Friday, November 11, 2011

Music in the Clay Studio

I'm exhausted; today there was no school but I decided to have an open studio day for my students.
I opened the studio so they could work. My work study came in and pugged clay and I tested out some plans for musical instruments.

Next quarter I hope to be teaching a full class of hand-building. This summer I was reading Mud to Music by Barry Hall. I've made whistles and rattles from clay before and I have a student who makes drums and has made a guitar out of clay. The book expands considerably on my knowledge of instruments and how sounds can be produced.

I am considering making instruments for one of the hand-building projects. One of the things I wanted to do this fall was try out some of the instruments I haven't made before.

My daughter came to the studio with me today because her Daddy had to work. My work study also brought her daughter. I enlisted the girls to help me with my projects (and to keep them busy while others were working). My daughter had, of course, packed a very full bag of toys, but after playing with them for an hour or so, she was ready to play with clay.

Rain Sticks
After shaping a whistle and some pieces to be used when drier, I showed the girls how to use the extruder. I wanted to test rain sticks. I think I understand the concept of how they are made but I wanted to try some variations. I extruded three hollow tubes and I had the girls make the bits of clay to go inside.

As I understand it, a normal rain stick is a piece of dried cactus with the spines pushed into the hollow interior. The sound is produced by the spines falling through the interior. I believe the interior is not smooth but has different ridges or sections that prevent the spines from falling smoothly down the length of the stick.

So, what I did today was try out different "fillings" and different ways to make the interior irregular. For the first rain stick I pushed some flat, leather-hard pieces of clay through the soft wet clay tube. I then had the girls put small leather-hard sticks (broken bits of a long skinny coil I made earlier) of clay into the tube and I sealed the top with clay. The second tube had a similar array of flat pieces through the walls but balls of clay inside. The third was smooth inside with leather-hard clay sticks (coils). Later I extruded a narrower tube and pushed clay spines through the wall and filled it with clay spines. It will make a different sound, at the very least, because it is a different size.

whistles, rain sticks and practice version of a slip transfer (performed by children) method
I also made two "regular" whistles. These I've been making for years. I make a round hollow body (out of two pinch pots) and attach a mouthpiece. I didn't have much trouble getting them to work since I allowed them to dry somewhat before I made the cuts. I drilled four note holes in the bottom of the larger one. It makes a low train whistle sound when all four holes are covered. I don't have enough of a musical ear to have any idea about the notes my whistles play other than low and high.

For the first time, I wanted to try some long whistles similar to a recorder. I didn't feel like the longest ones had dried enough by the time everyone was exhausted and ready to leave, so I saved the cuts for next week. I did finish two shorter ones made from extruded tubes. One had a closed end (with a mouthpiece at the opposite end) and worked fine as long as the holes were covered. With all the holes open the sound was airy. For the other one I was curious what would happen if the end was bell shaped like a horn. It didn't work at all. When I put my hand over the end, it made a faint sound and when I closed the end it made a strong whistle sound. I believe that the longer tube shaped whistles (recorders or end-blown whistles) should work better because, though the end isn't closed, the air bounces around inside the instrument longer as it travels the length of the tube.

whistles from home: 2 bisque and one raku fired

I also tried making a side-blown aerophone (or flute). I followed the instructions in the book and made a long tube with an opening near the closed end and several more openings along the body of the flute. I have no idea why this should work. I don't really think it should, but I wanted to try. I read the book's explanation but I didn't really understand it. I might need a flutist to explain it to me. I suspect there is something the musician does specially when blowing into a side-blown flute but if the book explained it, I didn't understand.

Years ago, after I had learned to make whistles, I was reading a book that explained how to teach kids to make ocarinas. Up until that point I had believed that ocarinas were whistles with multiple openings that the player could cover with his or her fingers to produce different notes. The directions in that kids' clay book were similar to this book's instructions for a side-blown flute. Basically the ocarina instructions said to fold a circle of clay like a hard taco shell, trapping an air pocket inside, and seal the edges. Then cut some holes.  Somehow that was supposed to be an instrument. I tried it, of course, and it didn't work, of course.

After that I went back to making whistles that direct the air at an angled edge or slope in the wall of the clay and force some of the air into the instrument and some of the air out, thus making a whistling sound. I experimented with shape and size of the main opening, size and shape of the air chamber and quantity, size or location of holes. I've made whistles that make different types of sounds or sets of sounds and I have some understanding of which shapes or sizes make which sounds. I've even made water whistles and whistles that could be played (as in, made to sound different notes) by holding more or less of your finger over the one main opening.

I always just assumed the ocarina directions were an indication of the value of that book: not great. But now that Mud to Music gives similar directions, I may have to conduct further research. By further research I mean I will ask my flute playing friends how flutes work.

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