Friday, September 30, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 18 -- the Sea Organ of Zadar

Today's instrument is like the Aeolian Wind Harp in that it can be considered a natural musical instrument.

The story begins with World War II, and the devastation suffered in the Croatian city of Zadar. In their hasty attempt to reconstruct, their sea coast was left looking quite plain. The Sea Organ was designed by architect Nikola Basic in 2005 as part of an attempt to redesign it into something more aesthetically pleasing.

The Sea Organ of Zadar stretches seventy meters long and hosts thirty-five pipes built underneath white marble steps. The natural movement of the sea pushes air in and out of the pipes, creating music that changes based on the size and speed of the waves.

Monday's instrument isn't up for a hug.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 17 -- Instruments Made of Ice by Terje Isungset

Terje Isungset is like Len Solomon in that I could write about him every day and never run out of instruments. Today, however, I will focus on his amazing ability to create and play music with instruments made of ice.

He was a respected musician and composer long before he was commissioned in 1999 by the Lillehammer Winter Festival to perform in a frozen waterfall. He continued to create ice music moving forward, and even has his own independent record company, All Ice Records.

He has moved on to making music with glass as of late, but he remains well known for his Songs of Ice and Fire... cue the groans, George R.R. Martin fans.

Tomorrow's instrument could stand up to Poseidon if it really wanted to.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 16 -- Aeolian Wind Harps

The Aeolian Wind Harp is just that -- a harp played entirely by the wind. Makes sense, since it's named after Aeolus, the Greek God of the wind.

It goes way back, with its first ever mentioning in a book by Althanasius Kircher in 1673. Since then, wind harps have been constructed in many different ways. They are often compared to wind chimes, but it should be noted that wind chimes produce noise from a percussive effect while the Aeolian Harp plays solely harmonic frequencies.

The material used to build the instrument and the speed and style of the wind can have a profound impact on the sound. Below are two videos showcasing two very different moods -- one beautiful and ethereal, and the other somewhat horrifying.

Tomorrow's instrument can be a bit cold-hearted at times.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 15 -- the Stylophone

There was a point 10-20 years ago when holding a stylus pen meant you were either very important or trying very hard to appear so.

It makes sense, then, that someone thought making music with a stylus pen was a good idea. David Bowie certainly thought so when he played a Stylophone on the song Space Oddity.

Imagine one of those PDA things people once used to keep track of appointments, and then go back further to 1967, the year the Stylophone (STYLUS + XYLOPHONE) was invented by a man named Brian Jarvis. It's a small instrument that plays notes when you connect circuits by poking it with a stylus pen.

It is certainly weird and interesting, so it deserves a spot here.

Tomorrow's instrument enjoys the way the wind blows through its hair.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 14 -- Wintergatan's Marble Machine

I played with MarbleWorks a lot as a kid, so this one is extra fascinating to me.

Technically, Wintergatan is the name of a Swedish folktronica band that does a lot of neat things with weird instruments, but today I wanted to focus on a marble machine constructed by band member Martin Molin. It's a giant music box, powered by hand, that uses steel marbles and feeder tubes to strike notes in a manner that creates a full song with a steady rhythm.

Their YouTube videos have been shared all over social media, but here's a good one to start with if you haven't seen any yet. The machine in the video is said to use 2,000 marbles.

Tomorrow's instrument still uses a PDA.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 13 -- the Chromatone 312

A piano has 88 keys. That's a whole lot!

Or maybe it isn't. A small Japanese company called Chromatome certainly didn't think so when they invented the Chromatome 312 -- a synthesizer with 312 unlabeled keys that sought to overhaul the long-standard 88 key layout for piano keyboards. It looks like a giant typewriter.

The practice required to manipulate hundreds (literally) of unlabeled keys would be massive indeed, but if you're looking for something with a high octave range, look no further.

I could be wrong here, but it seems that octaves (all the A notes, B notes, etc.) are grouped together, so there's a small ray of hope for anyone who dares to play this thing.

Monday's instrument might make you lose your marbles.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 12 -- the Anarchestra

Anarchestra is a collection of about 100 interactive musical instruments designed to be playable by musicians and non-musicians alike. The name combines the words anarchy and orchestra to describe a musical experience without definitive rules. describes their purpose as to "encourage non-musicians to explore the making of sound, to allow experienced musicians to make sound unconstricted (sic) by their technical habits and preconceptions, and to provide an alternative vocabulary of musical sounds."

According to the video below, it is also set up as an interactive art exhibit the public is allowed to play.

The majority of the instruments are designed by Alex Ferris with steel and select custom parts for mouth pieces and to control pitch.

Tomorrow's instrument is sick of people calling it a typewriter.

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Previous Weird Instruments:
Day 11 - The Oomphalapompatronium

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 11 -- the Oomphalapompatronium

Remember Len Solomon and his Bellowphone from DAY 1?

Put that instrument through a psychedelic funhouse on Saturn and you might end up with something half as bizarre as the Oomphalapompatronium. That name is not a typo. It took a long time to spellcheck. I will not attempt to pronounce it. I won't even try to describe it. I'll leave that to the guy in the video below. Brace yourself for the sounds this amazing thing makes.

Tomorrow's instrument is without established law and order.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 10 -- the Intonarumori

Today's weird instrument is actually a group of instruments (known collectively as the Intonarumori) designed by experimental Italian composer Luigi Rossolo during the country's futurism movement in the early 20th century.

They're fully acoustic instruments often operated by a wheel that, when spun, rattles strings and/or drums inside. Many also have a handle that controls the tension of the strings and changes their pitch.

Rossolo designed the instruments in response to his belief that music had run out of steam. New musical compositions failed to enchant him because they sounded too much like what came before. He wanted new sounds to excite his ears in new ways.

The original instruments no longer exist, but some of Rossolo's original sketches (along with a few sound recordings) have led to three reconstructions of the instruments.

I'll give credit to Rossolo. That is not a sound I've heard before.

Tomorrow's instrument will actually be just one instrument. I promise.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 9 – Circuit Bending

Today is the second entry in this series that's broader than a single instrument (the first was DAY 7, the Vegetable Orchestra of Vienna). This one goes out to the engineer-minded musicians out there.

Circuit bending is defined by Wikipedia as "the creative, chance-based customization of the circuits within electronic devices such as low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children's toys and digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators."

A simpler way to define it is "messing with an electronic device's circuits to make weird things happen."

For example, you can circuit bend the graphics on an old video game console to make bizarre pictures on your television screen. For music, you can circuit bend the sound on a device that has a speaker or audio output to change the noises it makes.

People who circuit bend don't always know what the end result will be, so exploration is a big part of the process. You can circuit bend electric guitars, effects, and amplifiers, but some of the most memorable examples have been with objects whose primary function was not to make music.

Like this old Nintendo Gameboy...

Or my favorite, an old Speak & Spell...

Or this... whatever it is...

Tomorrow's instrument cares about the future of Italian music.

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Friday, September 16, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 8 – the Musical Saw

You can do many things with a saw, but nowadays most people don't think of music as one of them. The thin shape and bendable design, however, make it quite suitable for a variety of notes.

In the early 1900s a good number of American manufacturers were making musical saws. World War II's demand for materials killed off most of the market, but the art of musical carpentry is far from dead.

NYC musician and street performer Natalia Paruz makes beautifully odd music with one.

NOTE TO KIDS: Saws are not a toy. Natalia Paruz is an adult with extensive training. If you need a saw for anything, please ask an adult family member to help you. Or just wait until you're much older.

UPDATE 9/18/2016:

The talented Natalia Paruz got in touch with me on Twitter to thank me for this post, and directed my attention to the amazing video below.

Behold #30DaysofWeirdInstruments, Day 8.5: The Pitched Cowbells!

Monday's instrument will bend your mind.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 7 – the Vegetable Orchestra of Vienna

Almost anything, when struck appropriately, can be a percussion instrument. The Vegetable Orchestra of Vienna (sometimes called the The Vegetable Orchestra or Vienna Vegetable Orchestra) know this better than anyone.

A group of eleven musicians formed in 1998 have taken to touring the world to perform music with instruments made out of fresh vegetables. And if you're a member of the audience, you can look forward to soup made out of their instruments after the show. This requires them to visit local markets to shop for their instruments before every performance.

A quick glance at their website reveals that they have no band leader, and no one remembers who came up with the idea.

The concept behind their performance has drummed up a ton of questions (and some mild controversy), and they've responded quite thoroughly on the Q&A page of their website.

Tomorrow's instrument has a solid background is carpentry.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 6 – the "Rock Ock" 8 Neck Guitar

There are tons of multi-neck guitars out there, but this one has the distinction of being the largest one that is actually playable. The musicians involved have to get up close and personal to make it work.

The video below kicks off with specs:

154 frets.
80 fingers.
51 strings.
40 pounds.
16 hands.
8 necks.
1 instrument.

Is this guitar necessary? No.

Does it improve our ability to make music? Not really.

But... is it really cool to watch people play it? Totally!

Tomorrow's instrument comes with a full serving of vegetables.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 5 – The Lego Harpsichord

It's a harpsichord made out of LEGOs! Even if this toy didn’t define your childhood, the idea that a gigantic Lego Harpsichord exists should light up your heart and put your soul at peace.

Every part of this harpsichord, including the keyboard, is made out of Lego pieces. The only exceptions are the wire strings, which, if made of Legos, wouldn't function properly.

Here's the info on how it was constructed. It includes a ton of details. What's particularly amazing is how they managed to build a Lego structure that wouldn't fall apart after repeated play. There is also a link to an audio example of what it sounds like.

It's worth noting that other people out there have constructed smaller Lego Harpsichords (see the video below), so it stands to reason that a young engineer with enough know-how could put their own together.

Tomorrow's instrument is always putting its neck on the line.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 4 – Civic Musical Road

If you've driven over a toll road, you've probably experienced those speed grooves that make a "BMMMMP" sound to warn you of approaching tolls. Now imagine using a bunch of them to play a song!

In September 2008, a quarter-mile stretch of road between 60th and 70th Street West in Lancaster, California was made into “Civic Musical Road.” Named after the Honda Civic and featured in one of the company’s commercials, the road used speed grooves attuned to specific notes to play out a short snippet of the William Tell Overture’s Finale whenever a car drove over it.

Unfortunately, the constant noise annoyed some of the surrounding neighbors, so it was paved over less than a month after it was created. A separate group of neighbors then complained about its removal, and it was recreated in the left lane only. The moral, apparently, is you can't expect everyone to agree on everything.

Neither speed nor car model is said to affect the pitch, and watching multiple videos confirms this. The idea is very cool, but a warning to musicians with good pitch – the tones aren't quite right, so listening to this may hurt your ears.

Tomorrow’s instrument is really painful to step on.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 3 – The Cheese Drums

Animal from the Muppets would love these. And if you like your drums pleasant sounding and delicious, you'll love them, too.

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether or not the cheese drums are pleasing to the ears, but I will say that Han Bennink, the drummer in the video below, has mad skill.

His performance is from a 2005 exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art called DEMONS STOLE MY SOUL: Rock ‘N Roll Drums in Contemporary Art. The video description talks about the meaning behind the cheese in a more informed manner. 

Seriously, those chops are bananas. That is high level drumming by a man known for his ability to play on any surface.

Monday’s instrument will drive you nuts.

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, DAY 2 – The Pyrophone Organ

“Pyro” is right there in the name, and it's there for a reason. It's an organ powered by combustion, meaning if you want it to make music, a section of it has to be on fire.

The Pyrophone's inventor, Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner, would've loved Beavis and Butthead had he lived during their run on MTV. His invention is an “internal combustion instrument”, meaning it’s powered by either propane or gasoline generated explosions inside a series of large glass resonant chambers that serve as the organ’s pipes. The chambers’ heights determine the sound or pitch for each explosion.

The exhaust exits the chamber tops, so theoretically this instrument is totally safe. But you still shouldn’t try it at home.

Jimi Hendrix used boring old lighter fluid to set his guitar on fire. Imagine him rocking one of these at Woodstock.

Tomorrow’s instrument is pretty cheesy.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 1 – Len Solomon's Majestic Bellowphone

Welcome to the launch of the 30 Days of Weird Instruments blog series! We'll be celebrating I AM DRUMS's release by showcasing 30 instruments with exceptionally odd designs every weekday until mid-October.

Why celebrate a book release with weird instruments? Because Sam Morris, the protagonist of I AM DRUMS, builds a homemade drum set out of comics, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and newspapers. That sounds pretty strange until you see some of the other musical wonders people have invented.

Instruments for this blog series were chosen for the uniqueness of their design and/or manner in which they are played. Instruments perceived as weird solely from a cultural perspective were not included.


Our first day of weird instruments begins about 33 years ago with the Bellowphone, a musical monstrosity made out of salvaged materials. It includes parts from vacuums, toasters, tin cans, and more.

It was designed and built by one-man orchestra of the bizarre, Leonard “Len” Solomon. I could spend all 30 days writing about his creations alone, but for now we’ll focus on this entertaining absurdity he built in his Cambridge basement woodshop in 1983. Solomon describes it as something out of a Dr. Seuss story.

In the video below (the music starts at about 0:36), you can see a few store-bought items – my favorites are a child’s kickball, a whistle, and a kazoo – but those parts only make up 7% of the instrument. The other 93% is built entirely from scratch.

Len has been performing one-man musical comedy shows in theaters, on the street, and just about any other place you can imagine for decades.

That’s only DAY 1 – we have 29 more days to go. Tomorrow's instrument is sure to heat things up.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I AM DRUMS has arrived!

Leave it to me to get so swept up in release day madness that I forget to post the book's release on my website until nighttime!

Today went very well! I went to work like a regular human being and distracted myself with students so I wouldn't obsessively check the internet.

Twitter lit up with #IAmDrums love. I expected two or three people to give it a shout out on social media, so it was wonderful to check my phone at lunch and see hundreds of notifications from friends, family, and the kidlit community. I feel loved!

And YOU can now find I AM DRUMS in your local bookstore, library, or online merchant. It is a physical thing that is real and not going anywhere.


Prepare for some pretty odd stuff.

Monday, September 5, 2016

On the Eve of Publication

I'm going to try to sleep soon. It's not going to work because I've been waiting for tomorrow for a long time. Thank you for listening to my publishing rants and raves thus far and supporting me even though you don't have to.

There's more to come, especially this upcoming week, and I truly appreciate the social media space I've been given. I wrote the best book I was capable of writing, and if I'm lucky enough to publish another I promise to try even harder.