Masley's Instruments


The following article appeared in the September 1993 issue of Experimental Musical Instruments. EMI is a unique quarterly publication dedicated to "exploring the world of sound that lies beyond the familiar instruments of music". For subscription information / sample issue, etc., write:
Experimental Musical Instruments
P.O. Box 784
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Of Bowhammers and Palmharps, Conundrums and Kabalis: Mike Masley's Urboriginal Innovations

by L. Maxwell Taylor
Instrumentalist and composer Michael Masley first came to renown as an innovator on the cimbalom or cymbalom, a large hammer dulcimer associated with Gypsy orchestras which is the national instrument of Hungary. First in his native Michigan, later in his adopted Berkeley, Masley (rhymes with "paisley") has played an ethereal music on the streets, hypnotizing circles of spectators with bell-like or bowed counterpoint over a sustained, resonating tonic. His earlier recorded works feature vaguely Celtic modalities rendered with his unique "bowhammers" and the techniques he has developed for using them (see below); his latter-day recordings, belonging more to the "world music" genre, incorporate far-flung experiments in rhythm, timbre and pitch and feature some of the experimental instruments described below. While the major-label backing he seeks continues to elude him, his original approach to the cymbalom has garnered a coveted entry in the eighth edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1991).

  Where traditional cymbalom players have used two mallets, Masley uses eight, custom-crafting one for each finger, first modifying it to accommodate strands of horsehair for bowing. The resulting devices ("bowhammers"), supplemented by a thumbpick on each thumb, allow the player to strike, bow, or pluck the strings as the Muse occasions, and provide an exceptionally broad sonic palette for a solo instrument. The spectacle of "bowhammer" performance alone might be unusual enough to draw small crowds; in tandem with the music thus created, it's a livelihood, albeit one, quips Masley, "outside the lunatic mainstream."

 Masley's search for new tonal colors has not been confined to the cymbalom. Amplification and digital signal processing have opened up an embarrassment of new timbres, many too subtle for street or stage but well suited for the studio. In search of ways to extend the voices of extant instruments, Masley has fashioned several wholly new ones, with their own distinct timbral vocabularies and "faux" ethnicities, all the more ironic in their exhibition of "good ol' American ingenuity." Some are peculiar hybrids of urban and aboriginal, instruments imaginary tribal peoples might have concocted had bungee cords and turkey basters fallen from the sky. Others could only have been invented by an American hardware-store habituÇ with an affinity for elaborate puns and arcane discussions of "abstract carnivores," crop circles and chaos theory.

 One such "urb-original" instrument Masley has dubbed the Palmharp. It begins with an ordinary kitchen egg-slicer superimposed on a palm-sized shaker drum. Rubber bands of various tensions are strung parallel to the slicing strands, creating largely unpitched rubber strings. The slicing strands are reconceived as pitched metallic strings; pitch control is effected by bending the metal egg slicer, the whole operating idiophonically, like a musical saw. While the saw may reproduce exact melodies, the lowly palmharp does not aspire to Bach partitas. Its gift is neither melodic nor harmonic but textural. If the saw sings, the palmharp speaks: the shaker whispers and hisses, the head skin snaps, the metallic and rubber strings (strummed, struck and strained all at once) render other grunty, snappy, tweepy, yipey timbres. The palmharp is fundamentally something to be squeezed and struck and shook, an idiosyncratic idiophone.

 A more serviceable, plausible instrument Masley has innovated is the Kabali, "a sixteen-string modified dumbek." (Originally the Kabouli, Masley later changed the name because, as he abashedly admits, he discovered a noodle dish so named). An "off-the- shelf, stand-alone" dumbek (a Turkish bell-bottomed metal drum) is modified thus: a section of truncated PVC pipe, sitting atop a suction cup stuck to the head, is carefully fashioned into a bridge, across which are strung multiple bungee cords. A kitchenware spring circles the drum below the head, allowing the bungees to be tuned, which produces a timbre resembling multiple cellos strummed with earmuffs. These bungee strings can either be plucked, whereupon they snap back percussively onto the drum head, or strummed circularly, creating the complex periodicity of an irregular ostinato. Masley's 1990 recording Mystery Loves Company, itself a hybrid of mostly low-tech instruments and high- tech recording techniques, features the Kabali on several of its world-music excursions.

 The Conundrum, another dumbek-based rubberbandophone, utilizes a long rubber band wound around suction cups, these latter clinging to the drum's plastic head. The suction cups dampen the instrument's resonance, while string tension and suction-cup placement control pitch.

  Many associate the panpipes with the soporific diatonicism of Zamfir, but Masley's Water-Tuned Glass Panpipes introduce a random element into this ancient physical sequencer. Each pipe may be intentionally or arbitrarily tuned by adding water, creating a spectrum of modal, multiethnic and microtonal tunings. An ordinary turkey baster delivers water to each pipe, and makes a whimsically reckless disregard of "conventional" pitch relations not only feasible, but practical.

 Masley has endowed his hodgepodgeneous Sonic Mess Kit with multiple textures and materials for creating and modulating pitch and timbre. In this device, the lip of a film-reel-can lid has been scored to admit two slightly splayed courses of rubber-band strings, one course more or less perpendicular to the other. Parallel to the lower course, three small-gauge springs are strung which, on closer examination, prove to be a single spring trebly segmented. The performer can control the tensions of the rubber bands and the spring segments: the strings or springs are individually adjustable, and the entire instrument's pitch can be modulated by bending the film-can lid.

 Herein lies one dimension of this instrument's unique possibilities, an apparently random, yet strangely ordered, universe of pitch. Ordinarily, tuned strings in stringed instruments take us to stable tonal territory: a string, relative to another string, has its open pitch, a tonal landmark, a constant. Envision in your mind's eye and ear a guitarist simultaneously strumming open strings and straightening his instrument's wobbly neck, and you hear such intervallic stability even as global pitch varies. In contrast, the Sonic Mess Kit's open-string intervallic relations are not static (like the wobbly necked guitar) but rather dynamic, and demonstrate the SMK's own distinctive mollusc-like systemic integrity. 

To elaborate: On other, traditional instruments (such as dulcimers) multiple courses of strings would preserve static intervallic ratios. But because the SMK itself bends along 180 degrees of potential axes, and because its rubber-band courses are nonparallel, the pitch relation of one course to the other varies dynamically. Bend the instrument along an axis perpendicular to a course of strings, and the global pitch of that course deepens. Bend it perpendicular to neither axis, and both courses' pitches vary unequally, but with a mathematical exactitude. Bend it beyond a certain degree on any axis and the rubber-band courses touch, dampening both, at which point its spring-derived timbres predominate.

 In the Sonic Mess Kit, as in the snowflake, the random and the exact meet and fuse. Its rubber-band strings are tunable, if only in a rough, imprecise way, and Masley's tunings also have a random character to them, as though no particular pitch matters to him, only that there be a multiplicity of pitch. Yet there is a great precision to the relationship of the Sonic Mess Kit's random courses. They are somehow the aural equivalent of funhouse mirrors or comic page impressions on Silly Putty, preserving the contours of the images they reflect while radically altering the appearance of those images from moment-to- moment. The result: a pitch universe in which no stable center governs yet which, for all its randomness, demonstrates an elastic stability.

 Masley's discography.

 L. Maxwell Taylor, himself a composer and instrumentalist, will be releasing a collection of his own recent work, The Cheshire Tree, sometime during 1993. 

(1) As though his Baker's entry were only the beginning of an invasion by stealth of America's reference shelves, a soon-to-be published book of quotations includes Masley's bid for lexical immortality, a definition: "Time: An abstract carnivore; found at the top of the food chain." (Timeless Thoughts/Collected Wisdom, Mark Kastin, ed. (1993))

 (2) Masley's glass panpipes were built by Jim and Peggy Hall of Lacey, Washington, who likely did not contemplate their use with random water tunings.

 (3) At this writing, the Sonic Mess Kit continues to evolve, becoming more of a "series" than an individual instrument. Not only film-can lids but now metal breakfast trays and butter- cookie cans writhe uncomfortably beneath the condenser mics. The progenitor of the series, having now become so complex as to resemble the inside of an analog watch, bears a new name: the Pan-Timbre-Reen.