Sounding Clay

´╗┐Sounding Clay
by Brian Ransom
(Original article appears in Ceramics Monthly, October 1988, pp. 30-33)

"A Nest of Hooters," glazed earthenware, 3 feet in height, multichambered instrument for duets.
To Instruments Gallery

Editor's note: Brian Ransom in concert was the closing session of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts meeting in Portland last spring; and if you missed it, this article won't suffice, but it's the next best thing. We know you can imagine how great clay can be to work with, but to really understand this article, think how great clay can sound! That's Brian Ransom.

THE GREAT BEAUTY of ceramics is that one can bring so much to it. My best clay work has had more to do with anthropology, ethnography, the physics of sound, and music, than with the traditionally functional precepts of the medium. Now a long series of discoveries and departures from traditional ceramics finally have led me back to claywork based on functional elements.

    There was a time when I felt required to choose between being a visual artist or a musician. During the winter of 1973, I was enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design. Waking late one morning because I had played late into the night with a jazz quintet, I swore never again to compromise my ability to perform well in an 8 A.M. sculpture class. I felt unable to fully develop as a visual artist if I didn't put a hold on my musical aspirations. During the next 24 hours, my flugelhorn sat quietly in its case, as though chastised by this resolution. I gave up and returned to a schizophrenic late night/early morning schedule, but shortly thereafter began making flutes in ceramic class.

"Triformation XVI," 3 feet in height, low-fire-salt whistling water vessel (it sounds when tipped).  To Instruments Gallery

"Bass Harp," earthenware, rawhide, string and steel. Original compositions (played by Brian Ransom and three musicians) on similar harp, various drums, flutes, rattles, "hooters" and the unforgettable "Saxosnake" brought a standing ovation at the closing session of the 1988 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference.
To Instruments Gallery

    From the beginning, there were obvious limitations in making clay musical instruments. The shift in pitch, which occurs as the clay dries and consequently shrinks, was a problem that has taken years to solve. This is compounded when many instruments, with various types of sound-producing mechanisms, are made to be played in tune with one another.

    But the timbre of clay, its characteristic sound, is what held me spellbound from the start. The very hollow and haunting sound that clay produces took me by surprise when I first played those clay flutes. They seemed to possess the ability to transform the listener into a subconsciously vulnerable state. I became intrigued with the physiological aspects of sound-its ability to create overwhelming moods, to heal, to energize. Turning to ethnographic research on music, I studied. cultures that use sound in ways which were, in the beginning, unthinkable to me.

"Directional Congas," 4 feet in height, earthenware, rawhide, steel rings and raffia. Clay drums have a unique and memorable resonance that lingers after they are struck.  To Instruments Gallery


    While experimenting with making objects producing more specialized sounds, I learned to tune with increasing accuracy until gaining control of micro tonal pitches (tones that lie closer together than semitones, which are the smallest intervals in our western, 12-to-the-octave musical system). I often used traditional instruments as models, or starting points. As I made more of these instruments, they began to change and improve to suit aesthetic needs.

    During the next ten years my work was largely a product of experimentation, with emphasis on sound. I began to view entire sets of sound objects in environments, or performance settings, as pieces of sculpture.

    I hold the vibration, placement and movement of these tuned vessels to be sculptural elements within the context of performance space. These objects, the space and viewers are susceptible to sympathetic vibrations of sounds produced during a performance. Through the combination of these resonances, the performance space becomes a landscape of textured sound.

"Drones," to 30 inches in length, glazed earthenware pipes.  To Instruments Gallery

    Although we don't usually think of it as being so, sound is a physical entity which bounces against our bodies and can be used to affect space. By creating groups of thick and thin, high and low, or loud and soft auditory sensations, the physicality of sound can be used to sculpt the entire viewing space.

    Soon I was making individual soundproducing objects which were derived from the performance pieces. Important among these was the whistling water vessel, a South American instrument which I had the opportunity to study while on a Fulbright fellowship in Peru. These unusual vessels (their precise use is not known) make sound as water moves between chambers, displacing air and forcing it through whistles in the top sections. As with my other instruments, I gradually departed from traditional whistling pot designs in favor of my own highly abstracted forms.  I use these whistlers to form what I call "the living sound" in performances as well.

"Flugelhorn," glazed ceramic bell and tubing with brass mouthpiece and cannibalized valves, 18 inches in length.  To Instruments Gallery

    With more ability to make specific sounds, I began to approach making objects from a different viewpoint. Entire conceptions of sound occurred to me and I envisioned the instruments needed to create them. The objects were first charged with the sensibilities given them by their audio, instead of visual, qualities.

    Taking my lead from Michael Brewster, a friend and former teacher at the Claremont Graduate School, I saw my work as fitting into a fledgling art form now being discussed as "sound sculpture." Brewster sees (or hears) the basis for this art form as manipulation of the physical properties of sound. Specific spaces are filled with sound waves which bounce off walls and line up in various configurations. When' the waves peak in the same area, we sense them as resonances which are tempered by the harmonics, overtones and peculiarities of the walls.

Assorted rattles, handbuilt earthenware with terra sigillata, to 12 inches in length.  To Insturments Gallery

    In my work, variations of similar objects are used to produce a densely layered sound. This layering parallels the concept of prehistoric palimpsest drawings found in caves in France. It is theorized that rocks and spears were thrown at the painted images on the cave walls, presumably in hopes of capturing the spirit of the animal. If the hunt went well, the spot (later to be termed the "kill spot") was considered lucky, and other drawings were done on top of the original, resulting in an image built up layer by layer. Bits of earlier drawings showed through from underneath. As rocks and spears chipped the surface away, and because the drawings had a translucent quality, a final picture known as a palimpsest image was created. It is with this concept in mind that I make each piece. Concepts are developed and other parallel ideas are continuously aimed at the same ideological spot. Sounds are set one on top of the other, adding and subtracting to produce an undulating sonic form.

Artist/composer Brian Ransom in his Claremont, California studio.

The author Artist/composer Brian Ransom resides in Claremont, California.