SA6: The Maker Issue

Music is similar to philosophy in the sense that it attempts to articulate a non-empirical idea or concept. Though the science of acoustics, for example, allows us to understand the mechanics of sound through waves and the biomechanics of hearing, the human perception and decoding of a musical gesture in time and space is as difficult to definitively express as the concept of Freedom, or Immortality. There is nothing objective about the experience of music; the individual listener can never map how music affects him or her onto the human species as a whole, which is what makes the subjective arguments concerning the merits of certain compositions, musicians, and recordings so compelling. The desire to articulate a personal theory of what music is compels many musicians to while away the better years of their lives studying, practicing, and thinking about the construction of a melody, the minutiae of timbral differences, or the perfect transition from one melodic fragment to another. As in philosophy, the attempt to define a specific a priori truth from something as subjective as music becomes a game of how the musician expresses his or her point of view. Like the concept of darstellung in Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno’s writings, musicians define their position and their personality in the language and structure they use to convey their concept, in this case musical gesture or composition or song, to their audience. The majority of musicians’ choices in this regard are based on a historical model of a specific instrument (instrument being defined here as essentially a machine for making sound). Even those engaged in radical presentations of ideas on these instruments are relating their vision of language and structure to the entire history of that machine. For each instrument, there is a range of musico-historical context that the musician can choose to fit in to create their darstellung based on the history of the repertoire, famous practitioners, and cultural and stylistic norms. Some choose to use a historically reproductive language to express what they perceive as a variation on the elegant structures of the past (think period instruments and repertory jazz orchestras), while others choose to use this historicity as a set of guidelines of what to avoid in their attempt to radically recast the instrument’s history. In this issue, Sound American features a set of musicians that, while finding their own way of expressing a concept of music, have decided to sidestep this continuum and construct a system in which the language and the manner of speaking are outside of the agreed upon tradition of historical musical instruments. They’re expressing their “truths” by making new machines to create new sounds and add new dimensions to the human model of what it means to experience organized sound as something personal and worth experiencing. This doesn’t mean that they are stepping outside of the historical context but, rather, that they are choosing to experiment and engage with that sense of tradition to innovate. There are few examples as strong as the musical mind of Harry Partch: one of the great American musical revolutionaries of the 20th century, he chose to look to the work of the earliest musical practitioners and fashion a highly personal darstellung, building instruments like the Kithara and using intonations more in line with ancient Greek models than our accepted modern equal temperament. Other instrument builders have followed different models, to more or less the same effect. Hal Rammel’s take on the AACM and the organic exoticism of Lou Harrison and Lucia Dlugoszewski, Cooper-Moore’s connection to the vocal quality of the blues, and Neil Feather’s mad-science connection to futurism and funk all feature prominently in this issue. Sound American always strives to look beyond composition, to find connections within groups of artists and trace paths taken by specific musicians. In this, our sixth, issue, we feature a wildly disparate group that includes technology hackers, avant-garde improvisers, aesthetic engineers, and jazz storytellers. Yet they are all musicians in more or less explicit ways, engaged in cracking open the idea of music and trying to discover what is new inside.

Introducing Neil Feather

Neil Feather in Conversation with Sound American

In 2002, I was invited to perform at the High Zero Festival in Baltimore, a weekend of improvised music presented by the Red Room Collective, of which Neil Feather is a founding member. One of the themes of High Zero, whether articulated or not, is surprise. Improvisors are put into groups that cross genre boundaries and there is always a feeling of mirthful or just generally odd performance practice. For a recent transplant from swing-oriented music, the people I met that weekend seemed half transcendentalist and half alien. It was in this kind of haze of having my preconceptions of music challenged, that I first met Neil Feather and saw him perform. I cannot remember the names of the instruments he played that first concert, but I do remember getting my seat in the auditorium and seeing an exercise bicycle on stage. After having seen a performance with tap dancing and ping pong balls earlier in the evening, I was prepared for a similarly performative, chaotic set. What I saw, though, was a large biker looking fellow climb upon the bicycle and, by pedaling and adjusting some guitar pickups, initiating a series of electronic sounds that ebbed and flowed as rhythmic pulses, creating cross-rhythms, and adjusting by the speed of the pedaling to interact with the other musicians. To this day, I still count this among a handful of truly revelatory musical experiences. To watch Neil Feather perform is to see someone that looks outside of the empirical or historical to build highly personal musical machines. Like everyone in this issue, a case can be made for Neil to be called a true American iconoclast. It's on that subject that we started our conversation on a balmy August afternoon in Baltimore. We spoke in the smaller of Feather's two workshop areas, this one in the attic of his home. Because of the humidity, we had to keep the windows open, which accounts for the traffic noise in the background of the interview. The podcast is a good starting point to get a feel for Neil's philosophy toward music and materials, as well as his sense of humor. Also on this page are a couple of short examples of his music in collaboration with another Baltimore legend, turntablist Jason Willett, as well as with Feather's band, MUGWUMP. - Nate Wooley

Look At The Instruments

This is a small representation of some of the many instruments created by Neil Feather. Even though they follow his philosophy of no waste; each material having a purpose, they have a certain elegance as modern machines as well as sound producing instruments. Feather's work is sometimes intended for display and interaction with a museum audience. Many of the instruments here serve that purpose, although his primary reason for creating is, not unlike Hal Rammel, to discover the new possibilities within a set of physical parameters while performing. Sound American is pleased to present three exclusive videos of Neil playing and explaining three of his primary instruments as well: The bachelor (one of the future guitar family), the nondo (his first instrument) and the twin pies (the most recent of the vibrowheel family)

Listen To The Instruments

48: Neil Feather (magnapooters) and Jason Willett (turntables)

62: Neil Feather (twin pies) and Jason Willett (turntables)

MUGWUMP (2005): Neil Feather (guitaint and vibrowheels), with Bob Wagner (drums) and Dan Breen (guitaint)

Watch The Instruments