Contemporary Instruments: Notes from a Bricoluthier

2015, Ken Butler

Given the constant output of large variety of sonic devices from contemporary technology, an important distinction in characterizing a contemporary musical instrument, in my mind, is the clarification of the overlap and characteristics of an “instrument” for making music and a “controller” for making sounds. For thousands of years, making sounds that had any lasting cultural import required years of labor and discipline. Not that making something meaningful with any sound-producing device is easy, but it is true that mere button-pushing can make “music”, in a very different way than the “button” of a piano key. We are now in an age where almost anything goes in all the arts. Anything at all, any object, anything that can be vibrated and possibly amplified is a musical instrument, with the proper intent. Period. The same goes for virtually any electronic device. The intersection of music, sound art and installations is a slippery slope. This places much of the weight of curatorial analysis on the viewer and critic as we encounter an era of infinite possibility.

What do you consider as important aspects of a contemporary musical instrument?

A contemporary musical instrument should be able to create a wide variety of timbres and rhythms and perhaps have access to sampling, looping, and other electronic sound-making. Personally, I want a modern instrument as well to present its sounds along with some visual, active relationship to the sound being produced rather than a passive downward gaze at a small screen.

How does your professional perspective shape your viewpoint on contemporary musical instruments?

In my case, my hybrid instruments that I have created from combining strings and other objects with sports equipment, tools, and other household objects are not really that “contemporary” in that they are not electronically based and have no internal electronics. I do utilize effects pedals and other devices, but they indicate an almost “primitive” sensibility compared to the hi-tech look of modern electronics.

Ken Butler’s Hybrid Visions

Characterized by his obsessive desire to re-order the world around him, Butler’s multi-disciplinary creations can be difficult to describe as they bridge visual art, design, performance, and life itself in unusual ways. Ever the urban bricoleur, the artist is a resourceful improviser committed to exploring and re-imagining our relationships to the objects around us.

Hybrid Instruments

Ken Butler’s hybrid musical instrument sculptures, collage/drawings, performances, and audio-visual installations explore the interaction and transformation of common and uncommon objects, sounds, and altered images as function and form collide in the intersections of art and music.
Created primarily from urban detritus, the hybrid instruments express a poetic spirit of re-invention and hyper-utility as hidden meanings and associations momentarily create a striking and re-animated cultural identity for common objects. String instruments become body, tool, weapon, toy, symbol, machine, phallus, creature, sculpture, icon, and voice. Pianos and keyboards become cybernetic and symbolic architecture. Anxious objects speak in tongues.
Bridging fine art, craft, technology, and music, the hybrids exist as ergonomic functional musical instruments as well as sculpture; they are constructed from readily available consumer objects designed to perform a different function, and when amplified are shaped with cutting-edge sound processing allowing artful musical sounds and expression. Please note that not all the works are intended to produce sounds.

The guitar most specifically can be viewed as a potent social (and even religious) symbolic icon linked to much of the psychic upheaval in our culture; it still dominates rebellious experimental music and is a potent androgynous image for the female form, male phallus, and hand-held weapon. Sex and death, and a formula for a post-apocalyptic reconstruction.

The playable hybrid instruments are amplified with small piezo transducers (contact microphones) attached to the instruments near (or as) the bridge. It is because of these mics that resonating chambers are not necessary, although the resulting sound is directly influenced by the acoustic properties of the material of the body/neck. A pre-amp box, guitar amplifier, and various sound processing effects are used to manipulate the sounds. The entire body of the instrument becomes touch-sensitive enabling the player to pluck, tap, stroke, or bow the various parts to create a variety of percussive sounds as well as those produced by the vibration of the strings. As far as the music itself is concerned, most of the material was derived from the “feeling” of the initial sound of each piece when it was first plugged in. Within certain simple structures, the music and the playing methods are improvised (as is the creation of the instruments themselves).


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