If you've got any of those phonetic toys used to teach children to speak, or one of those "hey, NOW it's a party!" talking fish mounted on a fake wood plaque, or basically anything that makes noise and contains electronics, chances are Randy Ward can make an instrument out of it--one that would emit sounds never anticipated by its original form. Ward, former guitarist and sometime singer for Chapel Hill's Metal Flake Mother, is now a one-man, multiple-machine band called Protean Spook. He builds most of his instruments out of these unsuspecting little gizmos..
"Let me show you this," he says, stepping over a tangle of cords and wires in his laboratory and picking up a toy pistol that looks like something Buck Rogers would have used. "It's a ray gun, which I use sort of rhythmically."
With the gun plugged into the mazelike system of his homemade instrument console, Ward pulls the trigger and begins twisting a knob that has been crudely fastened to the innards of the toy, creating piercing, oscillating pulses of sound.
"Basically I just put a potentiometer ["a three-terminal resistor with an adjustable center connection, widely used for volume control in radio and television receivers"--American Heritage Dictionary] in it, so that the clock speed is adjustable. That's the first thing I do to any little musical thing that I buy...clock speed is usually just pitch and tempo," he explains as he triggers the two-piece drum kit that plays itself and begins to accompany the drums with his ray gun.
And there's more--lots more. In a small room in his home, Ward has almost floor-to-ceiling piles of electronic guts (circuits, 1/4-inch inputs, switches), enormous speaker cabinets, a saw with a contact microphone attached to its blade (that Ward used to saw one of his guitar amps during his first show), and his "instrument", for lack of a better word. It's actually about 10 different items that have been made from scratch or manipulated to make bastardized versions of their intended sounds and mounted on a gigantic, wooden console resembling a high-voltage tiki bar.
The breakdown: first comes the drum kit. Consisting of one snare, one bass drum, one hi-hat, and one crash cymbal, the kit is controlled by a laptop on the console that sends programmed beats in the form of a digital signal to a box containing two different circuit boards. The first board converts the signal into electronic impulses and sends it on to the second, which acts as a voltage amplifier, delivering those impulses to various solenoids (electromagnetic pistons). When the solenoids receive the pulses, they cause the magnet to trigger various switches, levers and mallets that "play" the drums.
Now for the console itself. On one side are the toys--various children's electronic gizmos whose circuits have been "bent" or soldered together to create strange blends of sounds and linked to switches Ward has embedded in the bodies of the toys. Big Bird's Portable Piano has been tweaked to sustain huge, low tones when the keys are hit--many of Ward's bass lines come from here. There's a Speak 'n' Spell that spits out abrasive glitches of white noise and a toy guitar with tons of buttons that correspond to different beats or melodies. Two little Casio keyboards rest near the toys, delivering cool, icy synth sounds akin to those Brian Eno used on his early ambient recordings.
In the center of the console, sitting horizontally next to the laptop, is a piece of wood that acts as a crude guitar; two strings are stretched between two guitar bridges and over a regular pickup that sends the strings' sound through the console speakers. Under the strings are 12 pieces of metal that pivot on a small bar; when one end of each piece is pushed down (much like the keys on a piano), the other end seesaws upwards against the bottom of the strings, "fretting" them so Ward can play different notes with either his fingers or a guitar slide. To the right of the guit-piano is a set of metal rods fitted with contact microphones. The rods have been cut into different lengths and are played like a xylophone.
"I had to calculate very carefully how to cut the lengths of the bars," Ward says as he taps the bars with a drum mallet, sending the bell-like notes through his board of effects pedals and out of the speakers, "Because once you cut them, you're basically tuning them as well."
What does all this sound like together? When Ward unleashes the drum kit and starts playing Big Bird's Magic Piano, the effect in the tiny room is massive. Waves of bass shake the walls as conflicting frequencies generated by the various sound sources fight for space in the air, creating shards of dissonance. It's dark, driving, and immediate. It's not the kind of music that would sound just as good recorded. In fact, any sort of recording would do the whole project a disservice, for it's the way one hears the tones responding to the room they're projected into that makes such an impact on the listener.
"Most bands wouldn't think that recording their songs would be out of context," explains Ward. "I would...I like the fact that the physical makeup of the setup is determining so much of the sound."
Having experienced the spontaneity that comes with collaboration in a band, Ward recognizes the limits of a solo project, but the sounds that emerge from his machines are able to provide "a sense of unpredictability." In this way, Ward is a literal conductor for his instruments; their limitations dictate certain sonic guidelines, but it's those very guidelines layered upon each other that are writing the songs.
"One thing that's much different about playing alone than as part of an ensemble is that you're not getting ideas that you can't think of yourself," Ward says. "That's one of the greatest things about collaboration--the stuff that you couldn't have thought of. I do get a degree of that, because the instruments end up doing things that I did not conceive of. To some degree, parts of songs were written with the tools that I used to build the instruments. I don't make anything that has as wide a range as a piano or a guitar...everything just covers a much narrower range of what it can do. What it wants to do is sort of programmed into it. The construction of the instruments definitely dictates the kinds of melodies and textures that will come out of them. I often have a decent idea of what that's going to be, but that's one of the more exciting aspects of it--not having to be able to predict the sounds."
Getting everything to shows, though, is a time-consuming process. The console, about as long and wide as a small car, takes a few people to move it around, and all the instruments on it have to be taken off when loading it into a van, and then rearranged upon arrival at a club.
"It takes me about two hours to break it all down, and then I always have help loading it up; loading it into a van takes about less than an hour. And then there's a minimum of an hour setup time provided I have some help that's familiar with it," he says. "I really need to get somebody to be my tech guy, who can do sound... cause I really want to tour."
Ward's desire to tour provides a serious challenge: Are rock clubs willing to respect the "invisible aspects of sound" that Protean Spook is built on? It would be pointless for a soundman to treat the project like a regular rock band and not give enough attention to the specific frequencies needed for the songs to breathe. As pretentious as it sounds, Ward's real instrument is the air itself, since Protean Spook relies so much on soundwaves responding to their physical surroundings. It would be a shame if these concerns got in the way, though. The world needs more performers who carve up their amplifiers with an electric saw.