Ever wondered what a vibrating radish sounds like? Or what the harmonics of a balloon might be? of a balloon might be? How about what would happen if you plucked a 90-foot-long violin string? You're in luck! On Sunday, August 14, nearly two dozen artists will be on Lincoln Center's northern and southern plazas coaxing music from the most surprising of objects. The criteria? Only that the instruments must be homemade.
The free event, called Homemade Instrument Day: The Mad Scientists of Music, is part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors and will consist of an afternoon of demonstrations, performances, installations, and audience-participation pieces. Festival producer Jenneth Webster likens the process to "going to the state fair, where you wander around and see a variety of fascinating exhibits." But here, instead of prize pigs and embroidered aprons, there will be a lot of strange instruments played by professional musicians. "This is a chance for people who wouldn't go to something billed as a serious experimental music concert to see what's going on in this world," Webster says. "It really will be a delightful experience."
Brenda Hutchinson, curator of Homemade Instrument Day, adds that many of the instruments, in addition to being handmade, will be things made with everyday items. "There's a kind of magic in this transformation of objects because of the attention that you pay to them," she explains.
Perhaps the most ecological example is Gemuseorchester, the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. Four of the group's members will be at Lincoln Center, carving vegetables into instruments and playing them (they do sometimes "cheat" by adding kitchen implements to the orchestra). While some of the music on the group's two albums is familiar‹a mournful, slightly-out-of-tune version of the Radetzky March, for instance‹others sound as if Brian Eno had recorded his ambient music with whale songs on the Russian steppe. Usually the Viennese musicians dump their instruments into a pot at the end of their concerts and serve attendees the resulting soup, but at press time that was looking unlikely for this event due to logistical challenges. "Maybe a salad?" Webster says.
A number of the other household items that will be featured are toys used in surprising ways. Laetitia Sonami will release a fleet of toy boats on the Reflecting Pool, each broadcasting tiny voices. And Lincoln Center Out of Doors alum Judy Dunaway will play balloons. "Kids already know balloons make great sounds, but adults forget," she explains. And, hastening to point out that she is a serious composer of balloon music, she adds, "it somehow seems more acceptable when I play them."
Joshua Fried found his inspiration in old shoes and a Buick steering wheel. He uses both to manipulate sounds coming from live radio broadcasts in his performances. "I don't hear anything the audience doesn't," Fried says, "I truly don't know what's going to come up on live radio." When the sound does come out, he manipulates it with the shoes, the steering wheel, and a combination of other low- and high-tech equipment to turn "bits of commercial radio into funky musical patterns."
Mad Scientists of Music is, of course, just a description. But there is definitely science behind the instruments. Alyce Santoro, who makes clothing out of woven cassette tape, is a flutist by training and a scientific illustrator by profession. "I'm very interested in quantum physics and the idea that all matter is made up of vibrations," she says. And she'll be closer to that notion at Lincoln Center where she'll wear a dress that she "plays" by running a tape head over the cloth. "You hear this collage of all sorts of sounds," Santoro says. The tape itself has recordings of everything from Beethoven to Björk, with some John Coltrane and Jack Kerouac thrown in.
Santoro isn't the only artist to modify a music-making device. Eric Roberts has created GuitarBot, an electric stringed instrument that plays preprogrammed or real-time-generated compositions. Jeff Fedderson will play his Silverfish‹an instrument inspired by the kalimba, or thumb piano‹with a cello bow. Sarah Warren will play a modified cello made of steel and fitted out with contact mics and a computer interface. Tanzanian artist-musician Walter Kitundu transforms old turntables into instruments, such as the harp that he'll be bringing to Lincoln Center. And Thomas Truax teases bizarre music from old Victrola horns (or hornicators, as he likes to call them).
Webster describes all of Lincoln Center Out of Doors as a buffet: "You can pick and choose whatever you want to get out of it." But while some menu items, like the shoes or the balloons, are only for watching and listening to, others invite audience participation. The most obvious example is Out of Doors regular Carole Weber's Homemade Instrument Orchestra, a workshop in which passersby of all ages stop by, make instruments out of "found objects" (a.k.a. trash), and play on them. But there are other examples as well. First-timer Ellen Fulman will suspend 40 violin strings, each about 90 feet long, over the plaza (a true technological feat, the organizers say), and visitors will be able to "play" them. In addition, this year the organizers have invited 50 members of the public (the first 50 to sign up by a certain date) to make instruments at home and play them at the event.
Visitors will also have a chance to perform with Sara Roberts's Earbees, which are handheld recording and playback units; ensembles will be formed for the occasion. Audience musicians can also "perform" on Stephan Moore and Jim Lewis's Hex (for hexagonal) Table. They'll move marbles across a table and the movement will create sounds owing to speakers installed under the surface.
"For us, the spirit of experimentation is the spirit of play," Jenneth Webster says. And that's a spirit that's sure to be catching on August 14.
Susan Jackson writes frequently about the arts and is a contributing editor at Time Out New York Kids.