This post marks the commencement and completion of the Sound Swing by Claire Phillips; a simple and open-ended approach makes this a beautiful instrument. Also below is a great insight into the unpredictable nature of CMT from John Oltmann; the main cause of frustration and confusion around the disease by both people that have it, and those that don't. Thanks to you both. (Tim)
The Sound Swing
post by Claire Phillips
I’ve always loved the sound of wooden percussion instruments, and this love amplified when I first heard the wood blocks in Iannis Xenakis’ solo percussion piece, Rebonds. The woodblocks come in unabashedly, instantly creating an excitement in the air. Woodblocks are played very deliberately to get this confident sound, but I wanted to make an instrument that incorporated an element of the unknown in its very being.
The Sound Swing uses swinging boxes that house a golf ball each. The ball hitting the edge of the box at the end of the swinging motion creates the sound. Using a pendulum swing as the perpetrator of the attack of each note means that the next note will occur at a slightly shorter interval, decaying over time until it is still and silent. When allowed to swing, the control over the pattern of the piece is taken away from the performer and into the hands of laws of physics. When multiple swings are in motion at once a wonderful polyrhythm occurs that would be almost impossible to replicate with any traditional instrument, including the treasured woodblocks, due to the difficulty of a human being perceiving such rhythms well enough to play them accurately.
The process for making the actual sounds took much experimenting. I wanted to limit the number of variables for each sound, so I decided on using the same item in each box, in this case, the golf ball. I tried many other types of ball; bead, ping pong, marble, etc, but none made as deep and clear of a sound as the golf ball.
I prepared the bottom of each wooden box by lining it with craft foam. This dampens the sound created by the ball rolling from one end of the box to the other. I only wanted to hear the “tock” of the ball hitting the wall of the container, not the sound of it getting there. I experimented with different lining materials including feathers and felt, but the craft foam worked the best. I also considered lining only the sides and not the bottom of some boxes to isolate the roll sound as another layer to the instrument, but in the end decided to have a tighter constraint system in order to have a unified sounding instrument.
I did allow some variance by having three sets of two boxes hanging in the swing set. Each set of two hangs at a different length so there is a long, medium and short set. This allows for a more interesting rhythmic possibility as the time it takes for the ball to hit the edge of the box at the end of the long strings is much slower than that of the short. This is the same concept as the older metronomes that swing back and forth, and as you adjust the weight higher or lower the beat is measured faster or slower. I’d like to see someone keep time with the Sound Swing!
The other designed variation in sound types in the Sound Swing is that in each pair of boxes, one rectangle is facing length-ways, while the other is sideways. The ball hitting the edge of the box sounds quite different depending on the length of wood that it hits, so the lengthways sounds different to the sideways. There is also some natural fluctuation in sound depending on each individual piece of wood. This is not deliberate, however I really enjoy the result.
The actual frame construction and method of hanging the boxes also took some trial and error, as well as some help from the wonderful Tim. For example, we realized that unless we hung the boxes with the strings wide apart, the box would swing in a fluid arc that did not encourage the ball to whack the side of the box. The box needs to stay more parallel to the ground in order for a strong “hit”.
It is up to the composer or performer to come up with interesting ways to play the Sound Swing. With the limited amount of time I have spent with it (we had to deconstruct for now since it takes up the whole living room), I noticed that pulling rather than pushing is easier. Also, playing different combinations of boxes together can make an endless amount of variation: it’s fun to play just one box, or in pairs, or by box alignment, all at once, etc. There are endless possibilities, and each time it is played it will sound different! A particularly enjoyable moment occurs towards the very end of the performance when the silence is pregnant between beats, and nobody knows when the final note will be.
CHARCOT MARIE TOOTH
The Good News and the Bad News
post by John Oltmann
“The good news is it’s not going to kill you. The bad news is it’s not going to kill you.”
That’s how an e-quaintance says his neurologist gave him his diagnosis of Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a peripheral nerve disease.
My own diagnosis, which I received from two different neurologists, one more literally than the other, basically said, “Yup, you’ve got it, have a nice life.” Experience indicates that neurologists are interested in you up until they determine there is nothing they can do to help, and then it’s time for them to move on.
The first time Charcot was mentioned to me, at age 50, it was regarding my left foot, which one morning was suddenly too painful to walk on. I was told I had a Charcot foot, but nobody spelled it out for me. A web search for “sharko foot” found a site that included a pronunciation, and I learned it was spelled Charcot. I also discovered that there was even a disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth.
The next mention was from the orthopedic surgeon working on my Charcot foot, who, based on the classic deformed shape of my other foot, made a visual diagnosis of Charcot-Marie-Tooth. Another web search took me to Charcot-Marie-Tooth.org, where a list of symptoms read like a check list for me of all the things that have ever been ‘funny’ about my physical condition.
It’s now been almost five years since that first mention of Charcot anything. At first, I thought the rate of progression was slight, and I would live the rest of my life without too much impact. Instead it has been like a switch was flipped, with the volume turned waaaaaaay up on the symptoms. At times, it seems like six months ago, and scarily, sometimes even two weeks ago, were the good old days.
So I cope, I whine, and I do what I am able to do while I still am able to do it, and try to do everything I can do to have that ‘nice life’.