Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Anything Goes With Instrument Designer Kenny Wollesen

Musical director for The Tempest Kenny Wollessen on set at The Smith Center. Photo by Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun.
Think twice when you think about getting rid of that chest of drawers. Or throwing out or recycling coffee cans. Those items could be the makings of a quirky musical instrument in the hands of Kenny Wollesen. His truly distinctive instrument designs create a sonic experience in Aaron Posner and Teller’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We caught up with him by email while he was on tour in eastern Europe for a conversation about his musical beginnings, instrument inspirations and working on The Tempest.

The Wheary Grinder
What inspired you to get into music?
In the fourth grade, I was asked what instrument I wanted to play in the school band. I immediately said trumpet; they said I would be playing drums. I have no idea why that happened; anyway, it stuck! All my gang of friends play music, too, so I mainly was inspired by them.

We started a band—The Jazz Delinquents aka The JDs—and started playing gigs. I was obsessed with jazz—Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and the like—and I was so inspired by the few records that my dad had. To this day, Miles Davis’ “Bags Groove” and Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” are still my favorite records!

What about instrument design—when did that come along?
The first instrument I built was back in the early 90s. It was a poor man's copy of Tom Nunn's “Bug.” Nunn is a great instrument builder and musician from the Bay Area. Tom Waits had me play one for his opera, Alice, which premiered in Hamburg at the Thalia Theater.

My version of the “Bug” wasn’t nearly as sophisticated and beautiful as the one made by Tom Nunn, but mine did the job and I was able to use it on many recordings and at gigs. Shortly after that, the great composer John Zorn asked me to make some instruments for a piece he was writing for bass flute and two foley artists, The Prophetic Mysteries of Angels, Witches and Demons. A foley artist is the person who makes sound effects for movies.

Zorn described what he wanted sound-wise and I came up with a gaggle of instruments, from which Zorn picked three for the work’s premiere at Columbia University. He chose The “Wheary Grinder,” “Prepared Rifle” and “Prepared Slide Projector.” The “Weary Grinder” is used in The Tempest when Ariel is in the twister box!

I’m intrigued with instruments from “found” objects—like coffee cans, aged shoes and the like. Where do you find things?
Flea markets—I love flea markets! One of my very first gigs was at a flea market, so I go every weekend I get a chance…anywhere in the world. Flea markets are a treasure trove of ideas and possibilities and materials and there is an ever-changing flow of new and strange “goodies.”

Let’s talk The Tempest—how did you approach the instrument design possibilities for this show?
It all came from Shakespeare himself. His descriptions of the sound and noises of the island of Prospero are clear, beautiful and exciting. Check it out from the bard himself:
“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
 Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again.”
Or words and phrases like: “whistle,” “storm,” “cry,” “thunderclaps,” “fire and cracks” and “roaring.” There’s a lot of meat on the bone to work with!

Can you talk about some of the instruments you created for this show?
I built a smaller version of the “Mbrain” for Teller and Aaron’s take on “the Scottish play” some years ago at the Two Rivers Theater in New Jersey. I wanted to create a sound for Macbeth as he begins to contemplate his murderous rampage of his king—and everyone else—and then as he realizes he is doomed when he sees Birnam Wood actually move to Dunsinane. His brain kind of fries and melts, so I wanted to create a sound for that. In The Tempest, it is used for Prospero’s spells on Caliban.

The “Marimbula” is kinda a hyped-up Kalimba—or thumb piano. It was challenging to make, but I’m pleased with it. I made it out of drawers from a thrown-away cabinet and antique dinner knives. I made it especially for this show and it’s the first instrument i made with a full chromatic scale. It has a great percussive bass tone.

The “Glass Armonica” is the one instrument in the show that I didn’t make. It was beautifully built by Seattle artist and musician Bliss Kolb. He built it for Gina Lieshman, theatre composer and multi-talented musician. It is a wonderful instrument, with a completely new design from the “traditional” one that was built by Benjamin Franklin. Hats off to Bliss and Gina for letting it be in the show.

How do you interact with the musicians who use the Tempest instruments?
Similar to the drums, my instruments are very, very easy to play, but hard to master! Really, there are three secrets to mastering any instrument: practice, practice, practice.

One writer has said that you are to percussive instrumentation what Teller is to the art of magic. How accurate is that assessment?
I’m not so sure about that! I consider Teller a bonafide true master of his art. His knowledge and the skill of his craft are so inspiring to me, yet he also is continuously curious and searching for new ways and ideas to add to his mastery. I think that’s where we meet; I’m not a master but I’m still searching for new ways and ideas.

I see many parallels between music and magic; so much depends on the small, small details, the slight twist of the hand, the way one holds or touches the instrument, use of the right kind of string, how much rosin is put on the bow.

What do you like most about what you do?
The constant change! Every moment, every second is different in music that it’s never ever the same.

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