various artists,
Orbitones, Spoon Harps
& Bellowphones:
Experimental Musical Instruments

(Ellipsis Arts, 1998)

Yes, the CD is as strange as its title. Here you'll find an assemblage of musical instruments constructed in dreams (or maybe nightmares). You get to hear them, see photos of them and read about them in the 95-page hardcover book (written by Bart Hopkin, who also produced the CD) that houses the disc. It's a wild ride, and, for the most part, a highly enjoyable one.

The first of the sixteen wacky and often beautiful tracks here contains zgamoniums, described as "mostly metal objects, made from scrap." The sounds that ZGA gets out of them is extraordinary and highly rhythmic. The predominant sound is of springs blended with voices. Colin Offord's Great Island Mouthbow and Eagle Feather Flute are next, in an eerie and haunting track that becomes trancelike. A flute made from a feather is a wonderful concept, and the resultant sound is so high as to barely be within the range of hearing.

Tom Waits makes an appearance with an aural construction using the recorded sounds of sewing machines, squeaky doors, the spin cycle of a washing machine and, of course, his unique and rasping voice. It's a rhythmic delight. Bill Colvig and Lou Harrison's "American Gamelan" follows, and it sounds similar to the Balinese version, tinkling and ethereally lovely. A group of inventive musicians named Arthea is next, and the track, using invented and handmade instruments, is the closest to familiar music so far. You'll hear the flavor of sitar, kalimba and flute, among others.

Richard James' cut is purely computer-generated and brilliantly done, sounding electronic yet natural. Even though much in the track reminds you of sound effects, it never ceases to be highly musical. Les Phones is next, with pongophones and stiltophones, from which the sound is derived by the player dancing about on stilts, making a breathy, reedy sound unlike anything you've ever heard. It's an instrument, however, that begs for a video -- seeing this would be even more fun than hearing it.

I'd also like to see Peter Whitehead playing his handmade folk instruments, whose sounds are like fiddles, dobros and guitars designed by aliens. (Hmm ... you don't suppose....) Ela Lamblin's "Sculptaurals" are equally bizarre and wonderful, musical works of art that can create transcendent sounds. John Cage's prepared piano sounds terribly earth-bound in comparison, and a little (dare I say this of Cage?) stodgy. Stomp gets us back in a rhythmic groove, making music out of anything that comes to hand. I saw this innovative group on TV, doing a very exciting performance. Catch them before they get PBSed into predictability and become the next Yanni or Riverdance.

If you've ever played with an ocarina, you'll be stunned by the sound of Sharon Rowell's huacas, or triple flutes. Deeply resonant, it's the sound the Earth would make if it could sing. Bradford Reed's Pencilina, which looks like a double-dulcimer with pickups (and is played with a pencil-like stick), offers rhythm, melody and harmony. It's distinctive and fun. Next, get ready for overtone city with Ellen Fullman's Long String Instrument. How long? How about 100 feet or more? This is another one that I'd love to see played. There's not much melody here, but the harmonies are magnificent, and the overtones would drive you insane if you heard them for too long.

Uakti is another group of original instrument makers whose creations include the Gram Pan, the Inclinated Pan and the Trilobyte, as well as "The Tower" and "The Aqualung." Don't ask -- it would take too long to explain. But the music these things create is an aural treat. The "Majestic Bellowphone," however, is closer to a nightmare, albeit a hilarious one. It's one instrument that provides the sound of an entire oom-pah band.

If you've been depressed because so much music sounds alike lately, here's the remedy. The combination of wild music, the descriptive book, and the photos of these oddball instruments will have you raising your eyebrows and listening like you've never listened before. Don't be afraid -- they won't hurt you, really....

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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