The Current Instruments
The Car Music Project's current instruments are made from parts of Milbrodt's own car. He hired mechanics to take the car apart and metal sculptor Ray Faunce III to design and build instruments for him from its parts. He also hired musicians to test them and offer ideas.
Milbrodt liked the instruments' sonic imperfections, which eventually resulted in the Car Music Project's unique sound.
But an equally important design issue was ergonomics. Each instrument had to be comfortable: light enough, balanced, and shaped so a player could appear on stage with it for an extended period of time, without tiring.
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US Mail: PO Box 441, Howell, NJ 07731
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US Mail: PO Box 441, Howell, NJ 07731
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The Producer Explains
a Few Things
Bill Milbrodt, who conceived and produces the Car Music Project, is often asked about it. People want to know where the idea came from, how the music is prepared, and how he took it from an idea to a band. Here, the producer tells you where the idea came from.
People often ask me where the idea for the Car Music Project came from. They often think it's about cars, but it's not. Not at all. It never was about cars. It's about making original sound and music -- that can be written and improvised -- from objects that were never intended to have sonic or musical value.
The Car Music Project was never about cars. It's always been about sounds.
My original intent was to make original sound and music from objects that represented seven different disciplines that have had a significant impact on the way we live: telecommunications, science, medicine, transportation, and others. I prepared a proposal and had my attorney submit it to a well-known orchestra. The
proposal suggested the idea and described an event that, with proper funding and the participation of that orchestra, would celebrate the turn of the century.
At the same time I was developing the idea, I ended up with a car that had reached the end of its useful life. That convenient occurrence placed "transportation" at the top of the list. The car offered me the possibility of starting the project without waiting for a reply -- which never came -- or outside funding.
The ideas for six of the disciplines went the way of the wind. But the part of the project that involved the car got started -- and that became the Car Music Project.
See, I always loved the idea of making a soundscape or music
from "stuff" like brake drums, sirens, and radios in the way that John Cage and Edgard Varese did. I often imagined doing similar things with bottles, cans, vials of pills, sandbags, kitchen utensils, tools, buildings, and all sorts of other things.
My old car had been driven to a point where it no longer had value as a vehicle. It puffed smoke, needed a new electrical system, and needed to be completely reupholstered (the seats were so worn that passengers were poked by the springs). I figured nobody would buy the car from me and a junkyard would charge me to take it away.
Instead of thinking about how to dispose of it, I realized that it
would be a great source of sound. This was exciting to me. But I had to figure out how I wanted to make sounds from a car. So I put it in storage until I decided what to do.
I toyed with the idea of tapping, scraping, plucking, and bowing each of the car's parts to discover what sounds would result. Initially, I thought about digitally recording the sounds, tuning them on my Synclavier computer, and creating a recorded composition. But that didn't seem particularly imaginative because I had done similar things before when creating music and soundtracks. For example, in a song I wrote for a video series named the Sandbox Playtime Videos, I created a percussion track from the sounds of trucks, tractors, and other construction vehicles.
I also thought I would like my car part sounds to represent each of the four families of the traditional western orchestra: winds, brass, percussion, and strings. This evolved into the idea of making actual instruments from the car parts.
Now, making a flute from a tubular part would be pretty easy if designed like a simple wooden flute. But making a mouthpiece for a brass instrument from a car part would be tough. Why? Because if it required an excessive air pressure or some kind of odd positioning on the part of the player, it could wreak havoc with the musician's embouchure, which is the way in which he or she uses his or her lips on a mouthpiece. In other words, if a professional musician performed on car parts with me, he would
still need to be able to earn his living playing his trumpet or trombone. If too much of an adjustment was needed when switching between instruments, it could take several hours (or a day) before he could perform on his normal instrument again. Simply put, making a good mouthpiece was a more significant engineering and fabrication task than I was prepared to undertake.
When it came to the string family, I knew that electrical wires didn't offer much in the way of tuning opportunities. Years before, I had experimented with electrical wires used in buildings. Musical instrument strings stretch when tightened, then return to their normal length when loosened. Electrical wires don't do that. When you tighten them just a little bit, they break.
The result of wrestling with these problems was the idea of creating instruments that I referred to as "hybrids", a combination of car parts and musical instrument parts. In other words, why not put a trombone mouthpiece on a car part? Or real bass or guitar strings on a car part? This was another idea that, to me, was exciting.
When I got to the point where I started to think about how to make instruments from the car's parts, I knew I could not do this myself. I had no knowledge or skill in the area of fabrication, whether metal, plastic, glass, wood, or whatever.
So I would have to hire someone who could help figure out how to reconfigure them into musical instruments, then fabricate the instruments.
I looked in the phone book's Yellow Pages and made several calls to professionals who built and repaired flutes and other instruments. These folks had no interest in my project.
Professional instrument makers had no interest in my project.
Then I remembered someone -- Ray Faunce III -- who worked for one of my clients. In his spare time, he created sculptures from metal. What I knew was that he created unique clocks and jewelry. The items I had seen were small, but looked great.
He not only had a talent for visual design with metal, but also knew how to solder, weld, cut metal, and repair cars. He did not have a knowledge of music or musical
instruments, but I figured I could fill in those gaps and, additionally, enlist the help of consulting musicians I would hire to test the instruments. So I called him.
For me, this was getting even more exciting. Unfortunately Ray wasn't interested either.
A few weeks later, I called Ray again. "Have you thought about it at all?" ¯I asked, but he still wasn't interested. From time to time, I would I would run into him or call again. Nothing changed. So I went back to trying instrument makers and repair professionals. Still no interest.
Then one day, Ray called me. His young daughter needed help with a school project. She had to make a musical instrument and he had helped her build a zither. They
made her zither out of a cigar box and rubber bands. It seemed to have aroused his interest in my project. So we started discussing what I would need to make my car part musical instruments. We looked through books. Ray located a manual for my old 1982 Honda Accord. He looked at the diagrams in the manual and, based on the part's shapes, began to figure out how different parts could be used. The gas tank, for example, looked like it would make a great body for a bass.
While Ray focused on the manual, I began to plan a list of the car part instruments I would want if I were to form a band that performed sound and music. One was a xylophone made from windshield
glass. Another was something that would behave in a manner similar to a guitar because of the great flexibility guitars offer. I also needed some kind of bass, and the gas tank bass seemed to fit that bill. Percussion seemed easy because there are so many metal parts in a car that choosing them would be a process of narrowing down the possible selections. But, being able to have a basic drum kit with cymbals would really help to round out a car part rhythm section. That thought later led to the idea of wheel drums and floor board cymbals.
Our strings and percussion were now covered. But I still needed winds and brass. These were ideas that were left until after my car was dismantled, when we would be able to see, hold, and feel the various tubular parts that came out of it.
Before incurring the expense of having my car fully dismantled, I wanted to know that some of our ideas were, in fact, workable.
To find out, I asked Ray to make prototypes from car parts that had been scrapped. He made a windshield glass xylophone and a small guitar from an air cleaner. The prototypes worked. That's when I decided. It was a "go"!
The Music Needs Enough
Open Space to Allow For
Composing for the Car Music Project's instruments requires a bit of an open mind. Although the current set of instruments involves what appear to be fairly standard fingering and placement schemes for tuning, they're imperfect. "That makes the whole process -- from writing to playing -- a bit more interesting," according to Milbrodt.
Example: The convertibles, which are reed instruments, have finger holes patterned like wooden flutes. But the finger holes are not positioned perfectly, which makes it difficult to play in tune. When Milbrodt heard the instruments tested together, the idea of leaving them that way intrigued him. He says, "We got quirky harmonies that were hard to specify."
That made it interesting and fun, but also meant that music written for them needed to allow enough space harmonically so that every moment would not be a an annoying bleat. In other words, you don't want to create chords that are too dense to allow inadvertent subtleties to be heard.
Original Music for
Dissonance is part of the territory. A sprinkling of disorder is, too, and it can drive you crazy or you can celebrate it.
The Car Music Project's unique sound comes from finding ways to use its instruments in ways that are inherent to them -- using the unexpected honks, squeaks, grinds, and rumbles they produce.
It's been said that every life form has a purpose. Milbrodt looks at sounds the same way. "If a sound just happens," he says, "or if a note is played out of tune and we like it, we try to include it."
“Every life form has a purpose.”
Apply that principle to sounds.
At the moment, the band's core instruments are made mainly from car parts. But the Car Music Project is not about cars. It’s about sound . Even now, the Band plays its String-Spring-Thing (SST), made from steel cables, garage door springs, and a trash can. More new instruments are in the works, hopefully with a batch of interesting new sounds.