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Weird instruments: lost in the music of the spheres

Discovering a host of odd music makers and their tools

Hose pipe music

A demonstration of hose-pipe music to pupils at Chantry School, Harrow, England, 1967

Douglas Miller/Getty

OAKLAND — “Sssscccccrrrreeeeeekkkkkkttttttttttccccccchhhhh” (one, two, three, four) “aaaawwwwwwwkkkkk. . . chug chug chug.” Holy Bartok! This is some of the most ungodly noise ever to assail my long-suffering ears; indeed, the worst I’ve heard since I encountered an impromptu concert by a Mack truck loaded with hogs locking its brakes at 90 mph just outside of Tulsa some years back.

This particular passel of discordance is being delivered up at a jam session during an event put on by the Oakland Museum stolidly entitled, “Pioneers in New Instruments: A Jamboree of Acoustical Music Inventions.” That particularly bloodless title doesn’t even begin to describe the 16 zanies who are ricocheting around the museum’s theater playing—with all the abandon of the acoustically damned—a plethora of. . . well, they call them instruments.

Now, there’s one young fellow name of Charlie Mozell. He makes music by blowing through a reed taped onto the end of a series of vacuum-cleaner tubes. His music sounds like a bull moose in rut. When you ask him why he plays this instrument he strikes a pose and declaims: “Back in the days when I was taking LSD and playing my saxophone, I realized I needed to invent an instrument that could describe the spaces my soul flew to when I was tripping. So, while I was on acid I built this horn. It’s a total bliss-out, a Zen meditation machine.”

Charlie’s vacuum-cleaner tube may sound flatulent, but it does reach some nice rumbly bass notes. His immediate competition—a band name of Thought Projection and Point Blank Silence—doesn’t have much bass, being more interested in the sort of sounds that alley cats and fingernails on blackboards make. And this band—it has four members—is very serious; not a smile among them as they scratch away on their instruments with wonderful names. Yup, like the program says, with the help of the Abyssiren, the Alienymph, the Dauntless Windream, the Delectablenigmax, the F.F. Dualfreq, the Timecyc Manual, the Goldenharp and the Herbox Timely Descend, the Point Blank Silence band “probes conceptual space and structural possibilities and deals with acoustic transduction.” Yup, that’s what they do, all right.

But all seriousness aside, the hands-down hit of the program is Richard Waters and the Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band. This eight-member band doesn’t have nifty names for their instruments, but they sure do have nifty instruments. Like a washing-machine drum with a forest of pliable rods welded to the top which can be plunked or bowed. Or a Royal Princess Corn Oil drum with a single taut string coming out the top. Or what looks like a wooden shoe box with a mess of rubber-tipped door stoppers growing out the top which can be boinged till the whole box is just hummin’. There are also blocks to be twirled through the air which hum, wooden tablets you wear around your neck and pound out a catchy tune on and, best of all, a percussion tree with all sorts of boxes and rings and good things to bang away on, which the band does between catcalls and bird cries. “Sometimes,” explains bandleader Waters, “it falls between sound and music . . . sometimes it doesn’t.”

The sound at the closing jam with all the day’s participants onstage, doesn’t come too close to music—with everyone playing every which way, it’s a lot like a room full of monkeys and typewriters churning out a bona fide version of Hamlet. After vacuum tubist Charlie Mozell finishes cranking out some deep meditational bass, I ask him if he has an ultimate instrument in mind. “Yeah,” he says, his eyes glinting with the foreknowledge of the true believer. “I want to build a house made out of all these tubes with mouthpieces, so everywhere you go you could just blow on a mouthpiece and somewhere else in the house the sound would come out.” Now there’s an instrument Rube Goldberg would have been truly proud of.

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