Saturday: Hal Rammel Plays His Invented Instruments

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Hal Rammel
  • Hal Rammel
Tucked inside Hal Rammel's new seven-inch single, Song of the Interocyter, is a remembrance he wrote for British instrument inventor and improviser Hugh Davies at the time of his passing, in January 2005. Rammel, a Milwaukee-based improviser and an instrument inventor himself, expresses appreciation not only for Davies's discoveries and performances but for his dogged determination in the face of an academy that almost unilaterally dismissed his work. Rammel cites a piece of Davies's writing, published in a catalog for a touring art exhibition called "Making Music: New and Unusual Instruments," that "obliged academics to take seriously research areas that previously they had managed to ignore."

Davies earned a fair amount of acclaim and notoriety in experimental-music circles—he worked with Stockhausen, played in the pioneering Music Improvisation Company with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, and toured Europe and North America—so by comparison it's Rammel who's been ignored. Granted, designing your own instruments is often a recipe for marginalization, whether because manufacturing the instrument is impossible (so that no one else can play it) or because it produces sounds that can't be notated. (In those cases the instrument is also likely to have problems rendering a conventional written score.) Yet Rammel has carried on for more than three decades, releasing most of his recordings on his own Penumbra Music label.

amplified palette
  • amplified palette
The music on Song of the Interocyter was cut in 2006 as part of the same sessions that produced a three-single set called Lost Data. Rammel's also has a new album-length CD called Midwest Disquiet, and on both releases he plays his most flexible and best-known instrument, the amplified palette—a painter's palette fitted with a contact mike and a series of beautifully arranged wooden and metal rods played with mallets or bows. The instrument can produce low, ringing notes that suggest a slowed-down marimba or high-pitched sounds with an alien liquidity, and Rammel finds an extraordinary range within those seemingly narrow parameters by altering attack, rhythm, and tension. He not only understands the palette's timbral possibilities but exploits them with consistent musicality. Since it's pretty tough to describe in words what such a unique device actually sounds like, I've posted "The Undiscovered II," a track from the new album, below. It reminds me of overactive chimes trying to shake loose from their moorings.

"The Undiscovered II":

Rammel will give a rare Chicago performance this Saturday afternoon, improvising with bassist Jason Roebke at Corbett vs. Dempsey at 2 PM; it's free.

Today's playlist:

Matt Bauder, Paper Gardens (Porter)
Ann Peebles, Part Time Love (Hi/Fat Possum)
András Schiff, Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Partitas (ECM)
Cedric Watson et Bijou Créole, L'Ésprit Créole (Valcour)
Isaac Hayes, Shaft (Stax)

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