The Deities of Sound

The Deities of Sound
by Brian Ransom
(Original article appears in Ceramics Monthly, December 1996, pp. 42-45)

Brian Ransom with completed "Deities."

    Just when you're thinking that everything is going well. when you're feeling at ease with your artistic direction, sensing that your abilities to execute ideas and deal with technical problems are well honed, there comes a desire (need) for change, even if that change is prompted at the unconscious level.  This describes my state of mind when I first started making drawings for what was to become "The Deities of Sound," the group of sounding ceramic sculptures on which I am currently working. They create sound when activated by breath, wind and/or motion.

     My artistic journey through music, performance and claywork has been long and convoluted.  I have concentrated on combining ceramic sound resonators with a variety of other materials, such as rawhide, wood, steel and even electronics to create viable, playable and beautiful-sounding ceramic instruments that also hold their own as sculpture. These instruments have been largely of my own invention in terms of design, construction and tuning, but their instrumental characteristics resemble bells, stringed harps, horns, flutes, kalimbas, marimbas and a wide variety of percussion instruments.

Appendages are made solid, then split and hollowed.

     Beyond exhibiting my sounding clayworks,  for many years I have composed and performed musk on them, with the help of many talented musicians, including Ghanaian master drummer Obo Addy; and all-around musical Norma Tanega.  We have performed concerts internationally, and have created sound scores for movies and dance.

Other parts are wheel thrown or slab built.

     Over me past 20 years, 1 have had to overcome the usual technical problems that typically plague the ceramics artist, such as construction difficulties, cracking and shrinkage problems, and creating relevant decorative surfaces. I have also had to contend with developing a clay body that resonates well, calculating shrinkage as it relates to tuning and finally discovering surfaces that not only look beautiful, but enhance the sonorous quality of the forms. Having come to terms with the various technical issues, I was well overdue for an artistic change - I just had no idea how it might take place.

Detail of bottom section: water passing through the wall dividing the two chambers will displace air, activating interior whistles.


Sound from the water-activated whistles escapes through openings in the back of the figure.

    Evoked by both consciously as well as unconscious levels of thought, images of the "Deities occurred to me in a relatively short period of time. Since I first recalled these: images from my dreams, it. has been an important tenant of their design that they retain all impossibleness or otherworldliness in their figurative sensibilities. I wanted disparate and abstract forms that could be combined in gestural and graceful ways, while retaining the ability to produce natural harmonics.

     The immediacy of their conception makes me feel as though it is more important to build them than to analyze their nature and meaning.  However much the "Deities" seem a natural progression of previous work I have done, they are engaging a spiritual part of me I have not encountered in previous art-making.

Releasing Deity, 42 inches in height, saggar-fired earthenware: activated by tipping motion.  To Deity Gallery

     In producing these pieces, many new aesthetic and structural challenges have presented themselves and have required unusual solutions.  From the beginning, I decided that to preserve my original vision, I would make the appendages first in solid clay then split and hollow them.  Inside each figure. I also place specially designed handbuilt instruments with unusual harmonic resonances.

     These instruments, numbering between four and seven per finished piece, sometimes resonate an entire torso or section; others are embedded deep inside arms, legs or the head.  Other parts are thrown on the wheel and slab constructed, and have clay instruments embedded within them.

     Each musical element is carefully tuned, and shrinkage is calculated for pitch change.  Some are whistles activated by ripping motions that move water between chambers, displacing air.  In the finished pieces, all of the instruments can be simultaneously activated -- by several people.      These pieces are especially difficult because they incorporate as many as 50 joined elements.  I have found that the most dependable way to ensure minimal cracking is to use a high fireclay body with a variety of grog sizes, to score and slip throughly, and to join parts when are of the similar possible wetness.  Average drying time is between two and three weeks.

Ransom Clay Body (Cone 06-04)
Talc ..................................... 15%
Feldspar .............................. 10
Cedar Heights Goldart .......... 20
Fireclay ............................... 25
XX Sagger Clay .................... 20
Medium Grog ......................... 5
Fine Grog .............................. 5

     Surfaces are airbrushed with terra sigillartas made by stirring 47 grams lye into 3 gallons water, then adding 7 pounds Kentucky Ball Clay (OM 4); let stand 24 hours, then siphon off the top 40%.  Color variations are possible: with oxide and stain additions at approximately 10% (plus or minus 3%).

     Finally, the "Deities" are vapor (salt and soda ash) and saggar fired to Cone 06-04.

     The unlikely figurative and musical quality of these pieces gives them an insistence of another reality that is less intrusive and separate: from our mechanical and predictable world. They invite us to interact, to partake of their resonance, while reminding us that we, too, are akin to vessels that resonate.

"Peace Deity," 42 inches in height, wind instrument by Brian Ransom, Saint Petersburg, Florida  To Deity Gallery

"Flame Deity," 50 inches in height, wheel thrown and handbuilt.  To Deity Gallery








"Singing Deity," 34 inches in height, vapor fired to Cone 06-04.  To Deity Gallery