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Monday, August 15, 2016

Roots Rust Revival--Giant (Playable) Stringed Instruments as Interactive Art

Genius at Work
And now for something completely different. Have you ever sat up late at night; perhaps after an cocktail or two, and had a  crazy idea?  Something like: "Hey!  We should build a ten foot tall giant steel banjo!", and instead of telling you that you're crazy your friend says "Yeah!  And it should be PLAYABLE!".  Welcome to the genius of the magnificently twisted and wildly creative minds behind Heavy Metal Stringworks. David Sakalauskas and Steven Cannaert have been friends for years and--along with a slightly warped sense of humor--share a passion for live music and tinkering with things.  For years they had been tossing around the idea of building a giant banjo sculpture to donate to the Wheatland Music Organization.  The passing of long-time organizer Mike Bunting (who--according to legend attended his first Wheatland to return a banjo he had borrowed) provided the motivation to bring their dream to life and the "Big Banjo" made it's debut at Wheatland last fall. 

Banjo, BasTrak and Dobro (look close)
From that humbly grandiose beginning came the idea for Roots Rusted Revival--an ambitious, interactive sculpture installation that simultaneously celebrates Michigan's rustbelt industrial heart and roots music soul. And what better way to show off a bunch of gigantic, rusty, playable, musical sculptures than to get Founder's to agree to host the installation as part of ArtPrize in September!  Dave and Steven's vision has grown to include a trio of oversized, yet playable instruments; built primarily from found and reclaimed materials; developed organically with changes and modifications suggested by people who interact with the sculptures at various musical festivals; all coming together to create something greater than the sum of the rusty bits and pieces that make up the sculptures.  All summer long these maestros of musical magnificence have been traipsing all over the state, working on their vision.  Their interactive sculptures have made appearances at the Charlotte Bluegrass Festival, the Ryan Bellows Bluegrass Bizaar, the Midwest Test, Feral Fest and several smaller events.  Look for them at the Hoxeyville Music Festival in August as well.



Fans Checking Out the Big Banjo
The Big Banjo was the first creation from Heavy Metal Stringworks.  Standing over 10 feet tall and weighing in at over 600 pounds, this mammoth banjo--by some measures--qualifies as the world's largest playable banjo.  They're waiting to hear back from the folks at Guinness to verify this.  Authentic in every aspect, the Big Banjo features a steel pot,  adjustable polyethylene head and a fully fretted custom steel neck made from a surplus highway guardrail.  Ratchet strap hardware allows for coarse tuning of the stainless steel strings, with an ingenious fine-tuner setup hidden behind the head to perfect the pitch of each string.  While difficult--but not impossible--for a single person to play (either Scruggs or Clawhammer styles work), the Big Banjo really sounds incredible when played by two (or more) people.  Some on the frets, some plucking strings, some beating on the head like a drum, even playing the short strings between the tailpiece and bridge for some harmonics--the possibilities are endless.  Recently, they guys have even added a piezo-electric pickup allowing the Big Banjo to be played through an amplifier with a variety of digital effects for some truly unique sounds!

Jamming with the BasTrak at Charlotte Bluegrass Festival
How to top the Big Banjo?  Introducing the BasTrak!  At it's core, this post-industrial nightmare of an instrument is essentially an enormous washtub bass lying on it's side.  With an eight foot diameter head resting on a frame of railroad ties, and a twelve foot neck made of a old train rail, this behemoth weighs in at over 3/4 of a ton!   Less instantly recognizable as a musical instrument, the BasTrak is normally played by striking the steel cable with a rubber mallet while sliding a heavy steel trolley along the rail to control pitch.  Like the Big Banjo, the BasTrak has undergone continuous, incremental improvement based on feedback from people who've played it.  A new floating head (courtesy of some discarded stock car valve springs) and an ingenious pickup system allow for a tremendous range of tones.  At one point this summer, over a dozen people were simultaneously playing the string, the head, the rail and even the frame to create a post-modern dance groove late into the evening.

Dobro Work In Progress
The most ambitious piece to date is the Steel Dobro.  Modeled loosely on a pre-war National Squareneck dobro, this self-standing, 6-sting masterpiece is remarkably light (well under 400 pounds) and easily playable by a single person.  With a steel body wearing a heavy coat of rust and patina, the stainless steel top really stands out and creates not only a striking visual contrast, but a sharp, clean tone to offset the deep bass of the hollow body.  The strings are held way above the fretboard for easy slide playing in the traditional style.  A hand crafted tailpiece (with integral fine tuners) is a masterpiece of design and on-the-fly engineering as are the spring-steel "fingers" that support the tuning "machines" at the headstock.  The strings run over a hand-hewn oak saddle and nut and transfer (for now) the sound to the sieve-plate resonator (salvaged from an old clothes dryer).  The piece simply has to be seen, touched and played to be appreciated.

Words (and pictures) simply can not describe the Roots Rusted Revival project.  However, let me present the following as my own--modest--contribution the this living, breathing work of rust belt art:

In the middle of a warm, Michigan summer, pick a calm, quiet evening and step outside.  There you will hear the faint musical echo of our state's past: the rhythmic striking of axes against tall Northern Michigan pine trees; the slow rumble of dynamite blasting an iron ore face in a U.P. mine; the sharp crash and clang of hydraulic presses in Detroit and Flint's great automotive plants.  If you listen closely, you will also hear the ghosts of our blue collar ancestors singing and making music with family and friends; with simple, traditional instruments--the guitar, and banjo and washtub bass--they brought with them as they moved from the poverty of the south to the opportunity of the Midwest.  Though the trees are gone, the mine's have shut down, and the great factories lie rusting and crumbling, the spirit of those songs still lives in each of us.  In a real sense, it lives in the popular music of our generation--in Barry Gordie's Motown, in Bob Seeger's Classic Rock, in Kid Rock's rap/rock fusion and in Jack White's modern pop.  In another sense, it lives in all of us--in our work ethic; and our spirit; and our passion; in or creativity and our ingenuity; and in the dirt, grit and blood we pore into our daily lives.

Roots Rust Revival is about more than creating sculpture; it is more ambitious than building the worlds largest playable instruments; and it's definitely about more than continuously and incrementally improving the work through the interactions in all of us.  These pieces are about embracing the music in each of us; about the beauty of seeing what is old reborn into what is fantastic; about seeing with the eyes, embracing with the hands and appreciating with the heart; about the transfer of experience--be it the small brown stain of rust on your hands the work gives to you, or that little piece of your soul that lingers on the steel where you touched it; about giving life to the inanimate through experiencing it with all of your senses; and about the very act of creation--just because you can.  Roots Rust Revival is important not because it is like nothing you've ever seen or heard, but because it IS everything you've ever seen and heard.

More pictures from Heavy Metal Stringworks below.

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