FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Hans Reichel


This And That About This Thing

The daxophone is small. Years ago when I started using it in concert (alongside my "normal" guitar stuff) lots of people thought I wanted to make a fire on stage because of the emission of white clouds of rosin caught by the spotlights. Apart from this, there wasn't much to be seen - a cello bow in the right hand, a flat piece of wood in the left, and a narrow, thin board clamped to the edge of a table or a bar stool.

Those who took a closer look were usually struck by the resemblance to some kind of kitchen utensil - a cake slice, a spatula used far frying potatoes, a wooden spoon. That's not really surprising - my first such toy was indeed a genuine German pea-soup-stirrer. Or, to put It in another way: There is probably a daxophon hidden away somewhere unknown/unwanted in every normal household.

It was loud from the word go. Although it's a purely "acoustic" device, the sound it makes can easily be amplified by means of a simple contact-microphone so that it becomes a real ear splitter. A completely unnerved Californian critic once said that it reminded him of tortured mules, monkeys and poultry (i.e. animal-testing) and the whole thing was really just annoying - like the neighbour's barking dog.

The idea of making a polyphonic studio recording of this instrument of torture using the multi-track-technique, comes from my Canadian friend and guitarist René Lussier. We played the daxophone polyphonically for the first time in 1990 (at the New Music America Festival in Montreal) with Claude Simard, as third dax-player, and the three cellists Tom Cora, Anne Bourne and Eric Longsworth. The sextet was called "Last Leg". The audience liked it, especially because good old Tom's full music-stand fell off the stage, causing a lengthy intermission.

The daxophone's very first attempts to "speak" can be heard on my LP "The Dawn of Dachsman" (FMP 1140). It comes across a little more garrulously on the duo CD "Angel Carver" (FMP CD 15, with Tom Cora who does similar things on his cello-bridge, though using a different technique). In the opus on hand, it has developed from being a mere starter to a main dish. The nothing but on the cover is 99,9 % correct -the only exception being the drum machine in piece # 5.

Of course I had a contemptible ulterior motive just once I wanted to give a concise demonstration of what this small instrument, which is not often taken seriously, can really do. An unadulterated demonstration. In other words, on this CD you can only hear the vibration of wood and maybe the tremor of my hand, but nothing else. In most cases the instrument is bowed. Struck or dabbed with the bow of a double-bass, or occasionally tapped percussively with a pencil with a small rubber on the end. In one case (# 8) the thin blade of a metal saw is involved.

In just two instances I couldn't resist the temptation to use effects. 1. It is possible to create the recurring vibrato manually (by rocking) but the pitch modulations of a delay unit is just as good and more convenient - apart from which it produces in this case a slushier effect. 2. On a few background-tracks there's a doubling of octaves which, as most people know, can be created with a cheap harmonizer. (The recurring wahwah-like effect on the other hand, is inherent in the wood). Apart from this the recording was specifically incorporating: contact-microphone - preamplifier - tape.

Avoiding the necessity of talking about the music and the important issues prevalent at the tail end of this century, I'd prefer just to add a few further details about this thing - how it is constructed, and how it does or does not work. Those who already know all this can close the booklet now - or read on.

Well - the daxophone belongs to the family of idiophones, all instruments which produce their own sound without using any other medium (i.e. strings, membrane, air shaft, computer terminal). It is essentially made up of four parts, two of which are joined together mechanically, and two of which are not. (1) A bow (whether this is a violin-bow, cello-bow, double-bass-bow or something else, is purely a matter of taste). With its stroke this bow causes (2) the piece which produces the sound to vibrate. In my case this is n small wooden board averaging 330 mm in length, by 30 mm in width, by 5 mm in depth. This piece of wood is fixed by a clamp at what you might call its "foot-end" to the (3) sound-box. (This contains one or more contact-microphones which electrically conduct the acoustic/ sensory waves.) The other end of the board is in free suspension. Its resonance, i.e. pitch and tonal colour, created by the stroke of the bow, is manipulated by (4) a hand-held flat wedge of wood, which for the sake of simplicity I call the "dax". This is slightly curved on at least one side, and is rocked lightly backwards and forwards on the afore-mentioned board, like a rocking chair. This rocking-dax is integral to the whole thing, because it works to a large extent without mechanical friction. You can create the same effect using any other hard object (i.e. the handle of a knife), but then the scraping or tapping to and fro creates so much interference in the contact-microphone, that you get fed up with it after a short time.

One dax of mine has guitar-frets on one side, which get closer together towards one end, like the finger-board of a guitar. (The frets were placed according to a randomly chosen logarithmic succession.) If you use this side, a scale of distinct notes is created, as opposed to the "slide notes" on the other side.

As I am just u right-handed person with two hands, it seemed obvious to hold the bow in the right hand and the dax in the left. As a result the wooden spoon with its attached soundbox has to be fixed and installed so that they cannot wobble. The edge of a table was enough for this purpose, but once I was given a table which was bigger than the whole stage. As a result, and after several years of thought, I created a three-legged frame which can be dismantled and taken away in a carrier bag.

A brief reference to the name of this instrument, as l'm often asked about it. At that period of time, I had a Swedish LP called "Mammal Voices Of Northern Europe, Vol. 1" which featured wolves, rats, bats, fieldmice and also a badger (German: Dachs). I was impressed by the badger's astounding sonic range, from very low to very high notes. Thus the dachsophone got its name - with echoes of Adolphe Sax. Later on I changed the "chs" to "X" because I got fed up with having to keep on repeating the story.

It's not so easy to describe the different ways in which you can manipulate the pitch of a wooden spoon. What is fairly obvious, is that the nearer you rock towards the "foot-end" the lower the tone becomes and vice versa. However, this also alters the tonal colour, which in turn creates the "speech". Also it's not just the piece between the point of pressure and the suspended end which vibrates, but also the other side up as far as the point of fixture (see diagram). It makes a big difference which part of the board you stroke with the bow. The tones you get at the top are completely different to those on the sides. (In the latter, the lengthways vibrations combine with the crossways ones.) It also makes a difference whether you press the dax flat on the board, or just on its side-edge. The sound and pitch alter once more, enabling you to produce the very engaging yodel effect. There's also no reliable scale, as you would get with a stringed instrument. Somewhere the tone topples (something like when your voice breaks) and you find yourself in a higher or lower range. I have however one or two boards which play two complete octaves without spluttering. This is the exception though.

Incidentally, you can of course make a daxophone out of any other rigid material such as metal, plexiglass etc. - but, unlike wood, these materials do not produce that versatility of sound. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that a piece of cedar produces completely different sounds to a piece of ebony (even if they are the same size). Even two pieces of wood cut side by side from the same block, do not sound identical. Last but not least, the shape matters a lot. As soon as you drill a largish hole somewhere, cut off a corner or sharpen an edge, the thing sounds different yet again

To put it briefly, this phenomenon cannot be readily defined you could even say it knows no bounds. This thing, which I call a daxaphone, is just one of many possibilities - the construction of the soundbox in itself, or the way in which the pick-ups are placed, leaves a lot of room for variation, to say nothing of the rest. I could tell you various other things about it, but l'd rather leave that for a later date, or maybe not at all.

Over the years l've collected quite a few boards, each of which is essentially an instrument in its own right - perhaps imperfect but unique. They all have one thing in common: They are self-willed and stubborn, sensitive to change in the weather and moody - right up my street. Some look attractive, others range from being unassuming to being unattractive. Some are real howlers, whereas others prefer to murmur away quietly to themselves. Some are versatile and co-operative, others are out far one thing only. I've tried friendly persuasion, and have often sworn at them using the foulest language. Occasionally l've sawn the head off some of them ... music can be brutal,
once in a while.

Translation: Margaret Neuendorf and Jim Rogers

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