MortonUnderwood was founded earlier this year (2012). We had worked on a few bits before but in many ways it was this commission that drove us to make this a more formal arrangement. The beauty of this commission was that it had all the key ingredients: sensible timescale, sensible budget, an open brief for us to explore, mutual respect, and a tangible outcome in the form of a concert delivered on the instrument as part of an ensemble in Sweden. Perfect.
It came about following my [SU] time on the PRSF New Music Incubator, a musical exchange programme between 10 UK and 10 Swedish musicians. Swedish composer Jonas Asplund approached me to ask whether I would consider performing in Stockholm as part of his One Water project. Better still, he wanted to commission a unique instrument for this performance.
After discussing this with David, we worked from the ideas up. It was a really free creative initially, with wild ideas about super-cooling, steam, chemical reactions etc. Our early experiments ranged from submerging cymbals to filling an old tuba with water and blowing hard. After the initial creative explosion and testing it was somehow always the sound of the cymbal in the bath that we kept coming back to. Sometimes stuff just sticks. For a while we had planned to build a submersible drum kit but whilst this was a fun idea we concluded it wasn’t long-trousered enough for such a commission.
We chatted, drank coffee, drew stuff, paced about, and in the end we came up with this initial technical drawing for the instrument we wanted to build:
We planned to fill the glass body with water so movement would alter the harmonics in the way the cymbal sound was affected when dunked. We suspected this might not actually work but it was time to prototype. We also wanted a glass body so the audience could see what was happening as it was played. Again this concerned us but we proceeded with the initial prototypes.
The first versions were very rough-and-ready; an IKEA bowl, a broom handle and some jubilee clips. BUT we got sound out of it and by tipping it we got the desired effect on the upper harmonics. So, we built a second prototype, this time a more robust design so we could crank the strings up a bit. Again, success. At this point we went to see an expert…
I am lucky in that there seem to be many talented craftsmen (and women) in my village. Mark across the road is a wood worker and he checked out (and simplified) our designs before setting about making us a neck from wood and a headstock and pickup mount from MDF. He’s the kind of craftsman you want to work with; he’s proactive and full of ideas. Elements of the final instrument design owe a lot to his input at this early stage. We found a nice hand blown (thick-walled) fish bowl and put the third prototype together. The tail piece we were using flexed a bit but we were able to get this up to a sensible tension for playing, with all plain strings. I played it for a while across my lap and tried to work out how best to use it. Everything sounded pretty good, except we discovered that the upper harmonics were only really affected when the water came towards the rim of the bowl, which now required much more tipping than before. We left it in the shed overnight and went back to stroking our chins.
In some ways it was a relief to enter the shed the following morning to find that our prototype had self-destructed. David had winced when I had put it on my lap to play for this very reason; the neck had punched a hole through the bottom of the glass body. Oops!
We turn our attention to metal bowls. First up, more from IKEA. We find an oval bowl with resonates pretty well under pressure and build another prototype. Oval is not ideal but it will do for now.
So, back to the watery-ness. Um, oh dear, the sound just wasn’t watery enough. It becomes quite easy when you are developing an instrument to get lost in the detail of what you are doing and lose sight of the big picture for a while. I am afraid we did just that. We filled the bowl with water and with the new set up we found it very hard to get the overtones to alter radically when tipped. For a while we considered going back to the drawing board for Jonas’ instrument and building this instrument separately as a non-water instrument. Then, I wondered what would happen if we added another bowl on the outside as the water body. I went to my shed late one night to try this out and I remember my joy when I found it worked. The second unconstrained body resonated really well and “dunking” the instrument in it had all the desired effects. Essentially we were back to the cymbal in the bath again.
We did try one more option, using a singing bowl, as we hoped this might resonate enough to work with the water inside but even the slightest pressure on the rim of this and it stopped singing, dead.
We continued with the build and now it was time to move away from MDF. We find another neighbour of mine is a metal worker so we prepare a load of technical drawings for the parts we require. We also move to a more robust (and round) bowl, testing a couple of options along the way. We end up with two fully built prototypes of the instrument, one with aluminium parts and one MDF model.
Then a call from Sweden, the deadline has been extended as the dancer is no longer available at the planned date. This is good news as it will allow us more time to focus on some of the finer details. It also allows us time to build a sound-art piece with the two instruments we have 😉
We exhibited a piece at BEAM Festival featuring the two instruments, driven by four feedback transducers. As people moved around the room it switched different pickups off. When the room was full, silence. As soon as people started to leave, it would spark up again. This was in a darkened room and made for a very atmospheric piece. We released a recording of the types of sound created:
Oh, and here is a terrifying (and uncompressed) mobile phone video of the installation (we sat in this room for many hours)
After this slight distraction it was back to sorting the instrument for Sweden. BEAM served to drive the development of the instruments and the use of transducers, which would feature in the final performance. It was also time to demonstrate what we could do to Jonas, so he could compose stuff with the instrument in mind. We suspend the Aluminium Model on a bungee and make the following recordings:
We were very happy with the results, as was Jonas.
The remaining issue at this point was tuning. Our hunch was that the “floating tailpiece” (a metal ring with string holes drilled through it) and the flexing of the bowl were contributing to the instability. We set about redesigning the tailpiece into a simple bow tie shape, attached with a long screw through the bowl into the neck.
What is remarkable is how often you have to ask the question “how did we get to this point?”. We hadn’t considered screwing into the neck before now as the original bowl was glass and we weren’t confident we could drill it.
BINGO! It would stay in tune. We then reinforced the bowl rim with a specially manufactured aluminium ring. This didn’t improve the tuning stability further; a bonus as it showed just how robust the bowl we were using was…
This whole phase of moving to aluminium and fixing the tuning took ages as we were careful not to change too many variables at once. The other thing that always alters at this stage in a build is the cost and speed of updates. Having new aluminium parts made is much more time-consuming and costly than hacking MDF parts.
We are down to the finer details now. How does Jonas want it tuned? How will we suspend it? How will we get it to Sweden unscathed? How do you play the thing? Etc.
We use a mixture of science and prototyping to solve all of these issues resulting in this a couple of weeks before flying to Sweden:
We amuse ourselves by getting the Swedes to buy various parts (such as the stand and glass body) in IKEA to save us having to ship them – and to ensure we have easy access to spare parts.
I fly to Sweden, we rehearse for five days and then give our best performance on the night of the concert. You can’t ask for more than that!
IT IS ALL OVER! We are happy, Jonas is happy, the audience is happy – everyone is happy. We are told many times that we have over-delivered, which is precisely what we aim to do. Oh and as a bonus I am made a Guest Composer at EMS in Stockholm when I discuss our project with the chap that runs the place. An accolade.
More projects like this please!