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Article from Electronics & Music Maker, June 1983

Vibrations: Making unorthodox musical instruments

by David Sawyer
Cambridge University Press
Price £6.25

However proficient a musician becomes in the use of electronic instruments, there's no substitute for acoustic sounds to provide richness, variety and a degree of the unexpected. However, when a set of tubular bells or even a concert flute can cost well over a thousand pounds, the home electro-musician may prefer to build up his own collection of handmade acoustic instruments, and this book will help to do just that.

David Sawyer's background is in jazz improvisation, notably with the group 'Impulse' with which he tried to move away from conventional western scale and musical forms. This is partly reflected by the tuned instruments towards the back of the book, which can be adjusted to Japanese and other scales if required, and partly in the interest in rhythm rather than melody. The first design is for a slit drum, and introduces some general methods of working wood and bamboo together with a list of tools needed - hacksaws, files, hammer, glue, varnish, soldering iron and so on. Nothing too exotic is needed, and there are addresses supplied for obtaining some items such as bamboo in different gauges; this can be used for making untuned or tuned instruments, such as the 'pitch tube' which can be adjusted to sound any desired note simply by cutting to an exact length.

Bamboo is also the basis for constructing a set of claves, a two-note flute, a double bird whistle and other designs. Optional modifications are suggested for each one, and the author wisely suggests experimentation and imagination to help produce your own unique instruments and sounds.

Some simple stringed instruments, using guitar strings or piano wire are described, together with tuned sets of percussion instruments in the vague form of octobans or marimbas. The enthusiastic constructor can end up with a whole orchestra of instruments - the author has well over fifty - and there area few hints in the back of the book for arranging an improvised performance. These seem to suggest a style of playing not dissimilar to Steve Reich or Terry Riley's compositions - for example on Riley's 'In C', where the wind and percussion players have a series of short phrases which must all be played, the number of repetitions of each phrase being decided during performance by the individual musician.

The book obviously has an application to schools, and it should be interesting to monitor the rise of a whole generation of little minimalists and microtonalists over the next few years. On the other hand it's useful for the individual musician as well who, with a little patience, may now be able to find just the sound that had been eluding him.

Dave Sawyer has been successfully using his self-built instruments on several commercial albums, including Guy Evans' contribution to the popular 'Long Hello' series, Volume Four. He's been involved with musicians from the Gong School, including Gilli Smyth, Guy Evans and Harry Williamson of Mother Gong, who have prepared a fascinating cassette of experimental music entitled WFM. The exotic sounds and percussive rhythms of Dave's instruments perfectly complement the distinctive Gong style.

Another cassette has been prepared specifically to demonstrate the sounds made by the instruments in 'Vibrations'; it's available, as is WFM, from (Contact Details), priced £3.50. Also in the shops is the Mother Gong album Robot Woman 2, on which Dave appears, catalogue number HAI 100. Dave does session work, gives demos and organises instrument making courses, and he can be contacted at (Contact Details).

Previous Article in this issue

Concert Review

Next article in this issue

Cutec MR402

Publisher: Electronics & Music Maker - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Jun 1983


Previous article in this issue:

> Concert Review

Next article in this issue:

> Cutec MR402

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