Crinoidal bulbs. Architectural models of ruined walls from some lost Minoan city. The flat, broad, curved ribs of an unknown marine mammal. Roxanne Nesbitt’s ceramic creations hold both biomorphic and sculptural interest, as if they can’t quite decide whether they belong in a natural-history museum or an art gallery. But there’s more to them than just their rough-hewn aesthetic appeal; they’re also a new phylum of musical instrument.
Nesbitt calls them “symbiotic” or “parasitic” instruments, although she’s inclined to drop the latter term; it’s too negative for the entirely benign exchange she has in mind. Briefly, her ceramic creations are designed to sit on the strings of a piano or the skin of a drum, adding their own resonance and motion to the pre-existing sound. It’s not an entirely original concept: Nesbitt’s ideas have something to do with John Cage’s “prepared piano”, in which the sound of a keyboard is modified by placing washers or screws between its strings; there’s also the African practice of nailing bottle caps to the top of an mbira to add jangling overtones to a percussive melody.
But those rely on found objects. Nesbitt’s symbiotic ceramics are perhaps the first instance of a composer designing entirely new sound-producing devices to interact with acoustic instruments.
“In a lot of ways, it was inspired by travelling, and also by wanting to hear new sounds,” Nesbitt tells the Straight in a telephone interview from her Vancouver studio. “Wanting to design new instruments, but also wanting them to be accessible. I kind of had the idea in mind that if I designed custom-made instruments from scratch, they would be very precious, I guess—or precious to me, and then I probably wouldn’t want to share them. So I’m just trying to make something that could add a lot, timbrally, to existing
“I’ve already sent five ceramic pieces to a percussion-and-piano duo in Ottawa,” she adds. “I was able to just mail them off in bubble wrap, kind of with the understanding that I’ll probably never see them again—and that’s okay, because I have patterns. I have a way to duplicate them easily.”
Vancouver audiences will have their first chance to experience musical symbiosis this weekend, when Nesbitt will unveil her instruments—and her colourful scores, which mix graphic elements with traditional notation—at the Western Front. Playing them will be pianist Lisa Cay Miller and percussionists Katie Rife and Ben Brown; trumpeter JP Carter and violinist Joshua Zubot are also part of the ensemble, but on unmodified instruments.
Milller, who often uses prepared piano in her own music, waxes effusive about Nesbitt’s sense of exploration and argues that the upcoming concert should appeal to more than just connoisseurs of the avant-garde. “It’s so visual, and so beautiful,” she says. “Oftentimes, with abstraction or something unusual, if there’s a way to enter in—some kind of permission or enticement—that can help. And her instruments are just so beautiful—you see the pictures of them, and you just want to see what they’re going to sound like.”
Whimsy is also part of the attraction, but that doesn’t undercut the seriousness of Nesbitt’s intent. Not only did she learn ceramics specifically for this project, she’s also drawing on her background in classical music, considerable experience as an electronic producer, and a master’s degree in architecture.
“I guess I’ve always been very handy,” she says. “Before I started making ceramic instruments, I’d made wood instruments. I used to make clothes and books and a lot of physical objects; when I did my master’s I did a lot of model-making and building things. So I have design skills, I guess.…And studying architecture has really influenced the way that I make music. I’ve learned to not be afraid of bringing new things into music, and working with them in a different way.”
Roxanne Nesbitt presents Symbiotic Instruments at the Western Front on Friday (December 7).