A small metal bucket. Segments of rough-hewn PVC and metal pipe. A coffee tin. A red British post box coin bank. A spool of piano wire. A tiny, wooden drawer. Light switches, control boards, dials, film cans, electrical sockets. Pliers. Wire cutters. Rings of tubing, spoons, forks, nails, springs. Motors, yarn, string. A matte silver Christmas tree cake pan, film cans. Speakers, a license plate. A nest of wires.
To most, these things would be trash, but to musician and artist Will Mullany, one of three artists in residence at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative this summer, it’s treasure—items found in dumpsters, in friends’ attics and under art studio tables are precious components for instruments that challenge how music is made.
There’s something satisfying about doing something with your body and having it come back into your ear, says Mullany, who wanted to create instruments that people can play without any formal training. You don’t have to finger a chord on a fretboard or bow a string to make music, to make pleasing and interesting sound, Mullany says.
“Tradition and culture are the boundaries [of sound]. The only thing keeping people from making different music is genre and our long-standing reliance on the tools that have been the default for hundreds and hundreds of years.” Will Mullany
When he first got into The Bridge studio, he looked around and thought: “What can I do with this space that I can’t do anywhere else? What’s the most transverse thing you can do with a wall in an art gallery?” Turn it into a musical instrument made from trash, that’s what.
One of the walls in the studio is essentially a soundboard and thus the perfect foundation for some kind of large-scale instrument. Inspired in part by a spool of piano wire, and using zither pins (tuning pegs) to anchor the strings and the bucket, coin bank, coffee tin and various sections of pipe as bridge elements, Mullany built a dulcimer straight onto the wall.
Strike one of the wall dulcimer’s strings with a piano hammer, and that string’s bridge element will transmit via a hidden contact mic, amplifying the vibrations of the soundboard.
It’s the kind of thing found in a children’s museum—the pieces of pipe, the coffee tin, etc. are all movable—and their placement between the piano wire strings and the wall affects the sound that comes out. Move the bucket up a few inches and the sound completely changes. The string supported by the ring of metal pipe has a sitar-like sound, like something off The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
And Mullany hasn’t stopped at the wall dulcimer. There are wooden boxes with nails and springs that make horror movie noises via a contact microphone adhered to the inside of the box; there’s a digital synthesizer that has been manipulated into making weirdo sounds (and sometimes picking up a radio signal) when a nail or a screw is pushed into the socket of an electrical outlet mounted to the top of its film can case. There are multiple wind chimes made from wire, washers and railroad spikes, and coaxed into noise by the air or drumsticks, whatever you choose.
These instruments and the music they make is left partly up to chance: Mullany learns as he goes—he’s not a carpenter, luthier or electrician by trade.
“Tradition and culture are the boundaries” of sound, he says. “The only thing keeping people from making different music is genre and our long-standing reliance on the tools that have been the default for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
As for his workspace, Mullany knows what it looks like—he says he has a little bit of hoarder in him. The instruments in The Bridge installation are open for everyone to play, but oftentimes, Mullany says homemade instruments pile up around him unplayed. Before he moves to Richmond this fall, he wants to play all the instruments on a record, a sort of hoarder’s redemption, where he finally puts all that trash to use.
“Domestic Alchemy” officially opens at The Bridge on September 1, and visitors can see, hear and play what Mullany’s made. “It’s pretty immersive,” he says of the installation.
Visitors should keep in mind that sound produced by these instruments is “secondary” to the form-—his experimental instrument-making is all about how the instrument is played.
“With a physical object, you’re limited in a way that’s very freeing,” Mullany says. “When you have infinite choice [like with a highly programmed synthesizer or a guitar with a bunch of effects pedals] you’re paralyzed from fear that you’re not going to make the right choice. But then when all you have around you is garbage,” imagination and creativity are inevitable.