One afternoon when he was a little boy, Hal Rammel tied a length of strong twine to a flat piece of driftwood he'd been using as a toy boat and began whirling it in circles around his head. To his amazement, the driftwood emitted a low, ominous roar.
"My grandmother came storming out onto the back porch because she was alarmed by the sound," Rammel says. "She wondered what truck had pulled up and was idling back there. And then when she found out that I was doing it, she stopped me before I put my eye out or broke a window. That was an early experience with inventing something and being totally enraptured with a sound. It was also an early experience of what social forces can come down on you when you do those sorts of things."
Rammel had accidentally discovered the bullroarer, an ancient musical instrument that has been used by traditional cultures around the world--particularly the Hopis, Zunis, and Australian aborigines--in religious ceremonies and in rites of passage. His interest in the sonic possibilities of commonplace objects led him years later to begin inventing musical instruments of his own.
Those instruments, which include farm implements and pieces of old wooden furniture fitted with strings, tend to evoke surrealism and American outsider art in the way they shock the eye by placing a common object in an unexpected context. His bibliolin, for instance, is essentially a violin with a hollowed-out book for a body. The snath consists of a single string stretched taut between the ends of the gently curving handle of a scythe; instead of plucking or bowing the string, he taps it with a stick, treating it as a rhythm instrument much like the Brazilian berimbau. "I just wanted to use that piece of wood. I wanted to hold it and play it because it just looked so wonderful."
Rammel grew up in Wisconsin in a family where both parents were artists. There were a lot of art books around the house, and he developed a taste for surrealist painters like Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. His early interests in drawing, painting, and sculpture were encouraged by his parents. He also took up various conventional instruments in rapid succession, but quickly lost interest in them. Then he encountered the musical saw. It was the first instrument he'd come across that felt like it belonged in his hands and that he felt confident he could learn to play. His first public performance was with the saw.
He still wasn't quite satisfied, and in the mid-70s, after he started attending concerts by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he found his interests in sculpture and music merging. "Making instruments just came out of an urge to make things. I had been collecting some odd instruments over the years, and among them were African thumb pianos. So I just had the idea to make one. From that point on I just built instruments when the idea for something occurred to me." Soon he was also working with people like avant-gardists Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith of Birmingham, Alabama, as well as various Chicago-based experimental musicians.
For Rammel, building the instrument is just the beginning of a process in which the materials gradually reveal themselves as a map of sonic possibilities. "Sometimes it is a specific sound that I have in mind to try to explore--or to build something which will allow me to manipulate a certain sound, like bowing a piece of wood. And other times just the form, the visual shape of it, will be the starting point."
Rammel, who's written articles and a book on elements of American folk tradition, sometimes draws ideas for instruments--like his devil's fiddle--from American and European folklore sources. He also works from ideas in various non-Western music traditions; his gopychand is based on a northern Indian instrument. Still other inventions seem to spring directly from his subconscious, such as the triolin, a hand-held instrument played with a bow that has thin metal rods of various lengths arranged in random order around a triangular resonator.
He is sparing in his use of resonators, and his acoustic instruments tend not to project a lot of volume. This forces the audience to be very quiet and reflects his interest in exploring the subtlest variations in a given sound. When performing with other musicians, he prefers to provide evocative embellishments while others lead the way. "It's what Blake called 'the minute particulars'--that attention to detail that I really strive for in my collages and in my music too, because I think there are large things in those details. My pleasure in sound is just those little things, and when those are lost I lose interest."
But Rammel has also invented an electronic instrument with which he can compete with other musicians in an ensemble. The sound palette is an ordinary wooden artist's palette with slender wooden rods of differing lengths inserted around its edges in random order. A few of the rods have rubber bands stretched between them. Rammel plays the rods with a bow, plucks the rubber bands, or taps the palette--sounds that are amplified with a contact microphone and run through an array of electronic effects, including digital delay. "The whole palette becomes a microphone, so any sound I make on the board is picked up and goes into the system. So I can play the rubber bands, or I can hold a glass against it, or I can sing or shout into it." His cassette Music From the Jaws of Sound features music performed exclusively with the sound palette: swooping, churning, slicing sounds that could serve as the sound track for a submarine ride into the unconscious.
When building a new instrument, Rammel deliberately avoids systematic tuning or a scale. When patterns appear by accident, he changes the order of the rods or strings to ensure there will be no easy progressions. "All of my instruments really have a pretty strong will of their own, and you have to meet them halfway or more than halfway to discover the things that they can do. So I like the idea of having this randomness that I can then begin to pick things out of, and finding the music in it. Really it's not so different from that technique that Max Ernst used called frottage, where you do a rubbing of a very textured surface, then look at that and find the images, and then bring out those images."
In his universe, creating an instrument is like creating a small independent world, and playing it is like venturing into that world and seeing its walls open up around you as you enter. "Each instrument opens a door. Each instrument has given me an idea about the next instrument. It's true of new instruments and it's true of new experiences. In that sense it's summoning the future."
Rammel has been running a workshop, Instrument Invention and Sound Exploration, at Chicago's Experimental Sound Studio, showing people how to discover the music in everyday household objects. He, his students, and others will perform on their inventions at 8 PM on Saturday, October 31, at HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee. Tickets are $5; call 235-2334.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.