The Bolinas Sound Toy

Bolinas Sound Toy - top view - without mics


Similar to the African Kalimba, the Bolinas Sound Toy (BST), shown here without mics attached, produces a wonderful polyrhythmic array of twanging, clicking, and ticking sounds by simply pressing down then quickly releasing one or more of its twangers at a time. The shorter ones make sounds that are closer together in time and die out more quickly. The longer ones play much more slowly and include lower pitches in their complex percussive sounds. In addition, the BST has two wind-up musicbox motors for some melodic spice. Dimensions (measuring the longest twangers): 39″wide x 18″deep x 10″high.

The twangers are varying lengths of spring steel collected over many decades in city streets. Found where they fell when they broke off of large, spinning, mechanical street sweeper brushes. The wider twangers are from old shoe stays found in garage sales and thrift stores. Most twangers have a wood weight on their exposed end. This makes playing the instrument easier on the fingers and alters the rate of the twanging. A rough tuning is possible by varying the length of the twangers when clamping them in place.

The BST itself is a playful exploration of one aspect of the much more complex original Bolinas Instrument made in 1968 and featured in the 16mm film Boc Ging from the same year.


To record the sounds of the BST, I attach two contact mics to the surface of the wooden chest that serves as the body and sounding chamber of the instrument. These are connected via 1/4″ mono plugs to a stereo mini disk recorder. Placing the BST on a resonating surface such as a wooden table can add a lot to the sound.

WAV Files

I use SoundForge to slice the resulting BST .wav files into short samples featuring one or more twangers. Next I create drum racks in Ableton Live, which I load up with those samples of the twangers, then I might add some effects and play around a bit at sequencing the sounds.

The following audio file is the result of just such an exploration with Ableton Live and the BST:

3 Minutes of the BST for the Blog, (03:12, 5.8MB)

Sound-Collages & Time

Not being a musician, I refer to the end products of my experiments as sound-collages and approach the whole process as sculpture rather than composing. I treat sounds like found objects then I proceed to build assemblages with them. Only these assemblages are for listening to as opposed to being observed in space.

Both forms (sound-collages and sculptural assemblages) involve time when they are being experienced by viewers or audiences. Sound-collages are usually of a finite length of time and can only be experienced in time. Sculptural assemblages require the viewer to spend time as s/he observes the work and especially if s/he has to walk around it in order to see the entire piece. The time it takes to see all of a sculptural work is part of that work even if the viewer chooses not to walk around it or is unable to because it is in a corner of a room or hanging on a wall or is in a photograph. The viewer unconsciously senses that element of time.

When my attention is directed to focus on time, I feel more alive.

About bobcomings

Visual artist working in wide variety of media and forms including painting, drawing , sculpture, digital drawing and painting, digital animation, and sound exploration for almost 60 years.
This entry was posted in Sound and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s