Begin with one part kitchen table. Mix in 3 cups of string and one bowling ball, throw in a dash of engineering expertise and a passion for experimental music.
For "sound mechanic" extraordinaire Neil Feather, that's a recipe for success.
Feather, an exhibit technician at Port Discovery, has been inventing and building musical instruments for more than 30 years, since he was 16 years old - beginning in the early '70s, when he and some friends formed a car band in western Pennsylvania called Tanadril Oxyphenbutazone NF Giegy (after ingredients in an arthritis medicine). He and his buddies would jump in a car, head out to an open field somewhere and play. Feather hollowed out an orange and played it like a trumpet.
Feather and his band, Aerotrain, will be performing at the Oddstruments section of Artscape this weekend, in the Decker Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "Sound Shift" concerts, featuring some 60 musicians, will be running daily through tomorrow at the old train station.
Feather's first "real" instrument, he explains with some pride, was a Folger's coffee can and string, with a bead attached to the end. He'd hold the bead with his teeth, the can with his knees, and strum the string.
From such auspicious beginnings does a career playing self-built instruments grow. Over the years, Feather estimates, he's created between 30 and 40 instruments. Ranging from "former guitars," pieces of electric guitars pieced together Frankenstein-like into something that only vaguely resembles what they once were; the "Rotozither," an exercise bike accessorized with all manner of knobs, switches and strings, producing a sound like a pinball machine; and the "Vibride," a creation of pedals, plumbing pipes and other fixtures.
His friend, John Berndt, a Web designer with whom he performs - playing both traditional instruments and Feather's creations - calls Feather "one of the most original musical thinkers of his day."
"I know a lot of folks," Feather says, "some by touring, but a lot of people who come through town. I tend to think of myself as being traditional in a lot of ways. The connections that I see (between) my work and traditional music - and other influences - are a lot more apparent to me than to others."
Despite performing throughout the country, Feather's favorite venues remain Baltimore's Red Room (at Normal's Books and Records on 425 E. 31st St.) and the annual High Zero experimental music festival - both founded by Berndt, who has performed in the bands THUS and Aerotrain. Not surprisingly, the band members include some of Feather's biggest fans.
His music "is extremely emotional and beautiful," said Aerotrain's Catherine Pancake. "There is no genre, so when you are experiencing the music, there is no barrier, because you can't categorize the music."
For Feather, anything he can lay his hands on is fair game to be transformed into a music-maker. He has created six different instrument families out of steel scraps, strings and old guitars, as well as other found materials.
"I think that building instruments is my obsession, fascination, passion," says Feather. "When you have a passion like that, you just think about it all of the time. I have used a lot of sculptures, a lot of found objects. I am constantly on the lookout."
His instruments certainly don't sound like anything you'd usually hear in a concert hall. Feather has played traditional music and understands the note system, but gleefully ignores it. The sounds resemble such things as someone banging pots together to the soundtrack of a cheesy '50s horror flick, or a Pac-Man game. The results may sound haphazard, but Feather's fans insist they're not.
"There is a very specific way ... that the instruments are supposed to be made," said Pancake. "His vision is very specific, and there is nothing superficial about it."
Some instruments, Feather says, can be built in a day or two. Others take much longer. "Starting from scratch [and moving] to the point at which it makes sound [takes] two to three months. Then for the next year it will change because I am playing it. It takes a lot of performances to get the bugs worked out."
The largest instrument on display this weekend is the "Nondo," and Berndt calls it a real crowd-pleaser. Resembling a large steel sail that's played lying flat, Feather first designed it with four strings. Dissatisfied with the resulting sound, though, he took off two. He's especially proud of his Nondo, which come in two sizes, and chose Pancake to play it.
"I approached it much more like a percussion instrument," Pancake says, "and then he gave me some specific lessons. There are ways that you are supposed to strike the strings, to produce certain sounds. It was very eccentric. It took a lot of frustration and practices to play the Nondo ... the way that he envisioned it being played."
Neil Feather & Aerotrain will be performing throughout Artscape at the Decker Gallery, Maryland Institute College of Art.