It is hard to have a bad time when you are playing a drinking straw as a flute. At the concluding concert for his IAP class, “Small Instruments: Musical Instrument Building & Performance,” Pawel Romanczuk gave the audience their very own instrument – a rudimentary flute made from drinking straws, which was the first assignment he gave the students at the start of the five-day workshop – and invited everyone to participate at whim. Rarely does a concert of “experimental music,” deliver such playfulness, humor and DIY spirit. Some members of the audience had an impromptu dance party in the back of the room as the music – which was by turns carnivalesque and ethereal – filled the ground floor space of the MIT Museum.
Romanczuk applied the term Samoróbka (Polish for self-made, or homemade) to the type of sound he and the students explored in the workshop. This homemade aesthetic extended to the materials for the instruments themselves. Old rakes, plastic buckets, discarded lumber, drinking straws, and other garden-variety household items, were transformed into an array of musical instruments. Romanczuk noted that many of the things in our everyday experience have musical properties, but it requires innovative thinking to exploit them to create sound.
In the workshop, he stressed that simple technology can create basic instruments, but they demand better skills to play. His prescription for playing music this way is to forget your habits, to be open to new thoughts and feelings, and to be fearless. On these counts, MIT students excelled, according to Romanczuk: “I’m glad to work with MIT students: They are very dynamic, creative and happy to do something new.” He also observed that MIT students were particularly good at thinking about the construction, mechanics and resonant properties of these everyday objects.
The students – about half of whom had prior musical training – demonstrated their instruments prior to entertaining the audience with an improvisational group performance. The instruments included the “drunkaphone” (a beer bottle submerged in a glass of water and played with a bow), balloon flutes (pvc pipes topped with a cap that has a balloon stretched over it), the “bass x 4” (a 2×4 with strings designed to emulate a bass), a triangular harp (made from reclaimed wood with buckets as amplifiers), a metal columba (made with prongs from an old rake), and a daxophone made from a tin can and a wooden pole. Piezo pickups attached to the instruments amplified the sound. Other than a little reverb, there was no processing to the music performed.
While the students played improvised music in their two sets, Romanczuk himself composes his scores for his band Małe Instrumenty (Small Instruments), which he formed in 2006. He explores new sounds using a wide array of small instruments – found, rebuilt from spare parts, or designed from scratch – from toy pianos to homemade child-sized cellos. Inspired by the soundtracks to old Polish animated films, the instruments used in the group’s sonic experiments feature an ever-expanding array of instruments, children’s toys, and strange musical inventions. Małe Instrumenty’s music reveals the unique colors of sound, from the beautiful to the surprising to the insightful.
This program was part of MIT Sounding, and was sponsored by CAST, MTA and the MIT Museum.