Robert Rutman, Bruce Fier, and New Instruments January 14, 1980

In recent years I have heard mallet instruments made out of wine bottles, horns made out of plumbing equipment, and wind chimes made out of car keys. I have heard new percussion instruments fashioned from junk metal, mailing tubes, kitchen utensils, bones, and other odds and ends. I have seen plastic straws used as reeds, hubcaps used as drums, tin cans used as resonators, and pieces of glass converted into all sorts of bowed, blown, and struck instruments. Even without counting the many electronic devices that have come along, or the many modifications of traditional instruments, an awful lot of new instrumental concepts have been introduced in the last 10 years, and many of them have fascinated me. I like the idea that the musical muse may be found anywhere, even in a Coke bottle, and I like the start-from-scratch attitude of the musicians who work with homemade instruments, and I like many of the novel effects that inevitably result. But as these explorations proliferate, I have begun to ask some tougher questions when I encounter a new instrument. Does it really produce sounds that could not be achieved in a simpler or more traditional way? Has the instrument evolved past the found-object state to a point where it can be considered a well crafted object in its own right? Has the technique for playing the instrument grown past the anybody-can-do-it state to a point where a good performer can find real interpretative possibilities within it? Only a few local artists have made instruments that really hold up against these criteria, and Robert Rutman is one of them.

Rutman’s instruments are of two basic types, which he calls steel cellos and bow chimes. The steel cello employs a single string, stretched across a gently curved sheet metal resonator, and is played with a bass bow. The instrument on display at the Opening Gallery on West Broadway stands about eight feet high and carries an extraordinary resonance. A good strong stroke of the bow generates a sound that can ring within the sheet metal for a good eight or 10 seconds after the bow leaves the string, and by playing a series of notes one can build up a rich amalgam of sound. No amplification is necessary.

Bows were on hand for gallery visitors to try the instrument, so I took a shot at it. I had trouble stopping the string in the places I was looking for, and could never make the bow do exactly what I wanted it to do, but I was able to produce the basic sounds satisfactorily and felt a sense of power when the sheet metal responded.

The bow chimes work on the same principles, but here one bows on five rods rather than on a string. Thus glissandos are not possible, but particular sounds can be produced more reliably. The rods are adjustable, though I could not hear that any great pains had been taken to tune the rods to one another or to the sounds of the other instruments in the room. Rutman’s background is visual and sculptural, and he seems purposely to avoid coming to grips with tuning principles, rhythmic theories, notation, or other forms of purely musical sophistication. Rutman’s attitude used to bother me, but now I find it refreshing. He has abandoned much of the aggressiveness that used to propel his performances in the early ’70s, has evolved a good deal of technical control over pitches and dynamics, and has taught quite a few others to play the instruments along with him. Rutman is still basically a primitive, but he is not naive, and his recent recording, ‘Bitter Suites,’ in which he is assisted by several other players, is quite successful in a loose, improvised sort of way. The group is known as the U.S. Steel Cello Ensemble.

Though the sound show at P.S.1 closed almost two months ago, I should take this opportunity to mention one of the instruments exhibited there, which was built by a California artist, and which absorbed me for some time one Sunday afternoon. Bruce Fier’s ‘Sound Spiral’ has not evolved into a real performing instrument or generated a repertoire of pieces, but I am not sure that is relevant in this case, as the ‘Sound Spiral’ is basically an audience participation piece, and an excellent one. The instrument consists of 254 light aluminum rods suspended from the ceiling in a spiral pattern. The spiral begins with the shortest rods, only a couple of feet long, and winds outward several times, ending with rods over nine feet in length. One problem with installations of this sort is that when they are exquisite visually you usually feel you shouldn’t touch them. But Fier’s ‘Sound Spiral’ somehow has it both ways. The shimmering of the rods and the graceful spiraling formation are quite attractive, and yet you know that this really is a sound object, that it won’t break easily, and that it’s all right to stroke the rods and listen to them. I began with a rather timid brush, which started some of the rods undulating against one another in appealing wave motions and stimulated a surprisingly rich texture of metallic sounds that rang for a long time. I had to look around to convince myself that there was no amplification equipment in the room. The pitches of the individual rods were not particularly distinct, though there was a big difference between the shimmering of the shorter rods and the deeper resonances of the longer ones, and the more of them that moved at once the better it sounded. I later crawled into the core of the spiral, where I could reach the whole scale easily, and I ended up quite intoxicated. This was due partly to dizziness but mostly to the sheer sumptuousness of the sound.