Blow Your Own Horn

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So I was at a friend's dinner party, washing greens for a salad, when I noticed that the water passing through my hands into the drain sounded louder than usual. Well, not louder, exactly. But more clear. Amplified. And the trickling noises continued a few seconds after I shut off the faucet.

I peeked tentatively into the cupboard under the sink, unsure what I was looking for, other than my own sanity. I saw sponges. Tile cleaner. Steel wool. Extra rags. I was about to close up shop and demand answers when I found it: an unassuming contact microphone attached to the sink drain. I followed the mic's cord to an amplifier, where the sounds of the drain were being piped into the living room. My friend was in school for experimental music, which explained the sink tinkering. This was the moment I realized that anything – really, anything – can be an instrument. 

About a year later, I met Todd Lerew, an SF instrument inventor who introduced me to a bunch of other people making their own instruments. Their creations run the gamut from creative, quick-and-dirty kludges to master-planned works of art.

Here's a peek into the studios of three makers working in very different ways, unified by their desire to create a sound no one's ever made before with an instrument that is really, truly their own.

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Tom Nunn has a big smile, floppy hair, and a boyish, gleeful laugh. But when he plays his instruments, which he's been inventing for more than 30 years, his demeanor sobers up. He cocks his head and leans into the sound, listening for subtle shifts in tone and pitch.

Within the first minute of my arrival, Tom picks up a bowed rod and begins to play one of his early instruments, composed of a brushed metal plate and perpendicular rods buoyed, for resonance, by blue balloons in buckets. It emits eerie, sometimes dissonant sounds, and by pressing harder or bowing faster, Tom is able to generate wildly different results.

When I try to play, I’m not able to harness the nuance Tom so confidently achieves. At one point, I think I might knock the instrument over instead of making any sort of satisfying sound. Tom cheerfully notes that any instrument, newly invented or long-established, takes practice to master.

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Tom's a storyteller. He tells me about the time he played music with Tom Waits, totally unaware the guy was a famous musician. After they'd played together a few times (and Tom knew who he was), one morning Tom Waits rolled up to Tom Nunn's studio in a big black Cadillac, inquired about three instruments, and handed over a check for $1,000.

Tom also tells me about the six-year break he took from instrument building – to play golf. He was obsessively committed to the game until a group of other instrument makers invited him to New Zealand to perform with some of his pieces. The trip served as an 11-day golf detox, and when Tom came back in 2007, he invented two new instruments, the Lukie Tubes and the Skatchbox. To make sound with the Lukie Tubes, Tom pushes the tip of a long cardboard tube over a metal plate until it starts to stutter with the resistance, making a deep, mournful, spacey sound.

The Skatchbox, on the other hand, is high-pitched, frenetic, and insect-like. The boxes themselves are organized scrambles of multicolored combs, washers, nails, and dowels mounted on old computer keyboard boxes, which Tom gets from the law office where he works as a word processor, typing 120 words a minute. Tom plays the Skatchbox with one of his many customized drugstore combs, which he buys super-cheap (22 for $2) and grinds into new shapes to achieve a range of sounds.

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Cheryl Leonard's studio feels Southwestern, awash with bone white and shades of brown. Dried stalks of kelp hang from the mantle in a modest sling; well-worn pieces of driftwood support tiny bones and shells arranged in clean, simple patterns. I can tell Cheryl is drawn to objects ripe for transition from one purpose to another. I'm imagining a quaint community of retired pinecones and kelp drinking margaritas and looking for hobbies. Along comes Cheryl, who recruits 'em to play music. I smell a children's book idea. Anyway, in the nonfiction version of this story, Cheryl collected a lot of the materials for her instruments on an artist grant in Antarctica, where she visited penguin and limpet habitats to gather discarded shells and bones. 

After securing a contact microphone to her instrument made of driftwood and dried reeds, Cheryl tap-tap-taps the wood, looking for a spot with the most satisfying resonance, like a doctor searching for the best of all possible heartbeats. After a few adjustments, the speaker spits out just the right noise, and Cheryl's ready to play. While many of her pieces are improvised, she also composes music, not with traditional notes on a scale, but with a careful transcription of circles, dashes, and squiggles labeled with instructions like "scrape side with quill" or "tremolo with pine needles."

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Cheryl moves effortlessly among her sound-making tools, playing the driftwood reeds with a bowed rod, a feather, and pine needles, and making sound from a row of limpet shells with a variety of penguin bone and driftwood mobiles. During my tour, Cheryl discovers the lichen makes a pretty good tool for playing the limpet shells, producing a light, metallic shuffle. Near the end of my visit, she asks, "Have you ever played a pinecone?" I haven't, and I soon discover it is fun.

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Todd Lerew's modest Mission bedroom holds nearly 30 instruments, many of them unusual finds he began collecting when he worked at a world instrument store in Iceland. He invites me here to watch him play his Quartz Cantabile (QC for short), an instrument that combines the elegance of sculpture with the sterile aesthetics of lab science.

I watch from a comfortable armchair as Todd removes varying lengths of quartz test tubes from bubble wrap and secures them with silver clamps horizontally above a row of Bunsen burners. Todd's a careful, methodic worker. This instrument is precious to him.

He talks precisely as he describes the scientific intricacies of the QC, explaining that when he presses a gloved finger to a tiny hole at the end of each tube, the air inside –  heated by the row of Bunsen burners – travels to the center of the tube, where it passes through a perforated ceramic piece which allows air to flow through but does not conduct heat. The two sides of the tube build up extreme differences in temperature and pressure, and voilà – sound is created. The small tubes play high pitches and the large tubes go low, and Todd's gloves are peppered with tiny hole-shaped burn marks.

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The burners are fueled by propane gas, which gives the QC a slight danger factor. When Todd first had the idea, he contacted a bunch of propane experts who unanimously advised him against building the instrument. Because I admire forgoing certain safety in exchange for really beautiful experiences, I'm happy Todd stuck with propane. When Todd ignites the burners, the gas surges confidently and the flames begin to crackle, glowing blue and white.

Once the tubes are warm enough, Todd begins to play. As he covers and releases the holes at the end of the tubes, the QC emits sweet, soulful, organ-like tones. I am fully hypnotized. Everything but the sound melts away. Todd asks if I'd like to play, so I slip on a pair of singed gloves and give it a try. I am surprised by how much the sound vibrates my hands, traveling up my arms, into my chest cavity. The tones are intense, experienced so close to the source. The room feels warm by now, and Todd suggests we shut off the QC. When he cuts the propane, the burners just sort of sputter out, taking with them my trance-like state. I'm sad to see it all go.

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In these makers' studios, I found myself closing my eyes as they played, letting my imagination take charge. Hair combs and penguin bones became everything from a pack of runaway horses to what the center of the earth might sound like. And since the studio visits, I've become more aware of the potential of everyday noise in my life, like my keys wildly jingling, or my shoes softly connecting with my bike pedals. I can only imagine what these three instrument makers would do with these sounds.

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Catch instrument inventors at the Community Music Center in the Mission, which recently held a Tom Nunn retrospective. The Turquoise Yantra Grotto is an experimental music space that holds regular performances with invented instruments.

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Published on May 1, 2012, 2012

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