September 23, 2009

Whistling a Different Tune

Expecting a political essay? Sorry to disappoint. But for the last few weeks, as I have been commenting on the current political climate, I have also been busy in my studio doing something entirely unexpected. I had set to work trying to tie up loose ends before plunging in to the work for upcoming exhibitions. For a start, there was a small shelf of unfinished ceramics. Mostly they were pinch and coiled pots but there were a few whistles thrown in as well. I glazed the pots and added lids to several of the vessels then fired them in the kiln. After the firing I put aside simple pod shaped whistles to run a second firing with gold and enameling. The gold that I used comes in a liquid suspension that can be painted on then fired to a melting point at which it bonds with the surface glaze. I used it sparingly not only for economic reasons but because sometimes just a touch of something is more powerful than rich ornamentation.
The conundrum of having just a few pieces to put in a kiln is that it feels like a tremendous amount of energy for such a paltry amount of art work so I determined that to keep the world a little greener and my accounts a little fatter, I would have to learn how to make more elaborate whistles and ocarinas to add to the small group. In order to do this I looked at real examples of whistles from Africa and South America, books on Pre-Columbian art, as well as virtual examples on the net and from around the world. I found a large community of ocarina enthusiasts out there - surprisingly mostly from Germany, and not so surprisingly, from Japan. I discovered that the history of the ocarina was pleasantly rich and varied. So I jumped off my painting and mosaic making schedule to try something entirely new.
Making a whistle sounds like a simple thing but it is a far more delicate and complicated procedure than one would think. When making the fipple (mouth piece), for instance, if the angles are not cut precisely there is no sound. And it can be frustrating. You get a sound. Then you try to revise it and the sound disappears. Then you redesign and the sound appears again but only weakly. So you revise again and it totally disappears again. You get the picture. I spent about seven hours trying to engineer my first whistle. At that point I figured that I had to continue because if I had wasted that much time on it I would have to learn how to do it better and consistently in order to justify the time already spent. (Its my logic and I’m sticking to it).
After a number of frustrating failures, I finally did become more adept and faster at it. I now have a collection of handmade clay instruments fashioned into small sculptures in various degrees of complexity. I learned how to create diatonic and chromatic scales. From just a few tweets and toots on small shapes I can now play a simple Shaker melody on the more elaborate ocarina.
I didn’t have a pitch pipe so my ocarinas weren’t set to a standard pitch. They are therefore all solo instruments. But I like that. Each one is designed to play a unique melody. The melody and particular sonority of each work influenced the design painted on it. The one that plays in a minor key has an abstract blue bird on it. The pig plays a simple Asian tune. The classic Italian submarine shape ocarina sports a free form Futuristic black and white design that wraps itself around the sound holes. There is even a fool’s ocarina that doesn’t play if you blow in the mouthpiece but does if you blow on it from the reverse side. It has a sharp taunting high pitch like the laughter of a sea gull and is painted chartreuse green and orange.
The beautiful thing about designing your own clay musical instruments is that they can be designed to conform to your own hands. Many of the pieces that I made recently are shaped precisely to match my grasp. So they feel great to hold.
I’ll be bringing my ocarinas to the Arts in Education Booking Conference this Thursday in Greenville. If I don’t book much work this year at least I can say I had a good time preparing.

1 comment:

Rachel Bair Ficek said...

I love them... I am so excited for you!