The Bolinas Balafon

Bob Comings playing pianissimo on the Bolinas Balafon, 1970

Bob Comings playing pianissimo on the Bolinas Balafon, 1970. In the background is the painting "The Dream of the Invasion of Tommy Rot," acrylic on a 7' x 7' diamond-shaped canvas,1967.

For a change of pace and in keeping with my recent promise, I am today stepping away from the digital decalcomania projects to present some content from the sound experiment and toy-making archives.

The Bolinas Balafon lacked any sounding chambers, but its easily moved “notes” and soft, resonant tones made up for the crude construction. It came into being as a result of my many beachcombing hikes along Duxbury Reef in Bolinas, California, during the years 1967-1970. I walked several miles of that beach many times every week looking for materials to use in my assemblages. In addition to beat-up leather shoes, mountains of plastic scraps, pieces of dolls and toys, parts of wooden shipping crates, and all kinds of weathered and salt-coated junk I found a lot of pieces of ocean-worn redwood lumber of varying dimensions.

I discovered that these salt-soaked chunks of usually very straight-grained redwood generated beautiful soft tones when struck with a knuckle or soft mallet. Each piece had its own unique pitch. I would test each piece as soon as I found it on the beach by supporting it on the fingers and thumb of my right hand then tapping it lightly with the knuckle of the index finger on my left hand. If the piece of wood held any promise I would carry it back to my house. If it had a disappointing buzz due to cracks, I dropped it on the spot. Were I to gather wooden “notes” today (40+ years later), a note with a buzz might just be a keeper.

At home, away from the sound of the surf and wind, I tested each note again. This time with found wooden mallets. I kept editing my set of musical wood scraps always seeking the most clear, resonant sounding pieces.

The Bolinas Balafon, 30" x 30", found redwood "notes" on partial wood pallet.

The Bolinas Balafon, 30" x 30" approx., found redwood "notes" on leather pads that were nailed to the remnant of a found wooden pallet, displayed here with two found wooden mallets.

To facilitate playing these pieces of wood, I added two slightly elevated leather-covered pads of cloth to the top of what remained of a heavily scarred wooden pallet about 30″ square. It was itself held together and supported on three two-by-fours. The whole rig was played while sitting on the floor. The individual pieces of wood (the notes) rested on the leather pads, which made it possible to play the collection of pieces like a marimba or balafon. The individual note pieces were never permanently attached to the pallet so I could easily slide them and re-arrange them quickly or replace one with another from the many extra “notes” I kept spread out around me on the floor.

I played rhythmic repetitive patterns with little concern for melody. I performed with this instrument in my 1970 solo show at the Unicorn Gallery in San Francisco. Other than a few fragments of Bolinas Balafon sounds buried in the noisy mix of the soundtrack for the 1968 film boc ging, there are no recordings of the wonderful sounds it could make.

When I left Bolinas to move back into San Francisco in late 1970, I returned the Bolinas Balafon to the elements.

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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.
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