Experimental Musical Instruments:  
“Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones” (1996)
“Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones” (1998)

    -- written & produced by Bart Hopkin, published by Ellipsis Arts

Bizarre, wacky, loony, utterly impractical… inspired, fascinating, imaginative, unutterably beautiful—these are some of the adjectives used to describe musical instruments outside the mainstream. Even if you are ready for “The Adventurous Listening Hour,” as performance artist Laurie Anderson said so aptly, it can be difficult to find really risky, adventurous music. These two handsomely packaged CD and booklet compilations can deliver the goods to your doorstep.

Each booklet is full of marvelous photographs and
almost 100 pages of informative text, and the CDs are brimming with music overflowing with true originality. Many of the instruments are not well known, though we happily encounter some famous ones such as the Theremin1 and some created by the iconoclast Harry Partch, whose music and writings profoundly influenced my own thinking about sounds. I was delighted to find (on the second compilation) a digital re-release of a piece composed for prepared piano2 by John Cage, since my old copy of Cage’s original recordings (1950) is wearing out.

Quite a few instruments are wild beyond all your imagining. One example is the “stiltophone,” played as each performer stands on two special stilts and dances. “Each stilt supports a pair of flutes, ranging in length up to about nine feet. The lower end of the stick is equipped with a spring-mounted pneumatic system, such that the player’s weight, with each movement, pumps air across the sounding edges of the flutes…. The air columns are long enough relative to diameter that they’re easily made to sound one of the tube’s harmonic overtones rather than the fundamental.” Dancing on stilts to sound enormous harmonic flutes—how I wish there was a video recording of these pieces!

Here’s a smattering of interesting sounds you'll find on the compilations:

For most of the instrument makers, the sight is just as important as the sound. Indeed, some makers start out on the visual plane. Ela Lamblin writes, “I create instruments by first creating a sculptural form, and then figuring out which sound it wants to make.”

One of my favorite groups is Uakti from Brazil. After listening for 15 years and wondering, “how do they do that?” the booklet finally provides an answer about their “Aqualung” instrument. The sound is best described as …. “melodic
gurgling.” Stop your snickering; it may be difficult to imagine “tuned running water playing melodic phrases,” but Uakti created a fantastic instrument that does it beautifully. Needless to say, this instrument does not fit into the usual Sachs-Hornbostel classification system.4

Hopkin has written excellent introductory essays to each compilation, as well as the notes about each piece. He has a long background in the field, having edited the journal Experimental Musical Instruments for 14 years. Information on the journal, the materials in this review, and the book that is
reviewed to the right can be found at www.windworld.com. The website also has articles, many links, and more.

The compilations are very professional in aural and visual presentation. They come as a sonic surprise that keeps your ears on their toes and stretches your thinking about “what is music?”5 They encourage you to ask, “what sorts of sounds and instruments might I make today?”

There are many [instrument makers on these compilations] who take you to new horizons. Many more who show you new suns. In the slow moments of the end, both albums wave and then close their doors into the great silence like Jack Kerouac’s conclusion of his novel Tristessa: “This is my part of the movie, let's hear yours.”6

1 The classical piece "The Swan" as performed on the Theremin is included on the first compilation, and the performance was described by one critic as “moving like an amplified weightlessness of a thousand melting tears.”
2 think “percussion orchestra performed on keyboard”
3 too hard to explain here, just buy the first set
4 This particular instrument is not featured on this CD, only described, but you can find several full recordings by Uakti in large CD stores that do make use of the Aqualung.
5 I sometimes play examples from these compilations in my ethnomusicology classes when we discuss that topic.
6 I liked this ending quote by another reviewer so much that it is included here. It was posted by Carson Arnold on February 10, 2003, at www.longhousepoetry.com/hear.html.

NOTE: The original version of the “Gravikord” set consisted of a large book that included information on 37 of “the world’s most interesting and inventive musical instrument makers,” and a CD that had music tracks by 18 of them. This set was later reissued with the book in a smaller format to match the “Orbitones” set, leaving out the information on the 19 instrument makers whose music was not included on the recording. The Ellipsis Arts company has basically gone out of business, and the original “Gravikord” set is no longer readily available. However, copies are available through Hopkin’s website. Though it costs more than the smaller reissue, consider it money well spent to get the additional information and astonishing photos. The second compilation has recorded and written material from 16 instrument makers.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of


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Artists in Christian Testimony