Perfect Sound Forever


Skip (left) with David Simons (1987)

by Jason Gross
(January 1998)

Seeing the Music for Homemade Instruments on a small stage just doesn't do it justice- you need to see them on their own home ground to see them in all their glory- their home turf is 262 Bowery, New York, NY 10012 USA, 212-226-1558. With so many instruments to set up and prepare, it's a major job for the group just to get each piece ready. Patience is rewarded though- La Plante's study of Javanese gamalen music comes through in the varied multi-rhythms of the eight piece group. This is a wonderful experience that should be witnessed for yourself.

Until you're lucky enought to do this, Skip talks here about his musical background and interest in home-made instruments.

Once upon a time it was a dark stormy night. Born 1951. Princeton University 1973. Then the fun starts. My first work was as a dance accompanist, working in central NJ. After about a year of learning the craft I was broadening the arsenal of instruments, I played (guitar and bass violin well, piano a little and i was willing to bang on stuff although I'd never studied percussion at all) by playing whatever percussion happened to be around the various dance studios.

After joining a friend accompanying another class (a pro from NYC named Carole Weber), I went back to the farm i was living on. It had always been full of hippie types bringing their entire lives in their vehicles, and leaving a number of objects in the barns and weird corners of the house as they left. It was a mega-trash pile just waiting for someone to see it as a resource. Lucky me. Flash. I can use some of this stuff to bang on in dance classes. weird collections: we had maybe ten plates but about 80 tea saucers (truly critical items these). I knew I could break 60 and nobody would be the least bit upset. So I tried them out and took about a dozen that were pitched differently.

I was trying to create work for myself as a composer, and dance proved to be the right vehicle. Within two months, my trash instruments had been incorporated into several scores, including 2 in NYC. I moved to NY the next fall. As on the farm, I made enough money to live the most minimal existence but had an unlimited resource for creating new instruments. In short order, I had moved several times because I had too many new instruments for the place i was trying to live in. But I was working -playing lots of dance classes in NYC and writing lots of music for people who heard what I was doing.

I found out about Partch after I left the University. That should probably say everything about what I thought about my Princeton education. As I got into making instruments Partch became sort of a beacon. I was most interested in his incredible collection of timbres, a bit overwhelmed by the tuning theory and not very interested in corporeality.

Dance accompanists are an abused lot. You can't write the music you want to exactly because the choreographer has the final say. So Carole and I wound up starting MUSIC FOR HOMEMADE INSTRUMENTS in 1975, in part to show off a rapidly expanding collection of junk instruments and in part to do a pinball stunt with several dance compositions- putting them in play again rather than abandoning them as the dancers moved on to different projects.

And for a few years I made a hell of a lot of music and a hell of a lot of instruments. And worked in obscure venues with unknown choreographers or even more obscure venues who were willing to deal with MFHI.

The first real career break came a few years later when I got to work with Joseph Chaikin. Starting a theater career with a major name in the field is always nice. My instruments proved very useful. There are no tags or expectations with the sound of the homemade instruments so audiences have no prepackaged response to the sounds. Perfect for theater. In short order, I wound up collaborating with Joe and Sam Shepard on TONGUES/SAVAGE LOVE. Now I'm on the map. Touring with this production, I met Erv Wilson in Los Angeles. Erv turned me on to equal temperaments. I tried a lot of stuff soon after and discovered that Erv had spoken the truth. The irregular materials I was using for instruments lent themselves to non 12 equal temperaments and made a mockery of just intonation. Tuning became an arrow in my arsenal, although I was and still am more interested in timbre than pitch.

I had been looking at many non-Western musical traditions both as a source of musical instrument design (you can always make something weird and useful by copying somebody else's instrument using completely different materials) and as a source of compositional ideas. I ran into Deena Burton, my wife, in 1984. She had spent most of her adult life studing Javanese dance. Another culture on a plate, all I had to do was pay attention. My penchant for writing music for the weirdest theater and dance projects metamorphosized into a steady stream of compositions for outfits such as the Balinese-American Dance Theater and East-West Fusion Theater.

MFHI became a really special ensemble in the mid 1980s. In 1986 we did a best of the decade concert and decided to record ourselves. MFHI's A DECADE OF DEBRIS was the result. We boldly and stupidly put on Alice Cohen's STREETSONG, a wonderful piece about verbal harrassment, which unfortunately made the cassette mostly unsalable. The problem with MFHI up to that point was that I was doing almost all of the instrument building. David Simons and Alice would occassionally bring in an instrument, but mostly the instrumental resources were mine.

I went to Java in 1989 and lived there for 18 months. I got very interested in gamelan making. Bent metal.

When I got back, MFHI reconstituted itself with 2 other instrument builders in the mix: John Bertles and Jody Kruskal. This changed it from a crack ensemble of percussionists with some other skills playing strange instruments to an ensemble that used a houseful of strange instruments every time out. We almost have our second recording done. It will be called THE PICK OF THE LITTER. When two projects get finished we'll see if we are ready to start pressing CD's.

When I got back from Java, I wrote music for CHAKYAR THE LONE ELEPHANT, an Indian based theater project. I was asked to write an overture and IJO sort of fell out of me. It is a careful exploration of the timbres of 6 kinds of metal trash. This piece is good enough that I felt compelled to make a CD with it onboard. 5 of 6 pieces on the CD are done. The last is dying its millionth slow death. I thought I would be finished in September. Eventually this too will be finished. it will be called DETRITUS when the time comes.

I don't work with dancers much now. I frequently go into schools with John Bertles and present assemblies about the physics of music to 2nd graders. I also picked up a new job description. I built a copy of Harry Partch's NEW KITHARA in 1988 as a project for a residency at Newark Community School for the Arts. Suddenly I became indespensible as the instrument builder for the American Festival of Microtonal Music. I'm the guy who gets to go build some weird instrument that we can't get but is critical to play some piece Johnny Reinhard wants to try, then I learn how to play the instrument and perform with it. Some job description.

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