A Different Drum: Percussionists Create New Instruments For Student Expo< < Back to
“Think outside the box” always has been the cliché used to inspire creativity. Two Ohio University music students, however, decided to throw away both the expression and the box itself.
Tired of the limitations of conventional instruments, Turner Matthews and Jake Schlaerth began creating their own, composing pieces for them and performing. Following a warm reception at last year’s Ohio University Student Expo, the two returned to the 2015 event with three novel instruments: a motor controlled harp, propane-tank drums and an interactive ceramic tile instrument.
“The reason why I make all these instruments is to write for them. We’re composition majors and percussionists,” Matthews says. “Since they’re new instruments, they call for new music to be written for them.”
The motor controlled harp is inspired by an Indian instrument, the hurdy-gurdy. In Schlaerth and Matthews’ model, however, instead of one musician manually spinning a wheel to vibrate the strings, one robot (an Arduino computer) controls 23 motors that spin 23 wheels that all vibrate their own strings. The strings are a mix of guitar strings and bass guitar strings.
To complement the harp, Matthews created the drums by slicing off the bottoms of propane gas tanks. He then cut out tongue-like shapes from the metal top that, when struck, emit a noise similar to that of a steel drum.
“A lot of people make these in their garages just for fun and kind of just jam on them,” Matthews says. “But I haven’t seen anything really composed for them and seriously thought out.”
Perhaps their furthest “outside the box” creation, the interactive ceramic tile instruments were actually made by students studying ceramics, per Matthews’ request. The ceramics form an echo chamber around microphones, which then relay the percussive and vocal sounds they pick up to speakers. The end result is a distinctive, natural reverberation.
Expo visitors have been attracted to the sights and sounds of the duo’s innovations.
“The Expo was a huge success for us last year,” Schlaerth says. “We were the only music makers, so we just filled the whole auditorium. When you struggle with something for so long, it’s nice to hear some applause.”
The students only play original compositions with the instruments. Their adviser, Distinguished Professor of Music Mark Phillips, notes that the concept of building new instruments and writing new music around them—impressive as it may be from undergrads—has a long tradition in American music.
“If you’re always faced with a keyboard, you write a certain kind of music because that’s what’s easy to do on this instrument,” Phillips says. “But if you build an instrument that has none of this sort of interface, then you write and play different kinds of music.”
Missed Matthews and Schlaerth at the Expo? They’ll perform at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 25 at Central Venue, 29 E. Carpenter St., Athens.
Republished with permission from the Office of Research Communications at Ohio University.