Found Sounds

Glenn Weyant makes music, sort of, with an instrument he made mostly out of stuff in his garage

Now, here's a press release that couldn't be more specific: "Tucson-based sound sculptor Glenn Weyant will perform an evening of live subharmonic omnivibrational microtonal sound sculpture coaxed, amplified and processed from steel, wood, iron and trans-oceanic radio signals on Saturday, February 12 from 8 to 11 p.m. at The Epic Café."

Really, what more needs to be said? Aside from an explanation of what the hell that means?

Actually, it's all right there, once you learn a few vocabulary words. Note that Weyant (an occasional Weekly contributor) calls himself a "sound sculptor." That's a clue that we're not dealing with traditional melodies and harmonies. "I'm trying to get people to question what is music, and what is noise," says the writer and free-jazz saxophonist. "I want people to listen deeply, and be more attuned to the sounds in the world around them."

Weyant had to ease off his sax practicing when his daughter was born last year. "The noise wasn't working with the baby in the house," he says. So he went out to the garage and, instead of disturbing the neighbors with his loud sax, decided to build a new instrument--out of junk.

"Some people build bombs in the garage," he says. "I built an instrument. It's probably more healthy, but more subversive in the end."

Weyant calls the result the Kestrel 920--"Kestrel" is his daughter's name, and Sept. 20 is her birthdate. But while Weyant willingly admits that the instrument produces noise, it isn't the sort that emanates from his baby girl. Depending on how Weyant strikes and strokes various parts of the thing, the sounds can be quite haunting and, yes, musical, as long as your definition of music doesn't require a nice tune and a steady beat.

Weyant assembled the Kestrel 920 from various things lying around his yard and garage. At its heart lies a 3-foot length of lumber that Weyant hollowed out to create a resonance chamber where he attached a contact microphone. Then he mounted on the lumber an assortment of screws, nails, wires, bungee cords, springs, fragments of a satellite dish mount and a tuned dustpan.

As Weyant strikes, rubs and bows the instrument's various protuberances, the microphone picks up the resulting tones and feeds them to a series of processors commonly used by electric guitarists and other musicians. Weyant, who traded in his bass guitar on a phase sampler, manipulates the sounds electronically, on the spot, and "sculpts" an easily sustainable but ever-changing sound form. "If I don't do the processing," he says, "it just sounds like a lot of springs and nails."

As for the "trans-oceanic radio signals," Weyant got a 1975 short-wave radio from a friend of his wife, and hooked it up to the Kestrel 920 as yet another sound source.

Weyant's instrument may be original, but the concept of playing on found objects is hardly new. As he points out, Stomp and the Blue Man Group have made careers out of it. Decades ago, American eccentric Harry Partch created an entire series of homemade acoustic instruments. And as for turning noise into music, that started back in the 1950s when avant-garde composers developed musique concrète, organizing the sounds produced by anything from melting plastic to mistuned radios.

So Weyant is part of a 50-year tradition, although to participate in this tradition, he must by definition go his own way.

"This has been an ongoing process since I was a kid," he says, looking back on his days of banging on stairs and bridges with drumsticks. His obsession with the musical possibilities of noise grew especially strong in the early 1990s, when he was a young reporter covering a small town in New York. Employees at city hall would give him odd looks when they saw him mesmerized every day by an air-conditioning duct. "It had a nice rhythmic sound," he recalls. "I spent a lot of time standing there just listening to it."

Using the Kestrel 920 involves more than just listening, although his electronic gear can establish automatically repeating patterns that will continue to play while he takes a break.

Weyant plays the instrument with his fingers as well as a variety of mallets and even thin wooden skewers. During a recent demonstration in his garage, he ran the skewers along the bungee cords, got the vibrations as loud as he could without generating feedback, elongated the tone and threw some compression on it. Having laid this out as a sonic bed, he set about making more short-term sounds by tapping the dustpan and various springs and nails. Meanwhile, he used his equipment's delay and reverb features to shape the sound further.

"With loops, you can keep things going indefinitely," he says, "and over time, it changes the ambience of the room, hopefully without driving too many people out of the room. It's a more passive type of sound sculpture."

Weyant isn't at all proprietary about any of this. In fact, he has visions of taking classically trained musicians on a field trip to The Home Depot to gather material for their own instruments.

Because this sort of music-making is so personal, and half the fun is seeing what you can do with the materials at hand, Weyant doesn't offer much specific advice to people wanting to create their own versions of the Kestrel 920. He is happy, though, to point you in the right direction: "Gershon's is a great place to look for parts. Just walk around banging on things to see how they resonate."

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