Another post from the NFMOA Archives: The First Bolinas Instrument . It came into being out of a real fascination with the ephemeral sound of overtones and a strong desire to explore and listen to them.
I started looking around for materials that I could use to do pursue this interest. Among my assorted treasures I had the well-crafted wooden shell of a 1940-vintage radio console. The front gracefully curved around to the sides. When new, it had stood about 40″ tall and 30″ wide. I took it apart and used one half of the front of the console as the base, frame, and foundation for my new instrument.
After installing a couple of my homemade tuning pegs and attaching a steel guitar string, I tightened the string and after only one pluck I could tell I had struck overtone paydirt. The wooden shell served as an excellent sounding board. The resonance was spectacular. The curved shape of the instrument bounced all the sound out and up directly to the ears of the player. It was easy to hear and focus on the overtones produced by plucking or striking any of the steel strings.
I proceeded to install numerous strings running in different angles across the length of the old console. I installed several drone strings whose job was to vibrate sympathetically with the played strings. I next added a few twangers (broken bits of steel street sweeper brushes), old and decorated palette knives, then gathered a selection of wood and metal mallets and rods and suddenly found myself in drone heaven.
I could easily explore overtones by repeatedly striking a string or a group of closely arranged parallel strings. By changing the location on the strings where I struck them different complexes of harmonics would sound. I also experimented with different tunings. It was possible to have an ongoing drone and play a kind of subtle melody just with the overtones.
I spent many hours playing this instrument and even performed with it during a show of my 2D and 3D artwork at the Unicorn Gallery in San Francisco in 1968.
As with the Bolinas Balafon, there is no recording currently available. I am hopeful that there is an old cassette recording stored away somewhere. If it ever surfaces, I will add it to this post. Until then you have to use your imagination to hear what either of these instruments sounded like.
Both the Bolinas Balafon and The First Bolinas Instrument are shown and discussed in Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History by long-time San Francisco art critic, the late Thomas Albright and published by the University of California Press in 1983.
I gradually became frustrated by my limitations with the First Bolinas Instrument and wanted to make a sound generating object with more options.
I have found over the decades of making sound sculptures that once an object has been constructed I tend to learn a limited number of rhythmic and melodic patterns or riffs by playing and exploring the possibilities suggested by the instrument. Those riffs and patterns, I hesitate to call them compositions, are usually the extent of what I can do with that instrument. To be able to play and hear new sounds and patterns, I always had to make a new instrument. This limitation clearly demonstrates how I am not a natural musician. A real musician does not need a new guitar every time s/he wants to play a different song. I totally lack the facility to work with chords, to hear melodies, to feel rhythmic patterns if the instrument does not easily reveal them to me.
Hence the sound sculpture: The Second Bolinas Instrument, which will be posted next in this series of sound experiments from the archives.
For those of you following the progress of my digital decalcomania drawings: the colored project is almost 50% complete. I will post some new enlarged details soon. It is great fun, but the addition of color to the process creates almost infinite possibilities so I have to spend lots more time deciding what not to do!