Outsider Musician?

Gourd Ocarina

Gourd Ocarina with wood-burned decoration.Same size and shape as a chicken egg.

I have always wanted to be a musician, but try as I have my whole life, the best I was ever able to do was to become a passable sight-reader of music written for woodwinds. I cannot improvise, but I love to play with sound. I love to discover new sounds. I think of myself as an outsider musician.

I am not pretending to be a musician. I refer to the results of my work with audio as sound collages not music. I am just someone who loves to play with sound. And, I love to listen to the stuff I create. Occasionally other people seem to like some of it too. This page is intended to provide an overview of what I do and have done when playing around with sound.

What is an Outsider Musician?

Two-Toned Elderberry Whistle

Two-Toned Elderberry Whistle with Single Slide

Even though I have studied music theory it never really sunk in. It never became intuitive. I definitely do not have the musician’s ear.

I am even unable to accurately recall simple musical or rhythmic structures when playing an instrument of any kind. This has pretty much made my improvising with others an impossibility. I have some rather sad but funny memories from my days as a U.S. Army Bandsman in Berlin playing banjo in a dixieland combo and stand-up bass in various jazz groups and even in a country and western band.

As a trained visual artist and visual arts teacher, with some natural art ability, who has collected, admired, enjoyed, and written about Outsider Art, I find it amusing to realize that I match my own description of the outsider, not in art, however, but in relation to music. (See my article titled What is Outsider Art?)

In that article I define outsider art as “the creative work of artists who are self-taught and/or those who, for a variety of reasons, are … fortunately impervious to being taught how to make art.” When I see outsider art I am delighted by the artist’s disregard for standard art-making. I love the fresh, spontaneous expression and the obvious passion for self-expression. I consider an artist who is unable to learn the standard approaches and systems for art-making to be free when compared to the artist who spent many years receiving art instruction.

If I substitute the words music and musicians for the words art and artists in my definition of an outsider artist above, I accurately describe myself. For whatever reason, I am impervious to being taught how to make music. Not how to write structured compositions for musical instruments… I am referring to the ability to improvise, to possess and use the musician’s ear.

From the outsider’s perspective, I, however, definitely do not feel fortunate. Quite the contrary, my lack of a musician’s ear and inability to improvise and my inability to learn how has been a personal disappointment my whole life. Well… so much for my outsider theory!

Playing with Sound

My complete lack of innate musical talent has never extinguished my passion for playing with sound and repetition. I have played with sound for decades and now with all the great digital audio tools and software available, I am able to easily do things with sound that I used to just dream of. Still not music, but it sure is fun.

Om Generator on display at Unicorn Gallery, San Francisco, CA, 1968.

The Om Generator displayed at the Unicorn Gallery, San Francisco, 1968

Throughout my career as a visual artist I have often used sound and repetition as major components in my sculptures, assemblages, and installations. When I am constructing a sound collage I use many of the same thought and design processes I have used when creating a sculpture. I enjoy this cross-medium sharing a lot.

Sound Collages

Bug Mouths
This is one of my earliest sound collages. Most of the sounds in it are from my own random vocalizations. While putting the various bits of sound together and listening to them over and over, I found myself imagining insect faces. Hence the name of this sound collage.

More sound collages are available in the Tink N. Putter section of The Nada Farm Museum of Archetypes. I will be posting more here as well.

Sound Experiments, Homemade Instruments, & Toys

Meditation Flute - actually just a large whistle

Meditation Flute – actually just a large whistle

You can find in-depth information about some of my sound experiments, instruments, and toys by checking my posts.

The Hummer
The Om Generator
The First Bolinas Instrument
The Second Bolinas Instrument
The (Bolinas) Balafon
The Covelo Rd. Gongs
Power Man
The Bolinas Sound Toy

(Note: unlinked items in the above list will be the subjects of future posts.)

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