Original text written in Swedish for Mannen på gatan #2 - Surrealism 1994 / The Man In The Street #2,, Surrealistförlaget, Stockholm 1994. Enlarged and translated for Experimental Musical Instruments, California 1995

Call For The Hidden Sounds

Johannes Bergmark

© Copyright by Johannes Bergmark

1. Birth of music magic.

Sound is movements of matter. Matter in stillness has a quality that I will label as sound potential energy, like a rock which can start falling at any time from a mountain top if you push it. Music is mediation of movements between human bodies, through pulses in the air (sometimes with a middle link of location energy - recording; sometimes only the musician's own body in loneliness communicating with itself through the medium). It is always an indirect mediation of the body movements: the body is never self-sufficient, not even when you are dancing or singing. The body, moreover, is spiritualized, researching its relation to the spirit, excited by the vibrations. All the joints involve spiritual attitudes, sexual and sublimized desires, back to the own body of the musician, to the amount of air to the meeting (listening) bodies (and their thinking), to the bodies themselves in potential movement and to all the matter that leads the movement away from all bodies in endless dilution. To the degree that the music is opened for a total investigation and bewildering of all the joints, or if it is overmastering in a direction beyond the everyday, it can have magical potential - it can reveal important hidden forces. Certain dominating attitudes to matter and people, however, limit this magical potential and form conventions that define what is (communicates as) music and what is (does) not.

A deepening of the understanding of the movements of matter and its meanings to the movements of the body starts with an inventory of the collected potential energies that lie hidden in and around the body: a concentration in stillness and silence. At the first scratch, bang or hiss (sometimes even a movement in silence) a focusing takes place, the point of departure for a movement of movements. Through this meta-movement, desire - this huge collection of abstract potential energies - is given possibilities to transform itself into concrete but transient pulses through matter. These pulses recreate new movements through the bodies but are at the same time apprehended as independent objects that last longer than the actual sounds by their being incorporated into imagination. Such sound-referring objects of movement are identifiable in the same way as words and visual forms, and even though these domains are kept apart by senses and concept, they are born in a corresponding way and can have parallel inner laws and structures. Here, a spiritual concretization takes place, which is soon surrounded by memories, prejudices, conventions; and the reproduction, the mediation, of the pulse of movement becomes followed and affected by the parallel spiritual pulse and their structures mirror each other. The inner relation that you perceive between musical objects indirectly mirrors the conception you have about the objects in the thinking.

Here is thus a corresponding parallel fork in the road of attitude: the pulse of movement can be halted or directed into systems that aim at maintaining or establishing a certain material or ideological structure. Another way is, by means of active interest for, or passive curiosity on the unknown possibilities of development of the pulse, to open doors, to draw threads, to attach resonators, to lead the spark over to other rooms. But also to actively break off and shock it in order to discover patterns of surprises. This play without evident goals does not necessarily have anything to do with knowledge, skillfulness, message or art. It is a native life instinct, the one that from the very beginning made us discover everything. The person trying this road, will see that it, as time goes by, is neither structureless nor arbitrary. The structures are a potential inherent in the details, and if this is developed freely, structures are created by themselves. They can even create traditions - yes, all traditions are created that way.

The given music and the given instruments around us are only one, and a very winding, road. To choose this without regularly returning to an inventory of the bodily potential energies - desire - is a failure, a tragic forgery. The illusion of stage art, to manage, to rapidly conquer a social role, distorts the picture of the real possibilities, even the social ones. The free development of play to make life more beautiful and give us deeper knowledge about the material bodies, presupposes a total despair of or suspicion of all means, above all those (art, stage ...) that are connected to promising the kind of place of the ego in the world, where it is given a touch of fame - immortality, immobility, self-sufficientness, non-curiosity, symbolism, giving-up, conservatism, stupification.

But the stage, and all other means, must also be able to be used as fields of experiment to refine the sensibility. This sensibility for musical (poetic) potential energy, though, is not necessarily expressive. Communication doesn't have to start from stage, it could have as its point of departure the kidneys of the audience as well as the cold air outside. Noone has basically anything more to express than anyone else. But the sensibility demands training, renewed training.

* * *

2. Birth of means.

My interest in music was liberated by quitting my piano lessons. I was mostly curious on "incomprehensible" music, but came to beleive that I was in conflict with my political commitment. The conflict was clarified for me by surrealism, i.e. creation as a result of all the psychic levels in accordance instead of only consciousness or tradition. Ideas of complexity, pedagogy or message, I rejected in favor of poetic freedom. I indulged in free improvisation and Cecil Taylor became my "master". Many experiments and much searching was made in the Stockholm Surrealist Group (of which I am still one of the members) when it formed in 1985. We played on anything in spite of "previous knowledge". The focussing of the playing was gradually increased. I discovered an until then, unknown power in my body, independent of my consciousness, capable of guiding the course of events independently and creating its own structures. The formal freedom, then, was not anymore such a central point, but instead the invocation of, the listening to this corporeal demon - individually as well as in collective playing. I understood that there must be a correspondence to this in dance, and my childhood passion for acrobatics and climbing got a new significance through this return. (Later, I found a surprising connecting link, though not a full equivalent, to the Japan-born Butoh dance movement.)

[Rammel & Bergmark]

Hal Rammel (left) and Johannes Bergmark playing a saw duet, displaying two of Rammel's instruments.
Photo © by Gina Litherland.

The Chicago (nowadays Cedarburg, WI) surrealist Hal Rammel introduced me to the playing of the musical saw and instrument invention as well. I made experimental tunings of my piano, first at random (inspired by a text by August Strindberg), then a "wave-tuned" non-even-to-the-octave (narrower in the middle). I got the Australian drone wind instrument (with circular breathing) didjeridoo and the Bengal one-string gopychand, both very expressive and rich in spite of their simplicity.(1) With my first instrument, the piano, I was lacking this simple inner understanding, which led me to the only vocational education I have ever started voluntarily: the piano technicians' class. In the workshops at the school, I started to build instruments.

Those who have once tasted the powerful nucleus of improvisation, can not return as the same person; I think this is also the case with instrument invention, which is the same kind of search for the naturally hidden sound - in the body, or in objects of all kinds, without separating "practical" objects from "aesthetic" ones. German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr e.g., writes in "Sedna oder die Liebe zum Leben" (1985): "Generally, the music bow of the bushmen, which also appears among the negroes of Africa [...] is identical with the hunting bow [...], but that doesn't necessarily have to mean that the bow was first used as a hunting tool and then as a musical instrument. What if the relation was opposite!" My reaction was: "what if the musical saw came before the tool saw?" ... Then, after having read about one of those having united "practical" and "aesthetic", and his instrument inventions (Emanuel Winternitz: Leonardo da Vinci as a Musician 1982), I got two dreams:

[The Butter Bass]

The Butter Bass.
Photo © by Johannes Bergmark.

I saw a one-string instrument (similar to the gopychand but with no neck) where the resonator is held and kept in tension with one foot in the air (you stand on only one foot) and the other end of the string is fastened and kept in tension with a thong around your neck. You play it with a bow.(2) I wanted to realize this, and found a butter box which would serve as a resonator, and made a double, crossing loop of thick piano wire through the bottom, that would serve as a bridge by the string going through it.(3) The instrument's name became butter bass. It turned out to be very rich in overtones: it can embrace a large timbre field, although it doesn't make it easy to play conventional "melodies". As the tension of the string can be varied very quickly, the instrument's sound can jump between earthquake-like percussive roar, lyrical chirping of flageolets which are achieved with the light touch of the free hand(4), and a gigantic train brake when the bow plays strongly close to the end of the string. That's more than usually expected from a single string! To realize the strange one-legged playing position from the dream, I thought about placing a stirrup at the far end of the butter box, but the stirrup idea would only return later in another instrument. The butter bass became a seated position instrument, with both feet against box and floor.

In the other dream there was a drum with a metal tongue fastened on the skin. The tongue would be played with a bow and, according to the dream, change pitch as the skin was pressed.(5) The dream is acoustically not logical, as the drum skin would be a resonator and not alter the pitch of the tongue. I haven't built this instrument according to the dream either - but it has made me aware of the easily accessible possibilities to sound variation that all thin, stiff and slim objects like knives, ice cream sticks etc., have, when held against the edge of a resonator (e.g. a table or a drum) and played on their overhanging part with a bow. Here too there is a surprising range of variation from creaking, whistling, squeaking and humming, depending on length and material and on the speed, pressure and placement of the bow. The ice cream sticks can be surprisingly similar to the human voice's complaining, singing, sighing or wondering sounds.(6)

[The Hedgehog & Forked Silver Tongue]

Bergmark playing the Hedgehog. The Forked Silver Tongue above it.
Photo © by Christian Werner.

I also made a special silver-plated tool, called silver rod, to make the maneuvering easier. It turned out to be too squeaky but it could produce an interesting ghostly vibrato through its bigger size and weight. Later, when I cut the end in half, I got rid of much of the noise, and renamed it forked silver tongue.

The hedgehog is a more successful variation in wood, and has a garland of wooden sticks as well, that protrude at a small angle upwards on the finger holder, and who give a fine whistle or squeak from the bow.

Dreaming and chance, and the surprisingly useful turning-points that "failures" provide, were points of departure for creation, and lack of "ideas", knowledge and materials haven't been any decisive obstacles. Instruments that at first seemed to be "failures" in relation to my expectations, soon "taught" me what their point was and how they wanted to be played. That attitude I also try to have in relation to traditional instruments that I "can't play". I have also taken all the chances to make traditional instruments: 5-string kantele (ancient Finnish/Baltic string instrument), Swedish bagpipe, clavichord (2 different ones), lur (Nordic wooden harmonic trumpet), Hardanger fiddle (Norwegian folk variation on the violin and viola d'amore, with sympathetic strings) and renaissance recorder, and I also made a didjeridoo of clay, curved like an alto saxophone.

[The Metal Harp]

Bergmark playing the Metal Harp.
Photo © by Johannes Bergmark.

Rammel's circular bowed instruments(7) and the saw gave me the idea to the metal harp, with triangular sheetings welded around a copper tube, which besides being played with a bow, also can be used as a trumpet, flute or percussion instrument. The bright timbre of the plates shimmers extra when you spin the instrument in your lap.

[The Clay Didjeridoo and Maiden Crown]

The Clay Didjeridoo and Maiden Crown.
Photo © by Johannes Bergmark.

The maiden crown, circular as well and made of clay, I built when I discovered the beautiful ring as I used a bow on a protruding edge of the clay didjeridoo. It consists of a turned bowl whose edge I have cut up into nibs of different lengths, and on every nib turned out a sharp edge for bowing. It has turned out to function better as a percussion instrument, though.

I also wanted to make a didjeridoo with the possibility of playing polyphonic and melodic music. The double trumpet is a result; it works, but not as it was meant to (with circular breathing). However, it does have some advantages besides looking funny.(8)

[The Stringed Stirrups]

Bergmark playing the Stringed Stirrups or Angel Strings.
Photo © by Gudrun Edel-Rösnes.

See a larger version of this picture!

... and take a closer look at the instrument!

When I heard that every string in the piano is under the tension corresponding to about 70 kilos, I imagined a man hanging in every string, and that was not very far from actually mounting a model in the ceiling of the workshop, with stirrups in the lower end of two strings. A stool was made into a resonator, with the same kind of loop bridges as on the butter bass (two of them) through the seat. To hold the vertical resonator up and in tension, standing in these stringed stirrups, I first tried fastening my belt around the resonator and the chest and leaning backwards. The firmness of this belt was overrated, but the inglorious fall into the floor was documented on tape and has given me many good laughs afterwards. Later, I found out a way of fastening a strap around resonator and shoulders without everything gliding downwards into a cluster. Playing became comfortable and liberated both hands and four sounding string lengths for bowing, and beating with specially made felt- and skin-covered blocks. With a contact microphone, the floating, long-ringing, thundering bass tones and intense, whistling overtones come out clearly. Vibrato and pitch change can be achieved by displacing the weight between the feet. From the Opera terrace in Stockholm I also developed longitudinal vibrations - the hanging length was over 7 meters! These shockingly strong tones were made by rubbing along the strings with rosined pieces of cloth.(9) The thickness of the piano wires are 1.5 and 1.0 mm, which makes a pitch difference of a fifth if the tensions and lengths are equal. For safety, I climb and play the instrument with protective goggles, which might be unnecessary, but the astronaut- or frogman-like appearance at a performance I think is rather desirable. The spotlight ladder I mounted the instrument in at Unga Atalante in Göteborg (Gothenburg) formed a triangular room which related me back to childhood obsessions: vehicles, outer space, climbing, circus, diving, aquarium.

In two dreams I actually also have returned to the water with music: in one I took a bath and played on the bathtub and the water in a duo with saxophone player Evan Parker; in the other I sat on the bottom of the sea and played the saw. The marvellous deep and long sound that this produced naturally inspired me to make experiments awake, in bathtub and pool, with specially constructed water-resistant bows (and after persuading the suspicious bath attendants). I saw before me concerts in swimming-baths for a snorkeled audience, and in dolphin pools with underwater windows - what would whales think about saw music, which can be so similar to their own singing (and what do they think about underwater musicians)? But the ring was difficult to produce and was in addition rapidly deadened by the water - which will provide the fertile soil for new solutions ... large-sized metal sheets cemented firmly to the bottom, so that the musician must swim with webbed feet to bend them?(10)

[The Stringed Coffin]

The Stringed Coffin. (Model.)
Photo © by Johannes Bergmark.

My friend Petra Mandal had a dream about an instrument that I have now started to make, the stringed coffin: a box in body length contains the musician, and some strings are strung over the lid. Through a little hole, the musician sings and the voice directs the tones of the strings.(11)

The text continues!

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