music.minnesota.publicradio.orgmusic Feature

The Winslaphones:
A New Instrument for New Music
by Phil Bilodeau

What does a composer do when an instrument cant express the sounds in his head? For Richard Johnson; the answer was easy - build his own instrument, dubbed the winslaphones. Not only can he more fully express his musical ideas, but in Johnsons current role as a traveling teacher and composer the winslaphones has been invaluable in introducing his audience to new music. The visually striking instrument is as unique as the name (deriving from Johnsons middle name, Winslow), and allows for endless musical variations. As fascinating as the winslaphones is, however, for Johnson it is only a part of his ongoing musical development.

Fully assembled, the winslaphones is taller than its inventor.

The winslaphones combines parts of a euphonium, trombone, trumpet, and melodica; a bassoon reed and trumpet and trombone mouthpieces; whistles; and a worms nest of PVC tubing and connectors to form sort of a mutant one-man-band. This might initially seem like quite a departure for a composer of "serious" music, yet Johnson notes that developing new instruments has broadened his range in the more traditional composing medium: "It forces you to think about sound in a whole different way. Its a completely different world than what composers are used to."

Johnson considers himself foremost a composer; building instruments is only a hobby (though "a very time-consuming one"). His first efforts, made primarily from PVC pipe, were experiments in creating new tones. "It was mostly just a fascination with sound, I think," Johnson says of his initial motivation. "Thats where the new instruments came from."

The Instrument's History
Johnson honed his composing skills at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, graduating in 1996 with a degree in Music Education and Composition. While at the university, he designed the winslaphones - a far more sophisticated instrument than any he had previously created - and in the fall of 1995, he brought the plans to a brass repairman. Working in his spare time, consulting with Johnson and revising the design frequently, the brassworker completed the instrument almost three years later. Meanwhile, Johnson had begun teaching music at the Cape Cod Charter School. After two years there, he was awarded a McKnight Visiting Fellowship from the American Composers Forum, based in St. Paul, Minnesota - an ideal opportunity to take his newly created winslaphones on the road.

"Building instruments complements composing; you can make the sounds you hear in your head."

Much as the design of the winslaphones evolved during its creation, so too has its use evolved. Johnson says that one of the primary uses of the winslaphones is as a teaching tool, something he had not anticipated. "Kids love it," he says. "Generally one of the hardest things is getting them interested in music, but when they see this, they cant wait to find out what it does. And from there, theyre much more receptive to learning about and trying other things."

Playing the Winslaphones
With its multiple ways of producing sound, the instrument has more variety and flexibility than any of his previous inventions, but this variety brings its own limitations. In a way, the winslaphones has almost too many options to be used as a solo instrument - the physical requirements to create the different sounds are such that sustaining a lively tempo is extraordinarily difficult. Johnson is confident that as he becomes more proficient playing the winslaphones his speed will increase, but adds that he intended the winslaphones to be performed as part of an ensemble, where the spaces between its notes would seem more natural.

Even to learn for ensemble playing, however, the winslaphones poses a great challenge.The instrument has five bells, each with a different set of slide positions. "Physically, thats a lot to learn," notes Johnson. And even when the physical positions are learned, patterning the mind to remember the different placements and sounds they produce is an ongoing process. Johnson recognizes that the difficulty in learning the instrument will likely dissuade anyone else from learning to play it, especially since the time needed to create the instrument destines it to remain one of a kind.

Its uniqueness has led some people to consider the winslaphones a novelty - although most listeners are intrigued by Johnsons creation, a few dismiss it as an updated version of the traditional one-man-band. Johnson admits the validity of this comparison, but makes one important distinction: "The only difference is in approach. I look at it from a serious compositional point of view, not as a novelty."

Johnson assembles the myriad parts of the winslaphones.

Composing for the Winslaphones
Composing for the winslaphones has proven more difficult than Johnson had imagined, however. To begin with, a system of notation must be created from scratch - how does one transcribe notes that can come from almost innumerable sources? Then, too, came Johnsons realization that composing cannot be the first step. For now, his focus is on playing and becoming proficient at the winslaphones, with composing as a possible future step. "I had imagined it as an instrument to write music for, but now Im not so sure," says Johnson. He is still exploring this possibility, but because he is the only one who will be playing the instrument, his compositional approach changes; there is also less incentive to write music no one else can play.

Of course, this does not mean others cannot enjoy the music. Johnson has found that even though he is not yet as proficient as he would like to be, his audience is still receptive. "People are interested in hearing something new, even if I havent played particularly well," he says. As Johnson becomes more familiar with the instrument, he hopes others will want to write music for the winslaphones; a colleague of his currently is working on a piece.

Future Plans
As youd expect from someone as creative as Johnson, he has grand plans for the future. Eventually, hed like to write a book explaining the winslaphones, and perhaps modify it further. Making new instruments is also a possibility. Yet, as Johnson stated, the winslaphones is only a hobby. After this year of traveling and guest teaching on his fellowship, Johnson plans to get back to traditional composing.

Hell keep practicing the winslaphones, however, if only as an outlet to let off some steam. "Thats really the best part - just goofing off, making weird sounds," he says with a grin. Johnsons sentiment sums up the winslaphones (if anything can) - a blend of the serious and the whimsical, versatile enough for almost any purpose. And that, when combined with Johnsons creativity and inventive bent, promises a bright future for new and experimental music.

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