Dole/Darko ’88

I used to be a real pack rat when it came to newspapers (used to, I hear my wife saying).  While going through some boxes that had been at my parents’ house for about twenty years, I found quite a few papers and magazines that I had saved for one reason or another: historical value (“Clinton Sweep,” read the headline of the Wichita Eagle the day after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election) and souvenirs of places I’d been, but also stories that seemed dramatic or exciting to me, and which, in those heady days, I thought might be the basis for a dramatic work.  I was very much under the spell of contemporary dramas like David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China; it seemed that any out-of-the-ordinary story might have sufficient conflict or resonance to turn into an opera or play.  I was fairly susceptible to any kind of cultural theory that came along, so my early thoughts about aesthetics were a jumble of second-hand Marshall McLuhan, Peter Sellars, and Gilbert Seldes, cut liberally with the provocative Dadaism of the Residents and Frank Zappa.  At one point I set a few comic strip texts to music, partially as an exercise, but also believing that “mass media” sources were the natural successor to the communal folk sources that had informed the classical tradition from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.  Don’t get me wrong, those are still areas of interest to me, but like a lot of teenage “artistes” I was trying way too hard.  In any case, my own subsequent experience, not to mention the flood of shallow, hacky biographical operas that became trendy after Nixon‘s success, showed me that it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and not every news story held a grain of dramatic truth waiting to be turned into poetry.

One article I found that I still remembered vividly appeared in the Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, October 15, 1991: “Odd Tales of UFOs And Sen. Bob Dole Visit Russell, Kan.” by staff reporter (now WSJ editor) Kevin Helliker.  The disappearance of four women from Russell cast a spotlight on local writer Donna R. Butts, who had published a book about her contact with space aliens (and who was among the missing). According to her book, the Second Coming would begin as soon as Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who grew up in Russell, was elected president and moved the White House to his hometown, among other apocalyptic prophecies.  Members of Butts’ group of believers included local art teacher Gertrude “Trudy” Furney, whose public sculpture of the Seventh Trumpeter from the Book of Revelation sat (and still sits) in Russell’s Lincoln Park.  According to Rural Kansas Tourism, the sculpture (now popularly known as the Angel in the Park) “was constructed in 1988 to symbolize a turnaround of the local economy and a new beginning.  The artist’s idea was to portray that when the angel blows the 7th trumpet, better times and new beginnings were ahead.”

angel websize

It was apparently not unusual for the sculpture to be interpreted in more literal terms, however: according to Helliker’s article, the disappearances set off a wave of anxiety.  “Students at Bickerdyke Elementary School, located across the street from the Seventh Trumpeter sculpture, swore they saw the angel’s trumpet move.”  Psychologists were brought in to counsel the panicked students.  The public library was overwhelmed with requests for Butts’ book, and UFO sightings in the area spiked.

UFOcontact

I didn’t live in Russell, but the atmosphere of expectant foreboding described in the article felt familiar.  In the fall of my freshman year in high school, a brilliant light on the horizon convinced a number of people in my hometown that the Second Coming had arrived, or so I heard; it was the lights from the football stadium for the first home game, seen through an unseasonal haze.  There was a lot of that going around in the late 1980s and early ’90s, enough that director Richard Kelly’s decision to set his spooky 2001 film Donnie Darko on the eve of the 1988 presidential election felt weirdly appropriate.  In hindsight, this story, and several others that I collected, pointed to a convergence of two trends that would go mainstream in the 1990s: interest in UFOs and paranormal activity, and millennial fundamentalism.  The popularity of The X-Files gave a boost to the former, and the political ascendance of the latter is a reality that is still with us; in both cases, the Internet’s ability to connect like-minded people surely contributed to the trends.  The fact that “rational explanations” were forthcoming–pranksters confessed to faking UFOs with road flares tied to helium balloons, and the four missing women had undertaken a pilgrimage to Israel without telling anyone–makes it conveniently easy to dismiss the whole thing, leaving aside the question of why people get swept up in these manias in the first place.

Donnie Darko, 2001

Donnie Darko, 2001

I don’t have an answer to that, at least nothing that would go beyond the volumes that sociologists and philosophers have already written.  Perhaps, in addition to my dramatic ambitions, I was simply trying to make sense of the data, like that other famous clipper, Charles Fort.  Fort spent years arranging the “damned facts,” weird happenings and sightings culled from newspapers from all over the world, into his four books; the cumulative force of his observations asserts a loose philosophy of skepticism toward both unsubstantiated myth and scientific orthodoxy, putting his faith in facts without jumping to conclusions about how they fit together.  The Internet has made it both easier and more difficult to follow the weird happenings in the world: easier because we have greater access than Fort, sitting at a table in the New York Public Library, could have imagined, and more difficult because of the sheer scope of the information available.  Ultimately, the lack of a definitive conclusion is what makes this sort of story less satisfying for dramatic purposes than we might desire: we’re left either exaggerating the reality of the aliens’ presence, as in a Hollywood blockbuster, or dismissing it altogether, as most outside observers would.  The ambiguity and misdirection, the need to believe without being able to prove anything, was something The X-Files would get right, for the most part, and as Donnie Darko would demonstrate, sometimes the most captivating aspect of a case like this isn’t a story at all, but a mood.

And with that, I leave you with Donald Erb’s 1969 composition The Seventh Trumpet, appropriate mood music for this article.

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What shape is a trumpet? (and other questions)

The real question is, where I am going to find cases for these things?

mellophone1mellophone2

The instrument at the top is a mellophone, a simplified substitute for the orchestral horn, once commonly used in bands to play the alto part.  (Instruments nowadays called “mellophones” are acoustically similar but wrapped differently, more like a bugle, or as we used to joke in high school marching band, “a pregnant trumpet.”)  The second instrument was once shaped like the one on the left, but was converted to its current bell-front configuration by a family friend.  It belonged to my uncle, a trumpet player, and was passed on to me.

The outward forms of brass instruments can be changed like this because of the simplicity of their construction (compared to the mechanical keywork of a woodwind instrument, for example) and because, acoustically, the tubing can be curved in many different ways without changing the basic sound of the instrument (up to a point: in general, the more bends there are in the tubing, and the tighter they are, the “stuffier” the horn will sound; unless there is a compelling need for a more compact shape, instrument manufacturers try to use an “open wrap” with as few bends as necessary).  The malleability of brass (not a single metal, but an alloy of copper and zinc, usually combined with smaller amounts of other metals such as nickel or gold) also makes it possible to be worked by hand with the right tools.

I’ve known a number of instrument technicians (repairmen), and converting or otherwise customizing horns is something most of them have done.  Like auto mechanics, it’s hard for them to resist the temptation to soup up or experiment on cast-off parts in hopes of building a hot rod.  Boredom can also be a factor: one technician I knew who served in the armed forces told me that a favorite prank on the base was to get the lead trumpeter’s instrument and surreptitiously remove its support braces, then slip it back in to his case.  It wasn’t impossible to play, but much less stable and comfortable, and it was always a memorable break from dull routine, especially if it was before a performance or review!

What really affects the tone of a brass instrument is whether the tube is mostly the same diameter (cylindrical) before expanding into the bell, or widens gradually throughout its length (conical).  This is the “bore profile” of the instrument, and it is the same no matter what shape the tube is bent into.  Brass with a cylindrical bore, like trumpets and trombones, are more penetrating in sound; conical-bore instruments, such as horns and bugles, are mellower.  Cornets, which are partially cylindrical and partially conical, have a sound that falls somewhere in between.  (The width of the bore also plays a role, and is in fact the primary difference between the three B-flat instruments marked “Tenor,” “Baritone,” and “Bass” in the following illustration–they are the same length but sound and play somewhat differently; there is no room for discussion here, but the nomenclature of low brass instruments has always had the potential for confusion.)

Brass available in both configurations, from The Music Men by Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen

Brass available in both configurations, from The Music Men by Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen

During the nineteenth century, the “golden age of brass,” a wide variety of different forms were tried out, some born of functional necessity and others out of the search for novelty.  Brass instruments were often designed in “families” that followed the same pattern, from the high E-flat cornet to the BB-flat “monster” bass tuba.  One of the most famous images of Civil War music is the “over the shoulder” brass band, with instruments that literally pointed backward, so that marching soldiers could hear them when the band marched or rode on horseback at the front of a formation.  After the war, over the shoulder horns continued to be used, but were gradually displaced by “bell front” or “bell up” instruments closer to the forms in use today.  (Note the use of rotary valves on the over the shoulder instruments; rotary valves are rarely seen on American instruments nowadays, with the obvious exception of the orchestral horn.)

Another pattern that was once widespread is the “helicon” or circular wrap, which went around the musician’s shoulder or wrapped around their torso like the modern Sousaphone, the only helicon instrument still in common use. (Contrary to popular belief, Sousa’s innovation was not the wrap-around shape, but the decision to enlarge the bell, at first pointing straight up, and later angled to point forward, for a more directed sound.)

One of the more eccentric shapes was conceived by Louis Schreiber of New York, who formed his “Schreiber horn” into a teardrop with an S-shaped bell.  (According to Schreiber’s 1867 patent, he justified his new shape partially on ergonomic grounds, with the weight of the bell resting on the player’s shoulder.)  Again, an entire family of Schreiber horns was created, although it didn’t last long and examples are now quite rare.

schreiber.alto

Musician with Schreiber horn, ca. 1870, from The Music Men

Musician with Schreiber horn, ca. 1870, from The Music Men

And that’s to say nothing of the famous double-bell euphonium, another innovation that has come and gone.  Such experimentation is now the exception: as far as the big instrument companies go, there is less room for innovation in the basic shapes of the instruments, even as a great deal of research (including computer modeling) and quality control that would have been unimaginable a hundred years ago goes into refining acoustic and mechanical properties.

David G. Monette has been a notable example of the artisanal approach, designing and building custom trumpets (most famously for Wynton Marsalis and other jazz greats) while pouring the fruits of his custom work into his instrument lines, much in the same way innovations in concept cars eventually turn up in the regular models.  Monette’s innovations include the “integral” or built-in mouthpiece and his instruments have an organic, art nouveau-influenced form.  Monette has also continued the nineteenth century tradition of crafting beautiful instruments to honor great musicians, or in the case of the Elysian Trumpet for New Orleans, to memorialize tragedy.  While Monette’s designs are available to a wider market than they once were, even expanding to a student line of mouthpieces, Monette remains a boutique brand when compared to the industry giants.

Elysian Trumpet by David G. Monette and Tami Dean

Elysian Trumpet by David G. Monette and Tami Dean

On the real fringes are the experimentalists who aren’t concerned with perfecting or customizing existing instruments at all, but use them as raw material for art in which the instrument and the performance are one.  As an example, jazz musician and horn sculptor Mark Southerland of Kansas City builds his own instruments (as well as work which is purely sculptural) from scrap parts for use in live performances that include elements of improvisation, ritual, and multimedia.  Southerland is a saxophonist, so his playable sculptures are actually woodwinds, but crossbred with borrowed trumpet and horn bells: they are true hybrids.  He follows in the footsteps of such free jazz pioneers as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who modified his instruments so that he could play three saxophones at once.  Southerland’s work is qualitatively different from the nineteenth century inventors like Schreiber or modern artisans like Monette, closer in spirit to the found-object transformations of outsider art or the process of discovery undertaken by electronic circuit-benders.

Brass instruments aren’t the easiest article to collect; making them the medium of your art is even more challenging.  But all the examples I’ve given above started with a tactile, manual approach to music-making; even a factory-made instrument involves an enormous amount of assembly and finishing by hand.  For those who combine their musical sensibilities with an urge to tinker, creating a one-of-a-kind instrument can be uniquely satisfying, whether it’s as straightforward as a modified lead pipe or as exotic as a double-belled metallic flower.