I thought I’d just follow up on Misha’s post about our search for inspiration for the “toob”. Last Christmas holidays I happened to be heading through Berlin to Italy to visit the in-laws – no direct flights from Scotland to Venice, it seems we Scots are condemned to only visit the south of Spain cheaply… I digress, however, one of Berlin’s many attractions which stood out for me on picking up the ‘welcome to Berlin guide’ was the Musical Instrument Museum. So dragging my other half through the bitter cold streets of a festive Berlin we pushed aside the heavy felt curtain and stepped inside.
I didn’t know what to expect from the museum, but the first thing that struck me was the paradoxical silence of the place, here arrayed before you are an amazingly diverse menagerie of instruments all strangely frozen in time and space within glass display cases. The diversity however is amazing, it really is like the galapagos islands of instruments, every possible variation of an instrument’s ‘dna’ is on display here, some extinct species, other cruder, yet noble ancestors of modern day instruments.
It took us about ten minutes of walking around under the stern gaze of the prison warders/museum curators before realising that there was an audio guide available. At this point the visit came to life, and these silent instruments got the chance to sing again. Whilst the museum is on the surface extremely dry and academic, even down to the clipped tones of the audio guide introducing each instrument with a code, when you hear the instruments play you can suddenly imagine; a baroque orchestra, a dance instructor, a traveling raconteur, a cathedral, or a folk festival.
In terms of the toob, the array of wind instruments were inspiring to see a wide variety of mechanisms for pads, both from a functional and an aesthetic point of view.
Some more of my surreptitious shots in my flickr set here;
Misha has asked me to write a brief introduction to myself for the “toob” blog, to describe my background and interest in the project,and after him being so nice about me and all, I thought I’d better put out my side of the story.. so here goes…
Well, firstly the basics, my name’s Brian Loudon, I trained in Product Design Engineering at Glasgow University/Art School. My working life has been pretty varied so far and I’ve worked in Architectural technology at Buro Happold, Schneider Fassaden and I have an ongoing input to projects with Arup Facade Engineers. On the product design side of my life I’ve worked mainly with Fearsomengine in the past and 4C Design presently, both Glasgow based consultancies, or independently for various clients. With 4C Design I have worked on a number of their projects ranging from a mobile spray tanning system to renewable energy systems! It’s this wide variety of influences and challenges that inspires me and keeps me going. I’ve also found that there’s an amazing thread of continuity in what’s needed in the different types of work I’ve done, balancing aesthetics, functional needs, quality and knowledge of processes and materials to create the right solution. I’d say my own forte lies in thinking in 3D, in imagining and spinning shapes around in my head then realising those in sketches and 3D computer models.
I was introduced to Misha through my work with 4C and I was instantly struck by the meticulous care in his work and his talent as a craftsman and musician. He also has a patience and determination to keep working through a problem till it’s perfect, with an admirable attention to detail. I also must admit I started to covet the instruments themselves… My own interest in traditional music is a fairly recent thing, only about 5 years ago I got the bug, starting with the cheapest of the cheap tin whistles and then veering off on a tangent to pick up the fiddle. Now a few years later I can half remember a range of tunes which I can scratch through on the fiddle! Pity my neighbours…
This growing interest in traditional music has been accompanied by an interest in music theory and the physics of instruments. The first time I cut a bit of plastic plumbing pipe and got a note out of it and then adjusted and tuned that note things all started to click together in my head, this connection between maths, music, aesthetics, proportion and actually making something by your own hand gave me an immense satisfaction.
Gradually myself and Misha began to realise our mutual interest and also our complementary skills which led Misha to invite me to get involved. It’s already been an interesting project so far and we’ve got a bit of a buzz of ideas on the go now and we’re feeling the momentum pushing us in the right direction. It’s also been amazing to see the response from the community of expert users, this is a new way of working for both of us in trying to create a more open design process and I’m genuinely intrigued to see how it evolves. One of the main things that has attracted me to the project is this community aspect, a lot of my work is generally very commercial, and can become quite corporate, abstract and faceless. The exciting opportunity in working with Misha on the toob is to create a durable and valued heirloom object that is cherished, cared for and maintained – this is not an easy thing to find in our generally disposable culture. I just hope my contributions can live up to the expectations of those who are already familiar with the quality of mk whistles.
For me designing the MK Low Whistle was a solitary affair: days, weeks, months and then years of slowly refining a process. When I did eventually start work on the Toob, MK’s chromatic whistle, I was working in exactly the same way that I always had been – on my own. It was while I was staring at the computer, racking my brain (and probably cursing a fair bit!) trying to get to the bottom of one design issue or another, that Brian stuck his head over my shoulder and started asking questions about what I was up to. By chance, he’d been working with the company 4C Design, who work along side me at the Design Hub in Glasgow. I was immediately impressed by how quickly he grasped the problems I was grappling with. Over coming months I was to learn of his unique mix of talents for Art, Maths, Music, Science and Design. Almost similtaneously he was working on projects in Architectural science – solving complex 3D on cutting edge architectural design in the Middle East and beyond, in music – coming up with a new musical notation, illustrating a slew of design ideas for various people, while at the same time taking time out to Dance (Tango) and play the fiddle at Glasgow’s Fiddle workshop. It was immediately obvious to me what Brian could bring to the Toob project through his appreciations and talents.
While we still have a long way to go in terms in developing collaborative working methods between ourselves and the music community, I feel we could be on to something with a huge amount of potential in years to come.
I always found it amazing that there wasn’t some form of chromatic whistle. I mean this is arguably the worlds oldest melodic musical instrument. Why would it be left out when almost all the other commonly thought of musical instruments are Chromatic. The number of times that I’d be playing, the music would change key and I’d have to pick up a different instrument, or awkwardly half cover a hole to play a note which sat outside the key. I only ever wanted one whistle – a tried and tested friend that I could take anywhere.
I’m pretty sure I started making musical instruments just to be able to make this Chromatic Whistle that I wanted to play. But you certainly can’t make a nice Chromatic Whistle without making a great ‘basic’ one first. And so went 10 years of my life; filing, turning, banging, gluing, polishing, crafting, I worked long hours, often through the night to come up something of the highest quality that my hands, eyes and ears would allow.
Early sketches were based on a revised version of the Boehm key system – as used on metal Flutes, Saxophones and Clarinets. But the more I looked at it, the more I realised that this heavily mechanised system was a product of the great age of mechanisation, and perhaps in an age where mechanics seemed to be the solution to everything, instrument designers had adopted it too enthusiastically. I thought it might be possible to something simpler and more elegant, and working with the mechanics of the hand. Even so, it was just an concept – I never expected it to work! But early prototypes surprised me – not only could I leave the original architecture of the instrument intact, but the extra notes notes didn’t seem to involve movements that were too awkward.
The whistle is an instrument which has always survived on the fringes of society – with it’s simple charm it has been adopted by cultures all the way round the world. The challenge in designing and making the next generation might be trying to maintain the character of the instrument (and the music played on it).
So I’ve been working on a project to create a chromatic whistle for roughly six years. It’s a typically long and protracted process for designing a musical instrument, but like so many of the things I’ve been involved with in the last few years, it might be taking longer than expected but it is actually turning out better than expected. The instrument, which is likely to be called a ‘Toob’, is based on a new key system which leaves the initial tone hole layout and architecture of the whistle in tact – making it easy for musicians to adopt. At the moment, it exists as a working prototype (it works, but it looks rubbish!), but there are still a few challenges to be faced in terms of the making and refinement.
Until now I’ve kept the design ‘under my hat’ so-to-speak – this is certainly the ‘traditional’ way of approaching innovation – show somebody your ideas and they will steal them! But watching the effect that several big companies with this approach are having, and the recent emergence of collaborative working methods like open source, has caused me to think that there’s a huge amount to be gained from throwing the gates open, documenting our progress, and inviting feedback – so we can harness the expertise of the music community to make the best possible musical instrument we can. It’s an approach which will stand in complete contrast to the ‘romantic’ vision of a instrument maker, shut away, tirelessly working to perfect ‘their’ masterpiece.
In addition to myself, designer Brian Loudon (Loud1design) will be collaborating on the project. It offers the opportunity for anyone to get involved with the design and testing of a next generation musical instrument. I for one am excited by what we might come up with.