Archive for the ‘Ceramic Musical Instruments’ Category

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Inspiration Happens


McAfee Concert Hall - Belmont UniversityTwo events of the last day or so  inspired me. One of those events was viewing the YouTube video that you see at the bottom this post. The video clip displays an udu-lamellophone performance.  It is an unusual combination for ceramic musical instruments and it isn’t completely unique, but it is interesting that my sketches of a more complex instrument of the same combination never came to reality because I couldn’t imagine anyone being particularly interested in such an oddity. Certainly, the market is a narrow niche, but it does re-affirm that there are people who seek out unusual instruments to play and enjoy.  This inspiration is one of the kick-in-the pants variety.

The second event happened last night. Deb and I attended the grand opening of  Belmont University’s McAfee Concert Hall.  There are hardly adequate words to describe the amazing acoustical qualities of the space and the performances.  Belmont’s music faculty and students deliver excellence consistently and last night was no exception. The chill bumps kept popping up on my arms all evening long.  If my musician-dad had been there, it would have taken a seat belt to restrain his elation .

There was one thing said at the grand opening that hit very close to home…and I wish I could remember who made the remarks. In describing the architectural treatments and the intentionality of how music would be affected by the space, the speaker said something about the architect-musician becoming one.  Both the architect and the musician build, if you think about it.  And the fruits of the musician and architect have an impact on the people touched by their work.  I needed to be reminded of that.  The architect and musician parts of me, even if shelved as part of my past, resonated a bit when those words were spoken.  As I wrote at the first if this post, I  was inspired…and caught off guard when it happened.

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Ocarina Making Satisfaction


Sculptural OcarinaIt has been a while since I took a day to construct a sculptural ocarina. For those who have not been following along, my sculptural ocarinas are fully functional, single octave ceramic musical instruments plus there is a significantly different, sculptural look to each of them. My earlier face-sculptured ocarinas did not have the detailed facial features of this piece.  For several months I have been studying portrait sculpture and facial anatomy to get a better understanding of how to form facial emotions with some degree of believability.  Even though the face on this ocarina is caricature-like, I would like to believe that the direction is toward believability.

One commenter on my Flickr account noted that this instrument looks either Mayan or Aztec.  That is intentional and may be more evident if I can master the making of custom decals…but that is a post for another day.

Ocarinas with this much ornamentation (approximately 9 separate pieces assembled) brings with it a greater risk that cracking or breakage may happen in the firing process.  The majority of these pieces survive.  Some do not function as well after firing as a ceramic musical instrument due to warpage in the airway and tone-producing fipple area…all the more reason to at least have a surviving sculptural piece that can make a great conversation piece.

I have been asked on several occasions, “Why are these pieces so expensive?”  The total time to form, carve, assemble, tune, fire, glaze, and re-glaze several times can be upward of 20-30 hours. Factor in the cost of materials and energy and what may look like a toy become something of a serious investment.  For me personally, the “AH-HA” moment when a new friend hears the flute-like sound for the first time and inevitably smiles one of those happy, raised-eyebrow smiles makes it all worthwhile.

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Ceremonial Whistling Bottle


Ceremonial Bottle - Whistling VesselThis a different sort of whistling vessel – ceramic musical instrument.  Only the fact that it plays two tones slips this into a category as an instrument, otherwise it is a tone sculpture.  Some 25+ wheel-thrown and hand-built pieces of stoneware were assembled to bring this piece up to its maximum height of 25 inches.  Now that it has been bisque fired to 1700 degrees (F), the actual height is closer to 23.5 inches.

This ceremonial whistling bottle sounds when one of two events happen.  By removing the small, stopper-head on the back side, the vessel can be filled with water.  After replacing the stopper, the entire piece can be rocked forward (ceremoniously bowing), until water escapes through the rolled tongue of the larger head at the top.  Due to the design of the tube that feeds the spout, a slight back pressure forces air up a second tube that will play the whistle locate beneath the surface of the nose on the larger head as the water flows from the spout.  The second way that this piece sounds happens when the partially filled vessel is rocked back to its upright position.  Air passing back through the tube and airway spout create a column of air that plays the whistle in the smaller bottle-stopper head. Yes. I know that sounds complicated… but it is that level of sophistication that the Inca figured out several hundred years ago.  That is a sophistication that I still find humbling in today’s world of high tech.

There are intentional sides to this piece that reveal characteristics of a woman, a posture of worship, a gargoyle-like protector, and the mechanical mysteries of sounding a tone and delivering a stream of water.  I will leave it up to Dr. Ephriam Bowen to tell the story behind this ceremonial vessel.  In the meantime, the stoneware survived its initial firing and awaits staining and glazing.  Pictures of the construction process will be coming soon.


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“M” is for Maquette


I have some serious doubts that ancient, mesoamerican musical instrument builders spent time building maquettes of the ceramic musical instruments they created.  Maquette has French, Italian, and Latin genes, originally translated as “speck” or stain”. In contemporary use, it is more commonly used by architects and sculptors to mean a small-scaled, study model for a larger piece. Arguably, ancient Mayan and Incan musical instruments that feature a character holding/playing a much smaller ceramic musical instrument qualifies, I suppose, as a maquette.

Maquette and Sketches of Whistling VesselFor me, the retired architect, building a maquette for a complex piece that is intended to be both sculptural and functional makes sense. Certainly, sketches are my first step in visualizing what is coming from the mind’s eye and to establish some sense of scale, but there are other benefits. Clay is a very malleable and forgiving media that enables the artist to make mid-course corrections and changes in the designs. Building a small maquette helps to reveal some of those options that might otherwise hide themselves in a two-dimensional drawing.

The maquette and sketches in the picture on this post are for the whistling vessel that is currently under construction. Not wanting to fire the work in multiple pieces, the interior height of the electric kiln became a major factor in the scale of the project. Between the sketching and the constructing of the maquette, a number of changes happened to the original concept as the piece evolved into something that (potentially) will be an unusual whistling vessel. In this instance, the pouring of water through the vessel will play a tone as the water escapes the spout, and, the vessel will play a different tone through the stopper as the vessel is tilted back from a pouring position to its upright state. If it works, I will be thanking that Physics of Fluid Dynamics professor from decades ago. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be blaming the “C-” that I received in the course *grin*.

Unique Mix of Blog and Ceramic Musical Instruments


Springfield High Functional Ceramics BlogThe number of blogs about ceramic musical instruments isn’t likely to make anyone’s Top 10 list of popularly read blogs on the internet, however, there are creative educators who are connecting the dots. One such blog involves Ms. B’s functional ceramics class at Springfield High School in Springfield, PA. I commend Ms. B. and her class for exploring the world of ceramic musical instruments and for using a blog to express ideas and responses to the online questions. I would guess that some of her students view the assignments as just one more thing they have to do, but what they may not realize is the value of writing, sharing, and community building that an online presence offers. Kudos to Ms. B and the several blogs she uses with her ceramics classes! Nicely done!!

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Whistling Vessel Video


I forgot to add a link to the Whistling Vessel Video that I loaded onto YouTube last week. There will be better videos but probably not better tunes coming from the vessels *grin*.

Here is the Windows Media Video file (.wmv) version, uploaded for WordPress:
Whistling Vessel Testing.

Experimentation continues on ceramic musical instruments. New pieces are expected out of the kiln next week (not much of a cliffhanger, right?).

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Whistling Vessel Mystery


Novel writing hit a speed bump last year when I discovered that there were actual, historical artifacts that related to my protagonist’s quest to discover the source of mesoamerican, ceramic instrumental music. OK, so it wasn’t a speed bump, it was more like an aha-moment-stop-the-presses event that sent me into a frenzy of applied research and experimentation.  Whistling vessels are a fascinating mystery.  Whistling jars that involve the use of water are even more mysterious. The key word for the historical fiction writer exploring these artifacts is mystery.

Double globed, clay musical instrument - Whistling Water VesselIn contemporary circles there seem to be a couple of theories regarding the use of  whistling vessel artifacts found primarily from present day Mexico to Peru.  Donald Wright makes a solid case in Peruvian Whistling Vessels that their use involved making metaphysical or supernatural connections:

“…A discovery utilizing sound that could transport human beings into a new and unique realm of experience…possibly to other worlds of existence. This sound was not music, but instead a special toning of whistles which, when blown together with other such vessels, had the ability to induce what has been described as a trance state of a spiritual nature.”

Brian Ransom, (educator, clay artist, musician, and researcher) writes that water rather than human breath played a role in the function of whistling water jars.  His extensive studies into the actual construction and artistic characteristic make a solid case that these instruments may have served a variety of functions but ultimately compound the mystery of their actual use:

“Music, ritual and contact with more-than-human realms via hallucinogenic substances as well as in everyday belief systems are prevalent among indigenous South Americans today. We can speculate that these mystical religious beliefs were also prevalent in ancient times. With these thoughts in mind, we can theorize that whistling jars were used as a means of spiritual contact.”

Daybreak - Ceramic Musical InstrumentToward the end of Don Wright’s article are suggestions that whistling vessels were very personal, evidenced by their presence in a number of Pre-Columbian burial sites. Equally intriguing is the concept that the mysteries of the spiritual qualities, construction, and inherent powers are passed along to select individuals from one generation to another. I count myself as a skeptic to the mysticism and powers of an inanimate object, even a whistling vessel. When demonstrated, however, the reactions by individuals who see and hear, first-hand a whistling vessel in use is often an other-wordly, “Wow”. Those reactions alone are sufficient for Dr. Ephriam Bowen to delve further into the mystery of ancient, ceramic musical instruments as well as the keepers of the skill to construct these enigmatic works of art. The time is approaching that my old friend Ephriam will pick up his pen and wrap up The MugPhlute Chronicles.

Pictured here is the work-in-progress whistling water vessel that will likely inspire Dr. Bowen’s fictional accounts.