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Feather's 'idiosyncratic machines' garner Sondheim prize

Four instruments fashioned from magnets and turntables and thick metal springs are conversing in a gallery of the Walters Art Museum.

They pop and hum, plink like the teeth of a comb. One calls to mind an amplified heartbeat. Another sounds like someone far away brushing a drum head.

Like drunken guests at a party, their tones blend, then break into discordant sounds. One bellows at unexpected intervals.

"These are idiosyncratic machines," says their creator, artist and musician Neil Feather. "They're a little bit out of control."

Feather's work — instruments visually, aurally and sensually intriguing — has earned him this year's $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.

The 58-year-old Waverly resident has long been a leader in the city's experimental music scene. He helped found the Red Room series at Normal's Books and Records and the annual High Zero festival. His instruments are meditations on technology; they toy with the laws of physics, make jokes about mechanical concepts.

"Neil's instruments are solving questions that no one on earth is asking," says John Berndt, Feather's longtime musical collaborator and a fellow experimental music pioneer.

"He's creating artifacts from another culture, but it's a culture of one," Berndt says. "Maybe two on a good day."

Bald, with a silvery strip of a goatee and a plaid shirt and suspenders, Feather looks like a cross between a mad scientist and an Amish patriarch — fitting, as he has encyclopedic knowledge of physics and Amish heritage.

Feather says he has been fascinated by motors and engines since his childhood in western Pennsylvania. He tinkered with motorcycles and lawn mowers, and paged through his engineer father's favorite humor magazine: The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

While Feather shares his father's aptitude for understanding how things work, he chose to study ceramics, not engineering. He earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Montana.

The ceramicist's appreciation for the sensual is apparent in the works in the Walters' exhibit of the Sondheim finalists. Wires sprout from gleaming cigar boxes, a ruffled record turntable whirls, a dangling billiard ball laps at a metal spring then bolts up to knock a gong.

Feather constructed the works for this exhibit in about three months, he says. He finds the act of building the instruments, and tinkering with them over time, deeply pleasurable.

"I was happy to wake up in the morning and know I was supposed to go to the studio and have fun," he says.

The quirks of the instruments — which parts wear more quickly — intrigue him. This is how a machine "takes on its own individuality," he says, a sort of "ghost in the machine."

Baltimore artist Laure Drogoul says Feather's works transcend the three dimensions.

"They're polydimensional works," she says. "They embody not only the three dimensions, but sound and movement and time."

Feather has created dozens of instruments, bestowing upon them Seussian names such as the roto-zither, the former guitar, the vibulum and vibrowheel. Several instruments fall into the category of weighted strings, including the anaplumb, one of the instruments displayed at the Walters.

The anaplumb is composed of a spherical weight — swirled blue and green like a satellite photo of Earth — that hangs from a long string. It is a play on the plumb bob, an ancient tool that swings back and forth before forming a vertical line.

Feather has attached one strong magnet to the weight, and another to the platform beneath it. The magnets repel each other, keeping the weight in constant motion and producing sounds as the line sways.

Of the instruments on display at the Walters, the anaplumb fills the role of a deity, Feather says. "Number 5," the work made from balls and springs, represents genitals; two elaborate machines called "Rube Goldberg Variations" represent civilization or technology.

Another version of the anaplumb, along with several other of Feather's devices, were incorporated into the score of a recent performance by the Philadelphia dance troupe BalletX.

Rosie Langabeer, the ballet's composer, says she had played with Feather before and knew his instruments could evoke the sound of an old-fashioned airplane for the ballet, which told the story of a doomed 1930s mail plane.

Audience members "loved the sound of the plane starting up, getting going and taking off," she says. "Especially the older guys. They said, 'It sounded just like it.' "

Feather says he is inspired by the sounds of voices and engines, animals and machines.

"I like funny sounds, boings and splats, the kind of sounds you get in cartoons," he says.

Robert Mintz, the Walters chief curator, says that Feather's work blurs "the lines between what we think of as the visual arts and the musical arts."

"It's something that lies outside what we experience on a regular basis," Mintz says.

Feather plans to use his Sondheim winnings to take a break from his day job — fitting hearing aids — and work on his creations full time. He is also a finalist for the Trawick Prize, which is awarded by the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District in Montgomery County.

Berndt says that although Feather has many admirers, both in Baltimore and in the international experimental music community, it's heartening to see him receive the Sondheim, one of the city's most prestigious arts prizes.

Feather hasn't had much "institutional support" in the past, Berndt says. "But he's had a lot of spiritual support."

If you go

The Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize 2014 finalists will remain on exhibit through Aug. 17 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon. 410-547-9000 or

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