The Instruments of Invention
Bob Dylan was born in his hometown, but Duluth
performance artist Tim Kaiser has a different musical
hero: Harry Partch (1901–1974), an underappreciated
composer who invented new microtonal scales for
instruments he built himself.
“He was a curmudgeon and a brilliant musician
who couldn’t stand convention and created his
own,” says Kaiser, who also coaxes foreign sounds
from far-fetched equipment made by hand.
As a teenage musician, Kaiser discovered a new
auditory universe at the University of Minnesota
and began assembling avant-garde noisemakers
to suit his sonic tastes. His technique? Scrap parts
and a junior high school electronics class.
TankPodDrum’s shell is a hollow, 6"-diameter,
14"-tall stainless steel vessel that Kaiser scored for
70 cents at a salvage yard. In his home studio, he
used stove bolts to add a right angle fitting from a
hot water heater, brass bells from a rotary phone, a
comb of rods from a toy piano, music box tines, bits
of chrome, and rack handles. When Kaiser bangs on
the attachments with a mallet, the drum acts as a
resonator. A pickup epoxied to the barrel’s interior
connects to an amp or, if Kaiser is playing, a modulation delay that echoes and fades not only the pitch
but also the frequency.
Photography by Sam Alvar
Some 20 years later, Kaiser has made more than
150 instruments, including a stenography keyboard wired with the guts of a mini teaching piano,
a green effect box with beehive lenses that loops
a 2-second delay, and an old espresso bin called
TankPodDrum, fitted with all things pluckable and
tappable. Kaiser takes commissions, but saves
his favorites for his own live shows.
After Partch died, the American Composers Forum
inherited the rights to his work and released more
than 100 of his recordings on the Innova record label.
“I’ve always dreamed of being on Innova,” Kaiser says.
Dreams apparently come true. In June 2007,
Kaiser’s latest solo album, Analog, was released on
— you guessed it — Innova.
—Megan Mansell Williams
Watch and listen to Tim Kaiser: timkaiser.org