Journey Through Sound and Flame

A ceramic musical instrument maker

By Brian Ransom
(Original article appears in Experimental Musical Instruments, June 1999, pp. 32-35)


Ceramic Dragon Congas  To Instruments Gallery

    The following is a brief collection of memories, thoughts and anecdotes of a musical instrument maker. My first instrument making experience was in 1973.  I was regularly playing the flugelhorn in an avant-garde jazz ensemble (whose name I now have forgotten); the only other player whom I distinctly remember was a brilliant young composer and trumpet player named Stephen Haynes (I later named my first son as his name-sake). We were all students at the time, at the Rhode Island School of Design, and making early classes after late night performances was always a problem.  As a young composer myself, I was perpetually engaged in searching for musical sounds, tonalities and scales which weren't available on conventional instruments. In retrospect, I think the first flutes I made were partly designed to appease my ceramics class requirements and partly to satisfy my composing desires.

Ceramic Shakers  To Instruments Gallery

    The first instruments I made were a couple of ceramic harmonic flutes. (At the time, I didn't realize that their scales were based on harmonic overtones - I felt as if I was the lone discoverer of these tonalities!) Several distinct impressions remain with me in utter clarity from the experiences of making those first ceramic flutes. First was the amazing tone color of the ceramic. I knew that different materials affected the resonance and production of soundwaves; however, I was astonished by the unusually hollow and haunting sound these ceramic musical instruments produced. My second realization spurred by creating those first clay flutes was that I had stumbled upon a great abyss, a frontier of undiscovered tonalities! Through infinite choices of pitches and sounds, I found my way into the mysterious world of microtonality. The most troubling aspect of ceramic musical instrument making I found was coming to terms with the problem of shrinkage. The tuning phase of most clay instruments (with the exception idiophones and mebranopbones) is in the leatherhard working state, which is before the firing process. In the firing process that follows. different amounts of shrinkage occur in small and large instruments. In small instruments, the pitch rises a small amount; in larger ones the pitch rises increasingly.  I have spent many subsequent years developing a cannon of shrinkage for my specific clay body.

Triformation VIII. Whistling water vessel   To Instruments Gallery

    In the last two years of the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to receive a Fulbright/Hays congressional Fellowship for the study of preColumbian musical instruments in Peru. My approach to how and why 1 make instruments was significantly changed in many ways during the two years I spent in South America. Perhaps the most important revelation I came to was an empathy for the ancient Peruvian idea of animism which adheres to the belief that life force, in the form of spirits. can be found in all things, animate and inanimate. My studies included hundreds of hours in museums and collections documenting ancient instruments as well as ethnographic field work in rural communities throughout Peru.
    In Portland. Oregon, during the early 19805, after I had returned from living in Peru, I formed my first complete ceramic ensemble. The musicians in the first ensemble were unforgettable. After being enticed by the unique sounds of my ceramic drums, I was joined by master Ghanian drummer 0bo Addy. Other musicians included bassist Patrick O'Hara, saxophonist Rich Halley, Bruce Sweetman, Brian Davis and Bruce Smith.  Our first performances were an events which melded dancers, original music, elaborate stage lighting, and some theatrics.

Triformation X. Whistling water vessel   To Instruments Gallery

     As the years progressed, so did my academic accolades, but mostly, so did my ceramic musical instruments. Most of the instruments I have made, have gone through countless generations of improvement. Voicings in the ceramic ensemble through the years include single, double and multiple whistles and flutes, a variety of invented horns (in particular, the ceramic f1ugelhorn), reeds (my favorite, the sax-o-snake), strings (including low, bass-like instruments as well as higher pitched harps which utilize silk koto strings), microtonal bells, percussion ranging from bull roarers, rattles and rainsticks, to directional congas, djimbes and invented percussive forms.
    Some of the ceramic instruments I made are interactive, and some are based on the natural resonance of chambers. The first of these interactive series were .. Activated Ceramic Resonators" which were pieces intended to be touched and played by viewers. Some were activated by electronics, some by blown air using internal fans, and others by the action of moving water. The most recent series of this type that I made were ceramic resonator vessels which I installed into a specific space (so far, two different art galleries). These resonators activate the standing wave or resonant pitch in the chamber and are powered by tone generators. The result to the viewer is a space which is geographically perceived through sensations of sound.

Deities of Sound XIV, "Traveler"   To Deities Gallery

When you walk through the installation, you sense the physical waves of sound as an environment - the viewer is actually composing by choosing a walking path throughout !he sounding resonators.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Los Angeles where the ceramic ensemble flourished. I was joined by many eminent musicians performing and recording tapes, CDs, musical soundtracks and dance scores; members included Chris Darrow, Rico Garcia, Ben Harper, Emesto Salcedo, Heant Stearns, Norma Tanega and others.
    I have a long history of exhibiting ceramic instruments and sounding sculptures. While living in Los Angeles, I became affiliated with the Couturier Gallery where I have had many exhibitions, including a series of sculptures which I started making in the early 1990s, The Deities of Sound. They first appeared in a series of dreams as images of beings whose existence was otherworldly, whose voices were full of Knowledge, whose origins were beyond the earthly plane. To date, these works are some of my most tenuous. In their making, I have had to suspend judgment. They .are made at the insistence of my subconscious and are meant to be a testament of what I have learned in their making.

Ceramic Harp (Kora)   To Instruments Gallery

I am currently living in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I accepted a teaching position at Eckerd College. My latest musical project is the worldbeat ensemble "Common Ground" a collaboration with my colleague Joan Epstein and many talented students. I anticipate creating many future musical inventions and projects and thank Bart Hopkin most heartily for his including me in the final publication of Experimental Musical Instruments.
Brian Ransom, currently an assistant professor of visual art at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, is a sculptor, potter, composer and musician. He has made numerous recordings of original music. He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Peru and and NEA fellow in sculpture. His work has been included in exhibitions, Collections and museums throughout the United States. Brian can. be reached by email at  





Double nest of Pot Flutes
To Instruments Gallery

Automatic Ceramic Resonator III
To Instruments Gallery

Automated Whistling Pads (electric wind instrument)
To Instruments Gallery


Deities of Sound I, "Singing Deity"
To Deities Gallery

Deities of Sound XVI, "Defining"
To Deities Gallery

Deities of Sound XIII, "Ponderance"
To Deities Gallery