The Austin New Music Co-Op and composer Travis Weller collaborated once again to present a unique performance of “Symmetrographia” September 28th as part of the Blanton Museum’s Soundspace program, featuring ten musicians playing violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and custom built instruments Weller has constructed himself in recent years. We recently caught up with Travis to talk about what goes into process of creating instruments such as “The Owl”, and the thought process that accompanies the concept of composer-as-instrument-builder.
Q: Symmetrographia is a piece of music was written almost entirely for instruments that you constructed yourself ‘by hand’. That must really add a unique element to the creative process and how you look at composition. Can you talk about what first got you interested in fashioning your own instruments
I built my first complex instrument, the Owl, in 2006. I had been working with the composer Arnold Dreyblatt, who strings his contrabass with piano wire. I loved the sound of those steel wires and wanted to explore them further. I had found an old monochord and that jumpstarted the design. Of course, the wooden monochord wasn’t strong enough for piano wire, so a steel frame had to be constructed.
Q: Had you previously studied instrument design in any way?
I haven’t formally studied instrument design specifically, but I have a lot of experience with visual design, and there is a fair amount that translates into instrument design in practice. I have also been very lucky to work with a lot of craftspeople who have taken the time to teach me skills and techniques as needed. I’m constantly amazed at how helpful people can be when you come to them with a project idea. I’ve also learned a lot by studying the technology behind existing instruments, most notably the piano.
Q: Can you talk about a few of the specifics that go into making some of these instruments?
The easiest instruments that I build are the steel bells. One of those can be built from start to finish in a few hours. I start with a structural square steel tubing “drop.” These are pieces that are cut off in the process of getting a beam to the correct size. They are short enough that they are essentially scrap, an industrial by-product. I have a chart that shows me, for a given target pitch, what size the resonant tongue needs to be. I measure the dimensions of the tongue out on a piece of steel of appropriate size. Not too big, not too small. I use the drill press to drill holes at the base of where the tongue will be. Then I cut the tongue with the angle grinder. After it cools off, I can test the pitch and tune it by removing material. I try to start a little low since it is easier to tune up than down. It was very time consuming to create the chart that I used for the steel bells. I essentially used trial and error. I tried to approach it methodically and look for patterns. Now that I’ve made probably 50 of the things I have a pretty good handle on it.
Q: Are all of the tools you need readily available to you?
I have a pretty good set of tools, but some things are too large for my small workshop. For example, the spruce soundboard for the owl was cut on a 12-foot tall band saw at a local guitar shop. A lot of the work I do on these instruments can be done using hand tools, which I love working with. They are both easy to store and satisfying to use.
Q: Have you ever encountered difficulty in maintaining the instruments because of the materials you use?
Not so far. Most of the instruments I build use steel, brass, and wood. These materials are pretty easy to maintain. My designs tend to be pretty substantial too. I encounter more difficulty carrying them than I do maintaining them!
Q: Are there any particular tuning systems that you use in your music?
I work mainly with western equal temperament, but I’ve also worked extensively with just intonation and other non-standard tunings. Lately, I’ve had a mild obsession with perfectly tuned major sixths (5:3). I’ve been stacking them up in various ways.
Q: Any ideas for new instruments on the horizon?
I have some electro-acoustic designs in mind to modify the skiff instruments. I’m still in the early stages of the project, but I hope to start gathering materials in the next few months.
Q: Any upcoming performances you’d like to mention?
New Music Co-op’s next big performance will be in late March of 2015. We’re really excited to be working with Ensemble Pamplemousse from NYC!
More about the Austin New Music Co-Op
“The New Music Co-op is a community of composers and performers dedicated to promoting awareness and understanding of new music. Since 2001, the NMC has presented over 30 concerts featuring over 150 new works, many of them premieres. Notable New Music Co-op concerts have included a commission of a program length work by Berlin-based composer Arnold Dreyblatt, a realization of John Cage’s Songbooks, music for the extinct instruments of Luigi Russolo, Pauline Oliveros’ Four Meditations for Orchestra (with the composer in attendance), a three-day series of the works of the New York School, and Terry Riley’s In C. New Music Co-op members come from highly diverse backgrounds, from classical performance to electronic music to formal composition to rock bands. The group runs by consensus and gains its strength from its members’ varied experiences and interests.”