After recently coming across a couple of fascinating blog posts by Bill Cahn titled "Instruments You Can't Buy" (Part 1 and Part 2), I was inspired to share a couple of recent experience I've had building my own pipe-o-phone (a la Paul Lansky's Threads) and "tables" (for Thierry De Mey's Musique de Table). I've never been much of a builder of things, so hopefully this could be of help other non-builder types!

Last year, my percussion ensemble at Florida Atlantic University played a few movements of Threads. We constructed a D major diatonic pipe-o-phone by cutting lengths of 1-inch diameter steel conduit piping from a hardware store. Some friends that had done this before gave me varying advice on the topic, including someone that pointed out you can find a pipe xylophone formula online to figure out the correct lengths for different pitches. Alas, I did not get that scientific with it, and used a trial-and-error based process to get the correct lengths.

I purchased three or four 12-foot lengths of conduit piping, which sadly could not fit in my car (ironically, a Honda Fit). Luckily I also purchased four or five hacksaws. A student and I managed to cut the pipes in half in the parking lot and headed back to FAU for further work.

The Threads group all pitched in to help, along with a couple of other students that just happened to be standing in the right place at the right time (or perhaps the right place at the wrong time?). I would say it took the better part of two hours to get all of the correct lengths in tune. The most difficult part comes when a pipe is just a bit flat, as you end up attempting to saw off the something the width of a dime with a hacksaw (while trying to not cut any fingers off). We managed to get the whole set done without any injuries!

I suppose one could build a much more permanent mounting solution for the pipes, but we had great results with just placing them on top of bits of foam insulation on top of a board. This makes the pipes relatively portable in case one ever encountered a rare pipe-o-phone gig. (Hey, it could happen!)

The good news is that they sound great! It is so rare for me to come across instruments I really think sound great--even brand new $15000 marimbas can all too often be duds. These pipes sound incredible and are created with well under $100 of equipment (I would estimate $70 for the pipes and saws--labor is free if you have students!).

(To be fair, I did buy the students pizza.)

This year, we premiered a new piece by Miami-based composer Matthew Taylor. In the initial discussions about the piece, I told Matt that we had these pipes that he could use, and we could even make more--even if he had a crazy request for quarter tones. Turns out he did have that crazy request, and we added quite a few more pitches to our set (C-naturals, F-naturals, and three quarter tone-sharp pitches toward the upper end of the pipe-o-phone). It began to become disorienting for the players to have two pitches that are a major third apart (i.e. F-natural and A-natural) with several pitches in between (F-quarter tone sharp, F-sharp, G, G-quarter tone sharp), so we used some bright pieces of paper placed in front of the pipes as indicators for the players to be able to quickly find their pitches.

I will post the measurements for the pipes soon, but for now, here's a picture of the complete set for Matthew Taylor's piece, with the two pipe-o-phone players finding the nodal points on the pipes:


The concert also contained one of my favorite pieces that I first discovered while studying at the University of Illinois, Thierry De Mey's theatrical masterpiece, Musique de Table. When I performed Musique de Table, my friend Andy Miller made the tables all on his own, so I only had a rough idea of how they were constructed. I had seen Professor Svet Stoyanov's tables while studying at the University of Miami, but again, I didn't know exactly how he had constructed them.

I brought one of the students performing Musique de Table to the hardware store and we talked through the design of the tables. We found some 4'x2' boards of a material called sande (again, I am not the builder type, but it seems like this is some sort of thin plywood). The hardware store was kind enough to saw these into four 1'x2' boards for us (we considered making three evenly-sized tables, but figured it would be best to have an extra). We also found some long pieces of wood that were an inch and a half wide, and approximately an inch tall. We sawed these into four two-foot pieces to go along the long side of the tables, and eight 10.5-inch pieces to go along the short sides (which were a foot long, but we had to leave 1.5 inches for the overlap with the two-foot pieces...difficult to describe clearly, but trust me on this one!). We picked up some wood glue and a few C-clamps and were on our way back to FAU (after escaping from a very awkward conversation with a crazy man that frequented the hardware store).

We glued the "legs" around the bottom of the boards and clamped them in place and cleaned up a few rough edges from the saws with some sandpaper. Here's a photo of the tables in progress (David gives the wood glue his seal of approval):


The tables ended up being the perfect height to slip microphones under. A lot of people use contact mics for this piece, but I believe we used floor mics (in addition to not being a builder-type, I am not a sound recording-type either). We tried sanding the tables in one direction to achieve a texture more suited for scraping, but the wood was too soft to really hold a texture. If I had to do it again, I would probably search for a slightly harder wood, but this certainly got the job done.

We were lucky to have made an extra, as one of the boards chipped slightly during a rehearsal. Not enough to ruin the board, but enough to only keep it as a back-up. I would recommend not using the tables until the last few rehearsals before a concert, as they are somewhat fragile and don't really enhance the players' understanding of the piece.

When my mother saw me perform Musique de Tables at the University of Illinois, she casually mentioned she thought it would be effective to wear plain white masks (like you often see on theatre programs). I loved the idea, so I bought some cheap masks from a costume shop a while back to use with this piece. Side note: the masks don't have nose holes, so breathing is difficult, but the effect is worth it!

For the concert, we used a black tablecloth, which we taped in place. All of the wiring for the microphones was hidden and taped in place, so the whole presentation looked very elegant. Coupled with the white theatre masks and delicate amplification, I thought it made for quite the striking performance:

AuthorBenjamin Charles