A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

SIGHT & SOUND: Ken Butler's hybrid instruments

Ken Butler, a self-described “urban bricoluthier,” carries an Altoids tin in his pocket at all times. Anytime he feels the urge, he pulls it out—and music emerges. The Altoids tin holds a strip of dental dam called a Vibraband, which he plays like a trumpet. This is just one of Ken’s countless playful hybrid instruments, which range from a broom violin to a chessboard guitar to an egg-carton piano. But the mint tin, he insists, “is a thousand times more interesting than anything in here.”


“Here” refers to Ken’s studio and home, in an old loft building on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Ken is an artist and musician who creates instruments—as well as performances and installations— from everyday and found objects. His work explores the boundaries between sculpture, music, visual art, and film, and also, more abstractly, between sound and silence, the mechanical and the electrical, and construction and deconstruction.


Entering his studio, I feel like I’ve stepped into a New York City bohemian dream. He’s been living and working here since 1988. In the old days, he had to sleep wearing a wool cap, as the basement was being used as a refrigerated storage unit. Over the years, as various tenants have come and gone, his creations have continued to proliferate. His artist’s statement reads, in part, “From this storehouse of forsaken objects and hardware I, the urban bricoleur, further dismantle and reassemble the consumer society into functional assemblages in the form of musical instrument/objects, then coax them to sing for their supper.”


Instruments line the walls and floor; his neatly made bed is tucked into one corner. A huge slot-car racing track is set up off to one side—for breaks. At the center of the loft is Urban Grand Piano: each key is connected to a different local radio station, and lights project images and colors on the open lid. The result is music that’s a mashup of mechanics and the random sounds from the city ether: politics, music, Spanish radio, baseball. “My vision for it would be to have it in the center of a bar and someone would get inspired and do their little piece, drinking, smoking pot,” he says.


With tortoiseshell glasses and neatly combed hair, Ken is loquacious and easygoing. As a child, he always had a talent for painting and drawing and was formally trained in the viola. While living in Portland, Oregon, and experimenting with collage art, he began sneaking into a recycling place and photographing details of the discarded objects. One day an idea occurred to him: “Why not use the real objects and collage them together?” That idea rapidly evolved into the question of how to bring still art forms to life. “Painting is light, shade, color, form—but once you finish it, it just sits there,” he says. Instrument-making would bridge music and sculpture, and the idea that his creations are ideas rather than compositions appealed to him. Ken says he turned out to be a better musician than he ever thought he’d be.


In 1978, Ken found an ax in his basement and, in a flash of inspiration, tucked it under his chin like a violin. He soon found that the tool fit perfectly into a three-quarters-size violin case he had from childhood, and an idea was born. Within an hour, he had rigged it up with a contact microphone, plugged it into an amp, and was playing music on the ax. (The contact mike is the linchpin of Butler’s improvised instruments. It senses audio vibrations through its contact with solid objects, but it is almost completely insensitive to air vibrations.) The ax violin took one hour to make, and not only did it play music but it “sang”—and it was graceful to boot.


Other creations include guitars made from a tennis racquet and a shovel, a snowshoe viola. a sitar golf club, and cellos made from a mannequin and a crutch, whose main sound-producing element is “a very cool piece of Styrofoam” he found (which, he discovered, creates great resonance).



As Ken puts it, “Every object that can be vibrated is playable. The eyelash of a bee is playable. My intention is a poetic relationship: the sound is the by-product.”


For more information on Ken Butler's Hybrid Visions, please visit his website.






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