Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Deltrula


My eldest son, then age 7, and I were sitting in our guestroom one morning about a year and a half ago.  This is the room where a lot of the instruments live that I don't play regularly.  There is the big old jumbo-sized six string made by Seth Hedu, an acoustic baritone guitar made by Steve Wishnevskey, and a banjo that belonged to my wife's uncle.  There is a charango that my mother in law brought back from La Paz, Bolivia after a visit and a five string mountain dulcimer made by the great W. E. "Bill" Young, who was a North Carolina maker of some distinction before he passed.  I am still looking for more information on him, so if anyone has some, send it along.  I'd like to make him a memorial here.

There are also a bunch of things I have made over the years that are of varying levels of recognizable.  The only factory made instruments in the room are the banjo and my own personal most expensive instrument, which is a round-necked Dobro that I bought when I played with the Brooklyn Jugs fifteen years ago or so.

So my eldest and I are sitting there and he says "You should make a guitar with three humps instead of two humps.  "Hm," I say.  "What would that look like?  Could you draw it for me?"  One of the things I LOVE about kids is that there is little inhibition.  "Sure,"  he says, and pads off to find a pen and paper.  He draws what he is thinking of and I say "well, that's cool looking.  What is it called?"  With all of the confidence a (then) seven-year-old can muster he says "It's a Deltrula."

So of course I have to build it.

I had to back-burner it until this past June, when I was at Haystack Mountain School of Craft leading a workshop, and it was there that I filled some spare hours beginning the work of making a Deltrula.  It is...  Weird.

Weird to say the least.

Because I was at Haystack, and because I was surrounded by brilliant humans who make stunning things, and because I like working with people on projects, I appealed to the metalsmith Jaydan Moore (who was teaching the metals class that session) for a tailpiece.  It is a piece of an old serving tray and is just about right for this crazy thing.

Because he was born on the 13th, it has 13 strings and 13 frets.  I played with the drawing a little because I wanted it to have a ridiculously short neck to deal with all of those strings.  It is strung in four courses of three strings each, with one extra bass string.  That extra string is tuned to A, with the four courses tuned to DGBE, which is how I keep my tenor guitar tuned.  Pretty weird to play.

The whole thing is chestnut out of a Shoninger Piano that was built in 1913 I think.  So a combo of wormy and not, with a piece of the original mahogany veneer on the completely silly and massive head stock.  It is pretty loud, and my eldest says it sounds "like a robot," which seems about right.  Not sure it will come out on this video, but it sure is a weird thing.  Sort of like my eldest.


 Here is how it sounds.   It is, truth to tell, pretty hard to play.  But it sounds pretty good.  I could see it being a back-up instrument on something.  And it will certainly get hauled out to any workshop on experimentation. As far as I know, I am one of three Deltrulists in the nation.  Which means that I am one of the three best in these United States.  Here is a little video, as per usual:


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sister Shelf Tenors (IW#'s 93 & 94)



A friend who is a great dancer contacted me a while ago with this story:

"Hi Zeke, i have a potential commission for you.. I have moved back to Toronto and in the move the packers took apart and ruined my grandfather's lawyer's bookcase. I am hoping to get it repaired by the insurance, but my daughter had a lovely suggestion if not. We were wondering if you might be able to make us a cello out of the wood of the bookcase."

Of course I replied that I did not think I could do that, it seeming like too much of an attempt to try something I had never done before with material so precious.  We did end up making two guitars, however, one for each of the two sisters.

The shelves were made out of stained poplar and some other wood that I think was ash, but that had a grain pattern unlike any ash that I had seen before.  These are not the first guitars I have made out of poplar, it's quite a nice tone wood actually.  Very mellow.  I used the ash for the necks, and I did put a Gibson-style truss rod into the necks. One of them ended up with a really gorgeous wavy grain in the neck, which you can see in the photos of the backs.  Of course the green of the poplar will mellow to a honey color over time.  Right now it is pretty dramatically green, as poplar is.


The tops I made out of the Sitka spruce ship's mast that I made Seafaring Ukes out of.  It is also the top of the oak parlor guitar that I made a little while ago.  It has ruler straight grain that is super tight and it sounds awesome.  I am actually running out of that material, which is starting to make me nervous.  I'll have to source some more.

These are both from the 1900 Lyon-Healy parlor guitar pattern that I have used for a couple of other instruments.  I really like the small size of the box, and they are pretty punchy.  I have a couple more on the bench that will be this same size.  

These guitars sound great, and I had the opportunity to have two of the best guitar players I know play them together.  Here are Leo Crandall and Tom Fay testing them out:



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Piano Workshops (2 of 2): Haystack

I first came to Haystack Mountain Shcool of Craft as a teaching assistant for my teacher, studio-mate, and friend Eck Follen.  I should write about her one of these days, but this is not that story.  Suffice it to say that it opened me to the power of this craft school on Deer Isle in Maine, and to the landscape that it sits in, and to a particular way of treating making.  This is one of the craft schools of which Arrowmont is a peer, and Penland School of Crafts and Peter's Valley School of Craft and a few others.  These are rarified environments in which students are immersed in studio time and make in a thoughtful, concerted way surrounded by about a hundred other people that are all doing the same thing at the same time.

It is a safe environment for exploration, a real place for making for the sake of making, and a supportive place for failing forward in all the best ways.

I have taught at Haystack a few times during smaller, three-day sessions, and this summer was honored to be asked to come and lead a two-week workshop in which we disassembled two pianos and built experimental musical instruments out of them, much like at Arrowmont in summer of 2016.

This time the students were younger, and much less unfettered by "musical norms" than one might have expected.  So they made some really weird, very interesting instruments.  An interesting thing about using piano parts is that most students so far have gravitated toward stringed instruments.  This makes sense, but this time one student made a couple of shakers, which was a nice departure.  Here is what they came up with:

A bass/guitar zither.  The Bass stings are on the right of the instrument, at the top of this photo.

This is how you play the bass/guitar zither.
A noise maker walking cane.

When you put the bottom of the cane on the ground, the bridge strikes the strings and makes noise.


This was an attempt at a pedal-operated keyboard.  It did not get finished, but it was a very interesting attempt.

This students made a whole series of objects.  First up:  A shaker filled with rocks from the beach.

The back of the shaker.

This is the companion piece to the shaker. It is a carved ukulele.

While waiting for glue to dry



Sunday, September 10, 2017

Oak Parlor Guitar (IW#92)



Good friends of mine have a little early 20th century parlor guitar made out of oak.  It's a nice little number, and has that very deep "V" shaped neck you see on older instruments sometimes.  I had not seen a guitar made out of oak before, and I was intrigued.  Turns out is was a pretty common guitar tone wood for some time, I can only surmise that is because oak bends so easily, but also makes a nice strong neck.

The 1900 Shaw piano I took apart and wrote about here had some oak parts, so when a good friend asked if I would make him a little guitar that would be a good camping and traveling guitar, this seemed like the right fit.

The back and sides are American red oak, the top is Sitka spruce, from the same ship's mast that the tops of these are from.  The finger board is from a dogwood tree that was felled on the land that I grew up on, because dogwood is super hard and because my friend is from Virginia, which (like North Carolina) has dogwood as the state tree.

It is really throaty sounding, notwithstanding the small body, and is really easy to play.  One of the things I learned on this one is that I am NOT a good finisher, so I have a lot to learn in that department, but this is a really fun guitar that sounds better than any I have made so far.

Here is what it sounds like:




Thursday, July 13, 2017

Piano Workshops (1 of 2): Arrowmont



As is true with a lot of my recent posts, there is so much more that I want to say than there is time to say it.  So this is going to be too brief, but I'll hit the high points.

There are a number of craft schools around the country that are committed to maintaining and spreading craft traditions, as well as moving craft practice forward into the 20th century.  By "craft" I mean medium specific crafts like ceramics, blacksmithing, wood working, wood turning, fibers, jewelry making.  Interesting to think about craft in the 21st century, and I do keep wondering when coding will be added to the list at schools like these.

At any rate, there are two craft schools that are prominent in my life:  Arrowmont School of Art and Craft in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine.  I'll write in the next post about Haystack, this post is about Arrowmont.

I started going to Arrowmont in 1999 or 2000, I think.  I know my first workshop was with a sculptor named Jack Slentz.  It was my first introduction to the idea that art and craft could really be a viable path for anyone, and it was, to put it mildly, a seminal moment in my life.  Over the next few years, my wife and I (through the auspices of my mother) met my sister and mother at Arrowmont every summer for a week of making and art and music in a way that deeply affected my life.  It is not hyperbole to say that going to Arrowmont was the catalyst that made me decide to quit theater, apply to and attend RISD, and become a furniture designer and maker.

Because of this, I was honored and humbled to be asked to come lead a workshop at Arrowmont last summer (2016).  It was in many ways a sign that I am doing what I "should be doing," whatever that means.  What a joy it was.

Seven students, a TA (my old friend and inveterate weirdo Kevin Cwalina) and me.  Two pianos, six days.  It was a whirlwind, and it was hard for a lot of reasons.  Hard but good.  And several people walked away with something that made sound, though they were all pretty strange.

Integral to the experience, I think, was the dismantling of the pianos.  They are such wonder-full objects, in the sense that they are full of wonder, as am I every time I dismantle one.  I think I am at eleven pianos now, though I may be missing one.  What incredible machines.  I am so glad we can give them new life.  And the great thing about working with other people is that they think totally differently about them than I do.

I have tended to make guitar-y instruments, but they (as you will see) were much less confinced to that.  Here are some images:


Beginning the dismantling.
A good group of weirdos.

This did not get finished during the workshop, but it was big and strange, that's for sure.
A tenor guitar.  I really liked the way this student used the music rack as ornament.  I always just throw that thing away.

This was like a mini-koto.  It sounded great.

An almost-finished tenor guitar.

A really lovely bluetooth speaker gramophone.  It sounds pretty amazing when you play music through it.




Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Palying Piano (again, but differently)



As a part of the workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Craft last month, my good friend and Teaching Assistant Joee Patterson and I used the tackle from her boat to suspend the harp from one of the pianos on a small stage in the woods on Haystack's campus.  I composed a few pieces on it, and Haystack student and incredible photographer Lara Kastner videoed my playing one of them that was inspired by the tides on Deer Isle, Maine, where Haystack is located.  Edited by Daylight Blue Media, as always.


Monday, July 10, 2017

More Canjos



There have been so many canjo workshops at this point that I can't even count how many have gone out into the world.  I have done them with young people, old people, in workshops and at festivals. Here are a few photos from the past couple of years:



A mini workshop in my shop 2014

Brooklyn Folk Festival.  This was in 2016, but I also did a workshop at BFF in 2017.

Workers Arts and Heritage Center, Hamilton, Ontario 2016
Arrowmont School of Art and Craft, 2016
Syracuse University Students, 2017
Haystack Mountain School of Craft, 2016


A cross-studio workshop also at Haystack Mountain School of Craft 2017
There are other workshops but I either did not document them well or I can not find the photos.  Oh, well.  Suffice it to say that I have sent hundreds of these things into the world at this point.  Democratize Making!

I have also made a pdf handout.  Feel free to download, print, and disseminate widely!  Canjos bring so much joy for so many reasons:  They are easy to make, they are (relatively) easy to play, and they are, after all silly and delightful.


Friday, July 7, 2017

(rust) Echoes



It has been far too long since I have chronicled work here, so I am going to try to catch up a little.  For this post I am writing about a recent installation titled (rust)Echoes in 914Works, a multi-use space here in Syracuse.  Apologies in advance for the length of this post, there is a lot to cover.

This was my third spatial installation, and in many ways it was an opposite to the Rust O Phone in that it was in an interior space as opposed to a park.  The considerations are different, and the instruments inhabit the space in a very different way.  It is much more possible to have a direct influence on the viewer's experience of the instruments and the space, and to focus their attention.As a part of this I collaborated with a theatrical director, Katherine McGerr, who devised a piece with five Syracuse University Drama students that was also presented in the space.

This installation was comprised of five separate instruments that were visually and conceptually linked.  I'll address each of them individually below, but overall they addressed sounds that evoke to me the trains that once rolled through this part of Central New York.  The train system in this country was massive and powerful at one time, and the web of timber and steel wove this country together in a way that was very different from the Interstate Highway system we now have.  It was a real loss when that system was dismantled, and i wanted to both celebrate its time and mourn its passing.

Instrument 1:  The Spikelophone
The Spikelophone

This instrument is a xylophone made of railroad spikes.  It is related to the next instrument in that it celebrates the sound of a prosaic object that is an accidental percussion instrument.  Spikes are made to be struck, and the noise of a rail gang sinking these spikes is actually quite musical, if you have a group that can really do it.  In the course of using the installation, we also discovered that the wooden panels to the right of the Spikelophone have their own sounds and are a secondary instrument.

Instrument 2:  Nailing Stump

The Nailing Stump
This is the sister instrument to the Spikelophone.  Here instead of celebrating the spike we celebrate the maul, or hammer that is used to drive it.  This instrument is made up of a wooden "stump" built out of old beams, a bucket of twenty-penny nails, and a "spike maul" which is a specialized sledge hammer shaped so that the user can drive the spike very close to the rail.  One of the things that has always struck me (see what I did there?) about driving nails of any size is that the pitch rises as the nail is driven.  Each nails sings its own little song as it is driven, but unless you drive nails with a hammer you never hear that voicing.  And who uses a hammer to drive nails anymore?  This once-ubiquitous action is itself a thing of the past, and there are many people now who have driven very few if any nails in their lives.  It was interesting to see someone approach this piece who had driven a lot of nails, several people came up to me and said something along the lines of "I am so glad that you can really hear the nail go in!"

Instrument 3:  Intonatruss

The Intonatruss
This instrument came about after the Intonarumori project I was a part of a few years ago.  It is such an interesting sound machine, but all the good stuff is hidden inside the box, and I wanted to display and celebrate the workings.  This particular instrument seemed to me to be a perfect centerpiece for this installation, as it can make a sound like the moan of a train far off in the distance, or the screeching of the wheels on a piece of track that needs to be lined, or the sound of the engine itself barreling across the landscape.  This photo shows me with the Intonatruss just for scale.

Instrument 4:  Gong Rack

Gong Rack
Bells of various types have long been associated with trains and tracks, from the polished brass bell on the locomotives to the bells that warn of an approaching train.  These fire extinguishers all have distinct voices, though I did manage to tune them all so that they resonate sympathetically with each other.

Instrument 5:  Piano

Fireman's Post / Piano
The work that I have been doing with pianos  has left me with some still-strung harps from dismantled pianos.  I love these objects (I will post soon with a video of me playing one at Haystack Mountain School of Craft and wanted to put one in this installation.  This is a very simple presentation of what I think is a lovely found sculpture.  The original intention was to play it by using a coal shovel, so that the musician would mimic the movements of the Fireman on a steam train.  As it turns out there are so many ways to play this instrument that we used a variety of methods and got a huge number of sounds out of it.

Here is a video shot by Daylight Blue Media of a piece that was composed by one of may favorite collaborators:  Leo Crandall.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Shaw Piano (IW# 91)



This one is made from Shaw Piano number 13837, which was made in 1900 right before the factory moved from Erie, Pennsylvania to Baltimore, Maryland.  This piano was in Wilkes-Barre, and the story that I heard about it is that Wilkes-Barre used to flood relatively regularly.  So teams of young men would go door to door during the flood to carry the pianos up to the second story until the flood waters receded.  Having moved this piano only a few feet I can tell you that I sure would not want any part of moving it upstairs!  It's a beast.

This piano had the widest conglomeration of woods that I have yet encountered.  Mostly poplar, it also had walnut and red oak elements, which so far has been unusual, in my experience.  The poplar was a dream to work with, and it was clearly from an old, slow-growing tree.  It was super dense, and heavy.  If it did not have the requisite green color I would have questioned the species it was so heavy.

The person who will own this guitar is a guitar player and plays six string, so this is my first foray into making a six string instrument.  Interesting.  The neck is a little beefier than I would like, one thing I learned here is that a small amount of extra material makes a HUGE difference in how the instrument plays.

It's a parlor size guitar, taken from drawings of a 1900 parlor guitar.  I really like the tight waist and big lower bout, and it has a pretty good sound.  The hole in the front is a leftover from the piano, it reminds the player of the history of the material, and invites stories about the piano, the family it belonged to, and now the instrument itself.

The piano in situ.  It's BIG!

Lovely carving.

Interestingly, the pins do not go through the harp, but pass over it.
Here's how it sounds:


Monday, February 6, 2017

Wrest-Plank Tenor (IW#90)




Continuing in the deconstructing of pianos, this one was more an exploration than an attempt to really make an everyday player.  Four string, because that is what I have gotten used to.  I used drawings for a 1900 parlor guitar, so the body is wider and deeper than I am used to.


The strings in a piano go to tuning pins, of course, and those pins are held in a set of laminated maple boards with a bunch of holes drilled in them.  This is called the "wrest-plank," and it is usually behind the harp of the piano.  I had a wrest-plank from a piano that I did not know what to do with, and I remembered that a friend of mine that was in a workshop I did at Arrowmont School of Art and Craft this summer has used the wrest-plank of a different piano as the sides of an experimental instrument.  This got me to wondering what a guitar would sound like if I used the wrest-plank for the sides.

So this is all out of a piano made by the Shaw Company in Erie, Penna in 1905, according to the serial number.  Except for the top, which is made out of the sound board of the piano, the entirety of the rest of the instrument is made out of the wrest-plank.  That includes the fingerboard, the binding, the back and sides, the neck. 

I think the multiplicity of holes is really lovely, and the sound is really loud for the player, since ALL of the sound is shooting right up into your face.  I also really love the "blonde-on-blonde" look of this one.  It will mellow out of course to a honey yellow, but right now it is super light. 

It has a super bright sound, which might be more about the youth of the instrument than the construction, but for now it is really crisp and clear and pretty fun to play, actually.

I used a short-ish guitar scale length, which really underscored to me how used I am to a true tenor-length neck, as all of the frets feel so far apart to me.  So not a player just yet, but I might make another one out of my next wrest-plank and it might end up being a player yet...