Douglas R. Ewart and the People's Idiophone

The People’s Idiophone was designed and constructed by Douglas R. Ewart in 2015-2016.  It consists of pot covers, serving trays, hubcaps, cooking plates, cymbals, aluminum discs, and more, and it is situated in front of Pillsbury House, a theater and community center in Ewart’s Minneapolis neighborhood.  People are able to walk up to the instrument and play it, producing a vast range of sounds, pitches, and textures.  I interviewed Mr. Ewart via Skype at the end of March 2017.




Molly Jones: Let me just start at the beginning.  I know you’re an instrument builder.  How did you come up with the idea for this one?


Douglas R. Ewart:  I moved to Chicago from Jamaica many years ago and became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and a lot of the composers were involved in what we called ‘little instruments,’ which included bells, gongs, sirens, whistles… The instruments that one might not consider your main items.  The People’s Idiophone is a distillation of those ideas from many years ago.


On top of that, I’ve always been involved in procuring materials by searching alleys, going to resale shops, going to junkyards, and looking for metals that have great sounds.  I still do that to this day.  Many of the pieces are a mixture of metals, aluminum discs (which make phenomenal sounds), metal hubcaps, pot covers, pots, utensils of all kinds give interesting sounds, because they’re made from really extraordinary metals.


MJ: So is your decision to use these repurposed materials just a matter of practicality or is there some kind of environmental statement there?


DRE: Both are there.  I think when you come from a culture like I have, the environmental thing is endemic, because people don’t throw things away.  You don’t see the kind of waste that you see in the United States.  I’d never be able to walk through the streets in Jamaica and find the kinds of materials that I’m able to find here.  You can walk through the streets here and find a completely functioning bicycle that has been discarded.  The idea of recycling or repurposing is a new nomenclature for many cultures, because they never thought of it as recycling.  It’s just, here’s some materials, I’ll transform it to what I need it to be.


You’ll see, for example, instruments from Africa where people are using bottle caps.  It’s a natural part of me, and I’m very environmentally conscious in the sense that I try not to throw away things that can be used.  In fact, I may be classified as somewhat of a hoarder. [laughs]  I think we have to be fanatical about the environment, particularly plastic bags, because they’re so dangerous, and they’re so ubiquitous.  If you buy a toothpick, the store will ask you if you want a bag.


I went to Bali some years ago.  There’s a river running through Ubud, the city that I stayed in.  And it was beautiful, just verdant.  These terraced areas for growing rice, I mean just, ah!  And then it rained, and the whole surface of the river was blackened by black plastic bags.  I have a composition that says ‘No more plastic bags in Ubud, there’s no place to put them here.  We have banana leaves and paper, leave your plastics over there.  They choke rice paddies and our waterways.’  Waterways in terms of the river, and waterways in terms of being humans; the way to life is to consume water.  And we’re very reckless with water.


MJ: Your perspective is very conscious about the planet and about taking care of it.  Was that something you wanted people to get out of this instrument you created, or was that kind of tangential?


DRE: No, it is not tangential, I want them to get that out of it, both children and adults.  I think a lot about young people, because when ideas are inculcated when you’re really young, they become firmly riveted in a way that’s more difficult when you grow older.


There are several reasons for the People’s Idiophone.  One of them is to show people that you can make instruments from almost any item, any item that you have around you.  That we can play music, because we grow up in a society where we hear music from the womb onward.  And that it’s a way to galvanize us, it’s a way for us to come together, it’s a way for us to play together, to have meaningful exchange in a real simple way.  


This instrument is set on the sidewalk in front of Pillsbury House, which is a theater and a community center in my neighborhood.  It was set up out there, and people play it.  Children play it.  It’s very interesting to sit on the side and be anonymous and to watch the interaction that takes place there.  People come, and they try to play together, so it creates a very interactive atmosphere.


MJ: What are some of your favorite reactions that you saw people have?


DRE: I think they didn’t realize that making sounds could be so engaging.  And, I think this is probably the most profound and interesting one, is when children go to it.  There are mallets tied so they can play, and they don’t want to leave.  And the parent is trying to get them to leave, and resistance occurs.  Sometimes the parent capitulates to the child’s wanting to stay a few more moments, and then sometimes a parent puts their foot down and says “We’re going to leave now!”  So that’s kind of interesting to watch.  And then to see people that are more professional or amateur players that come along and interact with the piece.  You can go from the most simple kind of interaction to one that’s far more complex in terms of the person’s skill.



MJ: Were children generally more interested than adults were?


DRE: You know, I wouldn’t say that.  And in fact, there is a particular man, a seemingly homeless man, that seemed to have his catharsis playing it.  He came every day to play the instrument.  We had an issue with it, because it’s in a residential area, and he would come and play it, and he would do that very late at night or very early in the morning.  The first indication that somebody was having issues was that they cut off all the mallets.  I came back and I was like, oh man!  These are all hand-made mallets.  I made the mallets, covered them with leather, several layers.


We eventually had to remove the mallets, and people could just play it with their hands.  But for him, we could see it was a deep connection, a deep outlet.  One of the things that I’d like to do is to take it into different neighborhoods and just set it up for a few hours and have people interact with it and then take it down.  It’s been a very engaging instrument, installation, experiment.  It’s multi-dimensional in terms of its purpose.


MJ: How do you think it fits into the other work you’re making right now?  Is there a connection to other things you’re doing?


DRE: Yes, it’s very much connected to other things I’m doing.  I’ve been doing a piece utilizing tops.  The tops are made from all sorts of materials: old LPs, CDs, 45s, vases, balls, anything that I think can spin I will try.


Here is an interesting one, because it’s made from a disc that’s larger than an LP.  It’s a 16 inch armed forces disc, which is made of aluminum, although it’s black coated with plastic, and then there’s an LP, then there’s another 33 ½ disc, just smaller than the typical LP.  Then there’s a 45, then there’s a CD or DVD.  So what you’re looking at is a very interesting historic overview of the technologies that have been used to store information.


I have a lot of different ones.  This tops thing has morphed into some really interesting work.  Before, I would just play with the top.  This time, I built a composition called Ewart’s Sonic Tops, and the tops are made from bamboo and different things that make sound because they’re hollow.  I cut holes into the hollow items to make flute like and other kinds of sounds when the tops are spun.  For the tops that use recycled materials or repurposed items, I call them ‘crepuscular items,’ and I do that because crepuscule means twilight.  These are items in their twilight of original intent.  The original intent of an LP was to play music, and now some of them are scratched and are no longer functional in that way.  I pick those up in resale/thrift shops and make things from them.  


I added another dimension where I go to schools and I make tops with the students.  They have a great time playing with them.  I bring a physicist with me, and we discuss the physics of a top.  There are many reasons for that.  One is, our children are often scared away from physics, mathematics, and the sciences.  I feel that if they are introduced at a young age, and if an equation can be described and discussed with a practical application, then they will grasp it and be a lot more interested when they see the correlation, as opposed to the abstract idea of physics.  You know, somebody says ‘physics’ and people shudder, and we’re involved in physics every day.  So this is a playful way to engage students in challenging subjects.  


They get to make something.  They hardly make anything they utilize; people don’t repair things.  So in doing this, you’re exposing the students to another side of creativity.  Then we have a vocabulary that goes with the physics of tops: precession, orbit, momentum, angular momentum, velocity, Doppler effect.  It’s almost endless.  Then you’re showing them that, hey, I’m a musician, I’m a teacher, I’m a builder of things, and I’ve been able to make a livelihood from doing what I love to do.  It has its challenges.  But the freedom that it provides you, the joy that it provides you, the quest for knowledge that it stimulates in you...  It’s a very powerful way to thrive and live.




MJ: It sounds like engaging other people, kids, anyone, is a pretty foundational part of your artistic vision, would you say that?


DRE:  You gotta make trouble for people, I mean challenges!  Yes!


With the tops, you’ll see the engagement it engenders.  People talking to each other; some people that had played with tops as children but hadn’t played with one in 40 or more years; people who’ve seen tops, but they’ve never actually spun one.  The different techniques that you can utilize to spin a top, the duration of the spinning, what an item looks like when it’s spinning and when it’s slowing down or it’s completely at rest, it’s powerful.  And then, you can connect heavenly bodies.  You can connect planets to these same behaviors of the tops, and then you can talk about gyroscopes, centrifuges.


Sometimes things that seem very simple and seem to be just about play, because this is my intent, actually morph play and work in such a way that they’re indistinguishable.  We learn from both and we enjoy both.  


Yes, a big part of my work is to engage others.  It’s a way of them releasing their creativity.  You learn a lot, because people have other approaches to doing the very thing you do, and sometimes when someone does it, you’re almost like “Oh, no, don’t do it like that!”  And then, when you stop and absorb what you’re being shown, you get to see, oh wow, maybe this is not the perfect way to do this, but it initiates another idea.  So learning is a cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches to doing anything.  You can learn just as much from children as you can from adults.  You can learn from novices or from, I call them nexperts, but experts.  


This free flow of interaction, this free flow of ideas, this opening up of ideas… I’m very much involved in improvisation.  Improvisation occurs in every facet of our daily lives, although people usually attribute it primarily to musicians.  And, of course, I would say musicians are maybe the gods of improvisation, because it’s a daily routine that they put under a microscope.  Improvisation is not just spontaneity, but it involves a deep study of whatever technique or discipline that one is involved in. In constructing tops you’re merging making things, improvisation, music, work, play, discipline, freedom, self-awareness, sharing/exchanging, creativity, and more.


In the piece Ewart Sonic Tops, it’s a host of disciplines that come together.  I’ve been putting dancers in the piece, tai chi, yoga, a double Dutch team, two poets, one that walks around the other on roller skates, and then a host of musicians.  I’ve also done it where we’ve videoed the activity that’s going on and then projected it back simultaneously with three different cameras.  You see the possibilities that are there, and it just started with, let’s make some tops with the kids to keep them from swinging and breaking the gate off.  Because some of them, their parents were not very pleased that they broke my gate.  And I thought, wow, you know how many times I wanted to jump on that gate?  I just knew it wasn’t quite suited for me to do it.


It takes time, and it takes thinking.  Often people don’t associate the intellect with improvisation. They just think, “Oh, you can just do any old thing.”  And good improvisers spend years working at it, so while it has that extemporaneous or spontaneous aspect, it also has a very disciplined aspect.  So it is with building things.  It takes time to develop the skills and to develop your creativity.  Creativity is not just...I’m trying to circumvent using the word natural.  You know how people say “Oh you’re so talented!”  As though you don’t have to work at doing anything.  Yeah, you know, it’s hundreds of thousands of hours that go into developing your mind to think in a certain way and to problem solve.  That’s really what improvisation entails, looking at something, seeing/realizing something different in it.


That thought brought me back to the environmental issue, particularly with water.  There’s a consciousness that we need to spark in people about water, about water reclamation, about its importance.  It requires a lot of processing and chemicals to reclaim water to make it potable again.  People who don’t have dishwashers or double sinks should use dishpans for washing their dishes.  When washing your hands or other articles, turn your water to a slow velocity.  We must never throw hazardous wastes down our sinks or sewers; there are special disposal centers for these.  Water is the source and sustainer of all life on Planet Earth!  Another issue that surrounds water is that it’s primarily women that gather water.  So many brilliant girls are unable to go to school because they spend days gathering water.  And of course we know that for regular animals the watering hole is where predators gather, and we have human predators too that gather at these watering holes.


So these things all converge, these ideas of repurposing, one-purposing is really what it is.  Something is never used up until it’s used till there’s seemingly no other purpose for it, and often then we can put them into art works.  I just had something repaired on my car and the man was going to throw the gasket away, and I said, oh no, I can use that!  He was like, “It’s all greasy.”  I can clean that off, just put it in a bag for me.  The next piece I make, I’m going to start with that item, just to make sure that I use it and I use it soon.





The polymathic Douglas R. Ewart has been honoured for his work as a composer, multi-instrumentalist, improviser, conceptual artist, sculptor and mask- and instrument designer and maker. Also an educator, Ewart bridges his kaleidoscopic activities with a vision that opposes today’s divided world, culture-fusing works that aim to restore the wholeness of communities and of the individuals within them, and to emphasize the reality that the world is an interdependent entity.

Ewart is a former Chairman of the illustrious Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the founder of Arawak Records, leader and founder of ensembles such as the Nyahbingi Drum Choir, Orbit, Quasar and Douglas R. Ewart & Inventions, and a designer and creator of musical instruments and sonic sculptures that have been exhibited in venues such as the DuSable Museum of African American History, Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum of Natural History Chicago and more.


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