February 25, 2011

Clicking and Clacking the Time Away

A few years of work on developing ceramic ocarinas brought me to the book From Mud to Music by Barry Hall. I found it to be an excellent book and richly illustrated with examples of both ancient as well as contemporary musical instruments made from ceramic. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the book was that it also came with a CD featuring music produced from these illustrated instruments. I unfortunately damaged this book in an accident but might replace it. It is one of the few books that I have that I would actually buy twice.

Although my interest was in the aerophones, (ocarinas, flutes, horns etc) a small rattle illustrated in From Mud to Music in the chapter on idiophones caught my eye. The rattle was produced during the Song dynasty in China (960 -1279) and made from a simple spherical ball which encapsulated a pellet. The ball was opened in the front with a long wide slit that ran halfway around the diameter of the ball. A small handle perforated , ostensibly to be strung, was extruded from the opposite end. There was no information on this particular item as to how it was played, why it was made or what it sounded like. The simplicity of design made it feasible for someone with a short attention span such as myself to reproduce a facsimile of the instrument to satisfy my curiosity as to the sound.

The first attempts to make this simple bell or rattle design met with limited success. For one thing, I tried to “improve upon” the design by making two slits and leaving a center bridge. This center bridge proved to be unstable and tended to crack in the rapid rising heat of the pit firing I was then engaged in. So I eventually made my designs closer to the original, with a single wide smile of a slit in one side. These fired well and remained intact for musical use.

The other hurdle to overcome in making an idiophone such as a bell or clacker in ceramic was the temptation to test the sound out too much before the item was fired. Of course one does have to test these things to a limited extent because generally what doesn’t sound before it is fired will not sound after coming out of a kiln. But too much force of movement on the delicacy that is unfired (greenware) clay will cause a stress fracture to form or even a hole from the internal pellet knocking against the casing. But the dry clacking noise of the greenware ratlle was seductive. It reminded me of the percussion instruments of the Beijing opera. So I would clack it a little bit. Then I would wait and clack it just a bit more. Then it would break. I then had what could perhaps be described as an idiotphone rather than an idiophone. I now have three idiotphones and counting.

I did resist the temptation to click and clack my latest ceramic rattles while they were still in the unfired greenware stage so they have made it through the fire unscathed. The ones pictured to the above right were made with volcanic ash clay with a surface of burnished slip. I discovered that the higher firing created a bell like sound the pitch of which can be modified by moving an index finger backwards or forwards along the front opening. The shape of these disk rattles was still modified from the fuller spherical forms of the Song dynasty rattles. But the upcoming weeks will see another firing and more experimentations with shapes closer to that model.


Teresa Gagne said...

Followed your links from the ceramic musical instrument book. You make wonderful instruments.

Barry said...

Hey Janet, this is Barry Hall. Found your site when I was looking at images online and saw your nifty ceramic pellet bells. It's great to hear about your experimentation with this ancient design, and I'm delighted that my book inspired you. I love your description of "idiotphones" - I have made quite a few of those myself!