Music made for the massesSteve Langton makes musical instruments, but they’re nothing like the ones you’ll see in an orchestra. They don’t require note reading, metronomes or even talent, allowing all types to try their hand at making music.
“The body itself is musical,” says Mr. Langton. “It’s the mind that gets in the way.”
Strapped into an A-frame connected to plastic tubes that snake around his body like a giant octopus, the Australian bangs away happily at the contraption with a pair of thong flip-flops, producing a catchy rhythm. The “Dr-Whi-a-phone” is one of several instruments he’s helped build during the past two months at the Haja Center, an alternative learning center in Yeongdeungpo in Seoul.
Founder and now sole member of the Australian music group Hubbub, Mr. Langton has made it his mission to make music accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. Eschewing traditional Western European instruments and written music, he builds his own sound machines, ones that are designed to bring out people’s curiosity to explore sound.
His two-month stay at Haja, with his partner, Fatima, and their son, Oscar, focused on transplanting the Hubbub ethos to Korea: that music is everywhere, and it brings people together by transcending cultural, socioeconomic and age differences.
His mission has its roots in his childhood, which was spent with his missionary parents in India, his travels around the world as an adult, and his talent for building things from ordinary materials.
At first, he used his skills to make presents for friends and families, practical things that people needed. But it was at a flea market near his hometown of Maleny where he found the inspiration to make things that make sounds.
“I came across this old man with his hair combed across his bald spot, sort of off to the side,” Mr. Langton says. “He was crouched over these long plastic tubes, banging away on the ends with a pair of thongs. I’d been all over the world and seen a lot of stuff, but I’d never seen anything like this before.
“Before long, there were about 30 people crowded around just watching this old guy going off.”
What the old man was playing was a crude version of what is known as a thong-a-phone. Based on a folk instrument used by people in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, it has been around as long as man himself.
The newer version is made of rubber PCV pipes of differing lengths. When the ends are whacked with a thong they produce a percussive tune.
Roots of funk
“When I first heard the thong-a-phone, I thought to myself, Wow! This is ’70s funk,” Mr. Langton says. “But it meant that these sounds were around long before the ’70s. Humans have been making them forever. It was like, funk comes from the Stone Age,”
Mr. Langton built his first thong-a-phone in 1994. The interest in fringe instruments, and “sound installations,” as he calls them, led him to partner with like-minded musicians and form Hubbub, a group dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds explore and create music for themselves.
By 1996, Hubbub had enough of these strange instruments to take their innovative show on the road, sometimes literally as they participated in numerous street festivals around Australia.
One crowd pleaser is a contraption Hubbub has called the “Sprocket,” which Mr. Langton describes as a human-drawn, junk-percussion trolley. It’s played by five performers who are strapped to what looks like a helicopter blade at the top. They spin around the trolley in circles, pounding out beats as the trolley is pulled down the street.
Hubbub began building “sound playgrounds,” giant, vandal-proof musical structures that can be installed at parks or playgrounds. The group offered workshops at schools and community centers all over Australia, helping people create not only music but instruments as well.
Hubbub first came to Korea in 2002 at the invitation of the Ghandi School, in Sancheong, Gyeongnam province. Mr. Langton had been conducting music-making with the school’s Australian Experience program for about three years before in his hometown.
In his first venture abroad with Hubbub, he built a sound playground during his five weeks at Ghandi. Kim Jong-hui, a project coordinator at the Haja Center, saw Hubbub at Ghandi and invited the troupe to his school.
The Australia-Korea Foundation and Arts Queensland, a state-funded arts organization, paid for the residency program at Haja, which was administered by Asialink, which is based in Melbourne.
The alternative school offers youths who don’t fit into Korea’s rigid public education system the chance to direct their energy in more creative ways. It was the perfect place for Hubbub to come and do its thing.
Some of the instruments created during Hubbub’s stay at Haja include a Soprano Marimba, a large wooden xylophone; log drums; a tuned cow-bell set; sub-vibes (low frequency tuned alloy planks with acoustically distorted resonators); an alto vibraphone; inflated and tuned soft-drink bottles; harmonic flutes; a four-octave thong-a-phone; and a pair of Dr-Whi-a-phones, named after Mr. Kim, the coordinator.
Hard at work
The first month at Haja was spent building the instruments. A typical day would begin with a short discussion about goals for the day, and each student was assigned various jobs.
Before working on the instruments, students would do a body-percussion warmup, exercises designed to teach students rhythm. Movements as simple as walking, clapping, stamping the feet or chest were assigned to each beat in a bar.
“Even something like walking is rhythmical, and everybody knows how to walk,” he says.
The next month focused on playing the instruments the students had created. Many of the instruments Mr. Langton makes are tuned to the same key, so it’s impossible to get the sound wrong. This helps remove the fear of failure.
“You can’t play a wrong note,” says Mr. Langton. “All you can do is get the rhythm wrong.”
Students worked long hours in jam sessions. They practiced different instruments and were responsible for learning different parts for a public performance last weekend that capped the two-month stay.
The students’ transition to musicians wasn’t always very smooth.
One student’s lack of ability was so painfully obvious that Mr. Langton says even he was doubtful whether the boy could perform in the concert.
“He just seemed to be so rhythmically-inept, but he wanted to play so badly. He practiced with us the whole time and ended up performing wonderfully. He got everything,” he says.
Another group of students seemed far more interested in what they looked like than actually performing. When Mr. Langton confronted them, they told him that they were too shy and didn’t want to be in the show.
Change of heart
A week before the show he got an urgent phone call from them saying that they very much did want to perform. He was able to incorporate the late-comers, who performed well.
One student who has a musical background, Double E, as he calls himself, has been going to Haja for three years. He practiced with Hubbub for about a month and played the thong-a-phone during the show.
“It’s been very fun,” says Double E. “This instrument (thong-a-phone) makes a low-bass, sort of organic sound. I like playing the guitar, but this is different.”
Mr. Langton says it looks like he’ll be back to Korea again next year, although for a shorter stay.
Perhaps he’ll make a Haja Sprocket then, says Mr. Langton, but he’s not sure yet.
What he is sure of is how well the workshop went this time around. Students from the school plan to tour Korea with the instruments they made.
Mr. Langton was especially happy with how fired up all the students were after their concert.
“When you have a lot of people playing simple parts, it really interlocks and makes a sound that’s very complex,” says Mr. Langton.
“I think that everyone is a musician from birth, except people grow up in different environments. Some are discouraged right from the start. Others just need to have it brought out.”
by Grant Surridge