Interesting instruments

Interesting instruments

Champaign-Urbana boasts an eclectic music scene, so you're sure to see strange instruments. And some of them are created by the musicians — for example, Michael Meadows of Urbana has built over the years a number of string and percussive instruments, most with sculptural elements.

Here we take a look at his latest, "Birdwirks," and several other weird instruments you can find here in C-U, from the Civil War-era bell-over-the-should horn to the Zendrum — the electronic drums worn like a guitar and played with hands and fingers.

Bell-over-the-shoulder horn

The bell-over-the-shoulder horn was common during the Civil War but is rare now. The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois has one, made by an unidentified manufacturer circa 1860.

The horn was designed specifically for 19th century military bands and was never used by concert bands. The musician who played it marched in front the soldiers, hence the horn faced the troops.

"These instruments replaced the circular horns of their day whose bells pointed upward," according to the Sousa Archives. "Unfortunately the use of these horns in American military bands diminished near the end of the Civil War and soon vanished altogether, apart from a few private collections."

Barry Houser, director of the Marching Illini, picked up the E-flat horn last week to play it. He compared it to a cornet.

"With them being older, they are difficult to play, especially when you look at the pitch center," he said of the bell-over-the-shoulder horn. "It shows the advances in instrument making. The rotary valves are similar to how French horns are constructed now."

The bell-over-the-shoulder horn leaves the Sousa Archives occasionally to be played as a period instrument, more recently in 2015 in Springfield, during the 150th anniversary commemoration of Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession.

Sal-Mar Construction

UI composition Professor Salvatore Martirano invented the Sal-Mar Construction in the late 1960s. He said operating it was like driving a flying bus.

At the time he built it, artificial intelligence was a big topic, and people wondered whether computers could think — or create music.

"Unlike most instruments, the Sal-Mar Construction literally interacts with the performer through a complex system that uses both digital and analog technology," according to the Sousa Archives, which received the huge instrument in 2008 as a donation from Mr. Martirano's family.

To create sounds, the performer turns off or on 291 touch-sensitive switches that resemble binary light switches. The music is generated by a group of four synthesized "orchestras" built into the machine.

"As a result of the interaction between person and machine, the Sal-Mar Construction enables the simultaneous composition and performance of a piece of music through live improvisation," the Archives label reads.

Scott Schwartz, director of the Sousa Archives, said the Sal-Mar potentially can create an infinite number of sounds. When Mr. Martirano first played it, he had the sounds come through 24 speakers.

"Sal wouldn't put in chairs because he wanted people to walk around the aural landscape," Schwartz said.

Though heavy and bulky, the 500-pound Sal-Mar was taken to Paris twice and to California once for performances. Altogether it was played in public 75 times.

Occasionally, it is played on campus. Now it's an object of study — composers from Chicago and California have spent weeks at the Sousa Archives working with the Sal-Mar Construction.

Harmonic Tone Generator

The UI is known as the home of experimental music, with the Experimental Music Studio founded there in 1958 by LeJaren Hiller Jr.

Due to the studio's interdisciplinary nature, it attracted the attention of electrical engineer James Beauchamp, who became one of the most important contributors to the development of electronic music at the university.

He came here in 1962 as a Ph.D. student, with a fellowship under a three-year grant from the Magnavox Corporation. In 1964, under the direction of Hiller, Beauchamp built the Harmonic Tone Generator.

"Unlike the first commercialized synthesizer, developed by Robert Moog in 1964, which used a subtractive synthesis method to create timbral effects, Beauchamp's Harmonic Tone Generator used additive synthesis to combine six exact harmonics with variable fundamental frequencies ranging from 20 to 2000 Hz," according to the Sousa Archives.

"This enabled the Harmonic Tone Generator to imitate tonal characteristics of various instrumental sounds by layering 'overtones' to produce distinct timbres. By adjusting the frequency of an added sine wave or square wave to the original carrier sine wave, the Harmonic Tone Generator could produce vibrato, trills and other sound effects that could be applied to any given tone. In addition, the amplitudes of the harmonics could be modulated through the use of either prerecorded sounds or live performance via a microphone."

Beauchamp's synthesizer was never mass-produced; it was used mainly for music experimentation and research.


As a musician and impresario, Jason Finkelman of Urbana is known for exploring sounds and rhythms on original, handmade instruments, among them the berimbau and can kalimbas handmade by Adimu Kuumba of Philadelphia.

Finkelman also plays a skatchbox made by Tom Nunn, a Bay Area improviser who performede at the 2016 UI's Sonified Sustainability Festival in April. (Please see sidebar for information on the 2017 festival.)

A Skatchbox is a cardboard box made with household objects such as washers, combs, toothpicks, bronze rods and dowels, taped or glued to the exterior. The performer uses modified combs to play it.

The Skatchbox sounds percussive and scratchy; to hear Nunn play one go to All of Nunn's instruments have sculptural elements and are amplified using contact microphones.


Michael Meadows created his "Birdwirks" using bamboo, brass and copper tubing, plastic jars and lumber. Water, via a water pump operated electrically, is the driving force, moving water up through the pipes and other parts.

"It siphons into progressively larger containers so the duration of the sound becomes longer the farther down the water goes," he said.

"This is an idea from the ancient Greeks that's more than 2,000 years old. Water fills a container and when it siphons out it creates air pressure and it sounds a pipe, like a small pipe organ."

Meadows considers "Birdwirks" more of a sound sculpture than musical instrument, but all of the instruments he's created have sculptural elements, with later ones becoming more motion-activated.

He built "Birdwirks" to create general impressions of bird calls rather than to imitate them, though the instrument sometimes sounds like a loon.

He will display "Birdwirks" at the Boneyard Arts Festival on April 6-9 in the old "Boys Club" building on Walnut Street, behind Skins 'n Tins Drum Shop, 29 E. Main St., C.


You've likely heard the Theremin though you might not have seen one. Barry Morse, who plays it, calls it the most known of unknown musical instruments.

The early electronic instrument appears on several movie soundtracks, among them "Ed Wood" and "The Machinist." It first gained pop-culture fame for its eerie sound in the 1951 flick "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Contrary to popular belief, the Theremin was not used on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Instead, they instead used a Tannerin, which is easier to play, by a slide in front of marked notes.

The Theremin is controlled, or played, without physical contact, and no notes are marked anywhere. The player moves his hands in the air next to an antenna to create sounds and manages the volume by moving a hand over the antenna volume control.

It's difficult to play; Morse is considered the leading Theremin player in this area; he once took lessons at a festival from Theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina.

The Russian inventor, Lon Theremin, invented the Theremin and had it patented in 1928.

Morse, who recently obtained a doctoral of music arts degree in composition at the UI, obtained his Theremin Etherwave in 1996 as a kit from Big Briar, a company owned by Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer.

Morse has performed on the Theremin for the past several years in this area and has formed different Theremin groups.

Morse, Finkelman and Allen Wu, who plays the electronic LinnStrument invented by Roger Linn, will perform at 9:30 p.m. April 14 and 15 at Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College. At one point they will perform as a Theremin trio.

"David Leake (planetarium director) will do overhead visuals on the dome so that will be a crazy and interesting show," Morse said.

More recently, Morse founded the Etherphonic Theremin Orchestra, a group of eight Theremin players. They will perform at 2 p.m. May 6 at the Orpheum Theatre as a fundraiser for the theater. Morse will talk first about the Theremin; the music likely will start around 2:30 or 2:45 p.m. He will conduct the group improvisations by using hand signals.

He plans to set up the Theremins at the Orpheum so they surround the audience.

"People who like the Theremin and a lot of Theremins — that's your chance to hear a lot of them," he said.

Walking stick flute

The Sousa Archives has zillions of odd instruments, Schwartz said. One is a 19th century flute that doubles as a walking stick.

Made of maple, the flute has open holes. It has no keys and is played like a recorder. Schwartz said the long flute creates a warm sound.

He is unaware of anyone making such an instrument now and does not know how the flute/walking stick entered the Sousa Archives.


The Zendrum Corporation in Douglasville, Ga., created the Zendrum — the electronic drums you hold like a guitar and play with your hands and fingers.

Locally, Mike Hage of the bands Pet Roxx and Recka-Sto plays one.

"When I play the Zendrum, I'm working with the exact same instrument every time," he said late last year. "For me, this is a major advantage. An acoustic drum set is always subtly different each time it's built."

Hage first saw a Zendrum when he heard a fusion band in Los Angeles.

"Like most live music, I heard the drummer before I saw him," he said. "When I reached the stage, I expected to see an amazing player with a cool kit. But there was nothing of the sort. Just some guy standing there with this alien instrument on a strap.

"I was awestruck by what he was able to do with it. We talked after the gig. I had two questions: 'Where do you get one and how did you learn to play it?' As any musician knows, buying an instrument is easy. Learning to play it, not so much. I'd like to say I was a natural, but that wasn't the case. It's taken about a year of commitment. And I'm still working out the kinks."

The Zendrum Corp gives this history of the instrument:

Drummer David Haney, with help from his friend Kim Daniel, also a drummer, made the Zendrum after going to a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones concert in 1991, though Haney had been working earlier on a similar instrument.

Haney was amazed at the creativity and virtuosity of the Flecktones' Roy Wooten playing his electronic drum device, the Drumitar.

"David was still transporting and maintaining a large electronic drum set and singing from behind it, so the new concept made too much sense not to pursue," reads the Zendrum Corp. website. "Inspired to use his knowledge of MIDI and electronics, David made the first working prototype of the Zendrum. When he showed it to Kim, who is a master craftsman and woodcarver, the two friends began to work together and during the next two years shaped and refined the prototype into a real instrument, the Zendrum."

Like strange instruments? Krannert Art Museum has a festival for you

If you want to hear strange music, check out the Sonified Sustainability Festival in April on the University of Illinois campus.

Cooper-Moore, an instrument-builder/designer based in New York, will deliver a solo performance on handcrafted instruments built from found and repurposed materials at 7:30 p.m. April 20 at Krannert Art Museum. It is free.

Other festival events:

— Earth Day Celebration, 2 to 5 p.m. April 22, featuring Terry Dame, Bradford Reed and Geoff Gersh, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

— Reel Orchestrette — "The Epic of Everest", 7 p.m. April 23, Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., U. Geoff Gersh and Bradford Reed, who founded Reel Orchestrette, create original scores for films. At this event they will perform their music to "The Epic of Everest."

— Soundwalk with Eric Leonardson, 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. April 27, Meadowbrook Park, Urbana, and 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. April 28, Busey Woods, Urbana. Leonardson will introduce deeper listening practices as hikers take in the sounds in the parks. Each Soundwalk is limited to 25 participants. Information about registration will be provided closer to the dates of the events.

The festival is supported by the Student Sustainability Committee.

Also, the ensemble SUNSAT IV will perform at 7:30 p.m. April 9 at the Art Theater Co-op as part of the screening of "Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present." SUNSAT IV is made up of Brad Decker, electronics, bass, guitar; Rick Deja, saxophone, flute, percussion; and Jason Finkelman, laptop electronics, percussion.

The nonfiction film directed by Tyler Hubby is about Conrad, a groundbreaking avant-garde multimedia artist whose career in experimental film and video, music and sound art — and even public television — spans more than 50 years.

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Granzo wrote on March 19, 2017 at 12:03 pm

There's a typo in the leading picture caption: Sal's last name is spelled "Martirano".