The world of sound is a strange one, indeed. Think about it. We pay money to watch people make sounds. If people make really cool sounds, we pay more money. I’ve heard people make some pretty cool sounds in my day. But it’s all a hoax. I sincerely regret to inform you that the current sound world you inhabit is limited, a sham. After all, there’s a potentially infinite combination of sonic textures to be tapped. If it’s in the range of human hearing, we should be able to hear it. The problem, however, is that there’s a finite number of instruments in the world. The objects we have for realizing sound potential are inherently limited.
This is one of the many reasons why experimental instrument design is such a vital field in music. Instrument designers are like musical scientists, forging new vehicles for the manifestation of previously unimaginable timbres. If the potential sound world is limited, then there must be a whole range of textures waiting to be uncovered. Jon Scoville, in his introduction to Bart Hopkin’s useful Musical Instrument Design, waxes philosophic on the matter: “There is an ancient imperative lodged in our DNA which asks us to make music. Our intuitive understanding of being alive on this blue planet is most poetically expressed in our songs and dances. In our instinct to organize sound and movement we fully express both the ambiguities and certainties of life. Making the instruments that make the music that makes the soundtracks to our lives is one of the ways that we reconnect ourselves with the world and with our ancient heritage. Thus we join that long tradition of (mostly) unknown instrument makers who gave birth to drums, violins, lutes, bamboo zithers, steel drums, gamelan, and the countless other instruments that produce our planet’s songs and symphonies” (iii).
We can now add to that list the daxophone, a friction idiophone invented by German musician and typographer Hans Reichel. Pictured with Dandelion Fiction above, it’s essentially composed of a variety of thin wooden blades (or “tongues”) inserted into a wooden block, which is in turn amplified by small contact microphones. The tongues are then bowed with a horsehair bow and bent to alter pitch. Daniel Fishkin, the brains behind Dandelion Fiction, is one of the few daxophone players you will ever meet. He learned how to play and design this unique instrument under Mark Stewart, an instrument designer, founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and ensemble musician for Steve Reich and Arnold Dreyblatt. The sound of the daxophone can be accurately described as mammals mating (this could be why one of the songs on the 2008 Dandelion Fiction LP You’re A Strong One is called “Badger Thumpin’.”)
Check out A-side “Leg Shimmy” for a glimpse into the world of the daxophone. The instrument’s vocal quality is immediately apparent here, particularly in the song’s first few seconds where the pitches jump around so much as to sound like a muffled reproduction of a conversation. The track quickly settles into a fun little groove, proving that you can be on the cutting edge of 21st century music and still have a sense of humor. Towards the end of the song, a mysterious drone is introduced. Is it feedback? A tape? Frankly Mr. Shankly, it matters not. Sometimes the mystery of sound can be as important as the exact documentation of its production. This couldn’t be more true for the epic nightmare-techno of B-side “Unravel With Ease.” I could spend all week trying to figure out how all the sounds here were produced, but I’d rather let it pummel me with its Stravinksy-like syncopation and relentless pounding. There’s definitely something to letting the sounds occur without further investigation. The song’s directions are pretty clear.
Although the similarities between Dandelion Fiction and Animal Collective are scant, they have some interesting things to say on the topic of divulging sound information. Quoth Avey Tare: “Part of the mystery of a lot of the bands we like was their ability to create really special sonic environments. It was something that made us think and inspired us to make music of our own. If you just spend a lot of time telling, especially younger people, what you’re doing and how everything is done, you feel like you’re not going to push people to experiment on their own and try to figure things out on their own. And I think that’s another good thing about not saying what we’re doing all the time.” Indeed, if music and experimental instrument design are about discovery, then an element of mystery is the perfect catalyst for exploration. Keep us in the loop, I say, but not too close.