipulation, which may not be a conflict at all, but a question of how do we find harmony within that space. As for me, I don't yet have an iPhone and I'm still waiting for my "Reactable" to come in the mail, but until then I'll just keep delighting in repeatedly pressing the "on" and "say-it" buttons on my "Speak & Spell".