Ceramic Instruments

Ceramic Instruments
by Brian Ransom
(Article originally appeared in the book Gravikords Whirlies & Pyrphones by Bart Hopkin, Ellipis Arts, 1996, pp. 92-94 )


Ceramic Flugelhorn To Instrument Gallery

    For Brian Ransom, the first stage in the development of a musical instrument is the sound in his imagination. "I start with an idea of the kind of sound I want," he says. "I imagine the sound and I slowly work towards an image of the form that will make that sound.  As I go, I use my best sense of aesthetics and imagemaking to make the piece visually resonant as well as acoustically resonant.  It's important to me that the two work together, the visual and the acoustic."  

    Brian is a maker of ceramic musical instruments, and a skilled composer and performer with them as well. Most of his instruments are tuned to work with one another in ensembles, and in the ensamblcs he brings together instruments of all types.  There are winds, including flutes, reeds, horns and less categorizable types; there are various sorts of bar instruments and chimes; there are drums, and there arc strings. All are made in ceramics, with the addition of steel and string, animal skin and even electronics.
     Following the conceptualization process for a new instrument, the building process begins. For Brian, this is not simply a matter of making the instrument to match his preconceived design. The instrument develops through a long and patient process of prototyping: a model is made; it is played and enjoyed; but then another model is made to develop the idea further, and another, and another.  It's an ongoing search, this effort to find and bring out the potential personality of the new instrument type. "Everything you see," Brian says of his instrumentarium, "is probably the product of hundreds of tries."


Brian Ransom's Diety of Sound X, Releasing Diety To Deity Gallery

    He brings to the effort a lot of technical know-how, having studied the shrinkage and other physical properties of clay. the physics of the firing process and the acoustics of the sound-producing bodies. That know-how is complemented by a generous dose of intuition, born of years of experience.  A range of influences comes into play: Brian has to his credit a Master's thesis based on two years of research on indigenous flutes and whistles of Peru; he has worked closely with the Ghanaian master drummer Obo Ali; and he counts certain Asian traditions as important influences as well. But the instruments are not imitative in any direct sense.  The designs are entirely his own. At the heart of it, always, is the sound of the clay.  Recalling his earliest encounters with it, he speaks of "a haunting quality, or a strangely hollow kind of sound, a little airy.  There was something very deep inside the tone that just really moved me."


Three Hooters -- huskey-voiced wind instruments by Brain Ransom
To Instrument Gallery

    One particularly interesting set or Brian's instruments has come into being through a different conceptual process, These are the pieces - still works in progress at the time or this writing - that he gives the name Deity of Sound.  I started having a lot of unusual dreams a couple of years ago.  Very powerful dreams.  Many figures appeared in these dreams, sometimes in a chorus, and at times individually.   There was some deep and practically indecipherable message that I got from these dreams that I became obsessed with expressing."  He started making drawings inspired by these recurring subconscious images, and eventually undertook to realize them in clay.  There are now more than ten deities ranging in size from three to over five feet tall.  Each contains between four and eight wind-activated  sound-producing mechanisms, carefully tuned to work in ensemble with one another.   Several of them contain multiple chambers of water and air.  When they tip from side to side, water runs from one chamber to the next, forcing air flows that give rise to sounds. The deities have been played individually and in groups, by musicians and sometimes by dancers who tip them as part of a dance.  How many deities will there be altogether?  "They just keep coming," says Brian, "so I keep making more."


Brian Ransom's Diety of Sound II, Peace Diety  To Deity Gallery