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Wherever the Sound Takes You: Heroics and Heartbreak in Music Making

Wherever the Sound Takes You: Heroics and Heartbreak in Music Making

by David Rowell

Hardcover(First Edition)

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David Rowell is a professional journalist and an impassioned amateur musician. He’s spent decades behind a drum kit, pondering the musical relationship between equipment and emotion. In Wherever the Sound Takes You, he explores the essence of music’s meaning with a vast spectrum of players, trying to understand their connection to their chosen instrument, what they’ve put themselves through for their music, and what they feel when they play.

This wide-ranging and openhearted book blossoms outward from there. Rowell visits clubs, concert halls, street corners, and open mics, traveling from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to a death metal festival in Maryland, with stops along the way in the Swiss Alps and Appalachia. His keen reportorial eye treats us to in-depth portraits of musicians from platinum-selling legend Peter Frampton to a devout Christian who spends his days alone in a storage unit bashing away on one of the largest drum sets in the world. Rowell illuminates the feelings that both spur music’s creation and emerge from its performance, as well as the physical instruments that enables their expression. With an uncommon sensitivity and grace, he charts the pleasure and pain of musicians consumed with what they do—as all of us listen in.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226477558
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/22/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David Rowell is deputy editor of the Washington Post Magazine and author of The Train of Small Mercies.

Read an Excerpt


"In Switzerland Nothing Is Easy"

I had been walking around for an hour trying to find a street musician — more precisely, a street musician playing a particular instrument — when I heard the buzzy strain of a clarinet. That wasn't what I was looking for, but maybe it was a start.

Here in the crowded foot traffic of Bern's Old Town, it wasn't clear where the sound was coming from. I took a few steps in a couple of directions until I heard the muffled darts of a Middle Eastern drum accompanying the clarinet. I walked past Stauffacher, a bookstore that featured in its window not one but two books on the pop group Abba, and past Magic X, an erotic megastore. At the end of the narrow alley were the clarinetist and a much taller man playing a small darbuka with a stick as thin as a baton.

I leaned against a wall, waiting for the song to end. I pulled out my laminated picture of the hang — an elusive percussion instrument, which I had come all the way to Switzerland to find. Under the picture I'd typed, "Have you seen this musical instrument?" Every time I thought the musicians were winding down a song, they segued into another. After twenty minutes, they'd gone from smiling at me (Hey, this guy really likes us!) to looking annoyed (This guy is creepy, right?). Finally I stopped them midtune. The pair looked at my picture, then at me. They wore the stony expressions of bouncers.

"Dutch," the drummer said. They didn't speak English.

In my desperation I mimed playing the hang, as if that might clarify the situation, though it must have looked as if I was warding off bees. They shook their heads again and glanced at each other. I sighed and started to leave, but not before the drummer grunted and pointed with his toe toward the basket in front of them. I fished out two francs.

As I walked away, they started up "Over the Rainbow," a song that always freezes me in my tracks. The skies were blue, with the clouds far behind me — that much was true — but my troubles weren't exactly melting like lemon drops. I had a sinking feeling that my troubles were just beginning.

In Switzerland I was on the latest stop of a crusade that started the night I first put together Mike's drum set in David's garage. After college I ended up in Boston, where I had a tiny studio apartment, and the wall that divided me and my neighbor, Maria, was more of a partition wall — we could hear when the other hiccupped. So it was hardly realistic for me to bring my drum set, which my parents bought for me after the talent show for my seventeenth birthday, up from home. But the separation was tough, and I missed my kit.

Around that time, world music was becoming popular, and in the music stores in and around Boston, new kinds of percussion instruments were showing up alongside the standard fare of tambourines, maracas, and cowbells. At Jack's Drum Shop I came across a tongue drum. It was a rectangular wooden box and had only had five notes, but I was drawn to its crisp timbre, and it would be quiet enough that I could play it softly in my apartment. It came with two mallets, and just having sticks in my hands felt restorative.

I was instantly hooked. And so began a lifetime of collecting percussion pieces.

I bought a kalimba next, or African thumb piano, which had little keys that produced shimmering tones. I found a balafon from Mali, a rain stick from Chile, an udu drum, more tongue drums, more kalimbas, and an angklung from Bali. I ordered a dumbek from Pakistan, a tamborim from Brazil, Bao Gongs from China, and Noah Bells from India. I have a talking drum, a djembe, all kinds of African shakers, clay bongos from Morocco, an American Indian drum, a berimbau, a dulcimer, a guiro shaped like a frog, and a shekere. There are singing bowls from Tibet, an Ipu from Hawaii, a glockenspiel from Sweden, tank drums (tongue drums made of metal), an ocean drum, a thunder drum, a steel pan, wooden spoons, and a waterphone. Birthdays, Christmases, Father's Days — they have all become occasions to add to the collection. Some instruments I am better at than others, but the ability to produce so many sublime sounds all around me has made daily life more enjoyable. The sounds from these instruments — every one of them — stirs something inside me.

When YouTube came along, I was forever seeking out drumming videos. One night I came across a blond man in Rasta dreadlocks playing what looked like a giant wok, with a cover that had indentions on the side and a bubble on top. There was an echo of the steel drum in the sound, but it was richer, more resonant. His hands moved over the instrument like flowing water, the melody like a message from outer space. The sight of a piece of metal being played like a hand drum left me spellbound. Excluding the vibraphone or xylophone, metal percussion pieces are often meant to sound a dramatic, sustained note — think of crashing cymbals or gongs or the solemn blare of orchestral bells. The full notes of Armageddon. The fluidity of notes on this strange-looking instrument — in one moment as bright as chimes, in another as muffled as bells in a sack — was beguiling and bedeviling. I wanted to know everything I could about this wonderment.

It was called "the hang" (pronounced the hong), or "hand" in the Bernese German dialect, as I would learn, and created by Felix Rohner and his partner, Sabina Schärer. Felix had previously been a maker of steel pans when he and his colleagues discovered a new kind of sheet metal, which led to the hang's creation. The only way you could get one was to write a letter — not an email — making the case as to why you were worthy of owning the instrument. Most applications were denied. The lucky recipient, however, had to fly to Bern to pick up the hang in person — and pay about three thousand dollars, though not right away; there was a waiting list of a year or longer. Thousands of people all over the world wanted one, none of them more than I did.

With two sons to send to college, I was no more likely to buy a hang — even if I was one of the chosen few — than I was to start driving a German tank. Instead, my want was modest: I would seek a single encounter. My idea was to visit Felix in Switzerland and write about the hang as a travel piece for the Washington Post, where I worked as an editor. The story would delve into the creation of the hang — what Felix's hopes had been for it, for example — and I could learn how the instrument had worked its way through the musical landscape of Switzerland. In doing that, I could introduce the instrument of my dreams to a wider world.

I discovered that Felix had cowritten papers for the International Symposium on Musical Acoustics, and sometimes the name Uwe Hansen appeared as coauthor. He was a professor emeritus at Indiana State University, where he had been a member of the physics faculty for thirty years. (Hansen didn't play around. Back in 1966, his PhD dissertation in physics was titled "Dielectric Anomalies in the Cyclotron Absorption Spectrum of Lead Telluride.") I called him to see if he could put me in touch with Felix. "Felix is kind of an interesting, interesting, interesting guy," he told me. "He's sort of a part musician, part scientist, and part theological philosopher." He thought Felix would be interested in my idea, so he sent me Felix's email address.

"I've been playing drums and world percussion instruments my whole life, and I've never heard an instrument so mesmerizing as yours," my message to Felix began. "Basically, I feel like it's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard." I went on to sketch out my story proposal and closed by saying, "I would travel all the way to Bern for the chance to play a Hang even for five minutes." How could Felix resist?

In his response, he thanked me for my interest, but the very thing I thought would move him most — my willingness to travel so far for so brief an encounter — was what alarmed him. He quoted back that sentence to me, and then wrote, "This sounds like a project of a pilgrimage. We are not a place like that." He went on, "It seems you were touched by the virus of the Hang. This virus is rather strong, and people travel around the world to get touched again." But, he informed me, "the Hang chapter is closed, and we turned the page." His company, PANArt, had modified the hang, and now it was called the gubal. Still, there was a shard of hope toward the end: "Please clarify what is your deeper interest about." The email was signed by Felix and Sabina.

In my follow-up, in case I had come off as a stalker, I changed tactics a bit and made clear that I'd also be writing about other music in Switzerland. He responded that their goal was to stay humble —"We do our daily work like monks"— and that in working on the gubal, "we are in the refinement of a new art form."

I tried one last angle. If he would not meet with me, would he put me in touch with other hang players? But by then Felix had, essentially, hung up on me.

Still, Switzerland had more hang players than any other country, judging by the videos I'd seen. I could track them down before I left. And I did, some of them. First I found Daniel Waples, the blond guy I'd seen in that first clip, though it turned out he didn't live in Switzerland. But there was still so much I wanted to ask him. "I am about to go into a 10 day meditation retreat where I will have no access to the internet," he emailed me, "but I assure you, I will connect with you as soon as I get out again." That meditation must have been hard to come out of, since five months passed before he got back to me — and long after I'd returned from Switzerland.

One hang player, who did live in Switzerland and understood that Felix wouldn't speak to me, wrote, "I do not want to tell second hand stories about people who do not want to take part in the story." Two others didn't respond. Another hang player let me know he would be away on tour the very week I'd be in Switzerland, but we could talk by phone, and he gave me his number. "Hear from you in June," he wrote. And he did. I just never heard back.

I didn't know anything about Switzerland, but it was hard not to think that I had stumbled onto some bizarre percussion conspiracy. If I went through the city streets asking about the hang, would I end up on the wrong end of a Swiss Army knife? I was too determined to give up. I'd go and find the hang myself, somehow. And if I struck out completely, well, there were other Swiss musicians I could interview for my story: the country was crawling with yodelers.

After the clarinetist and drummer in the alley, I met Michael Dmitrischin, who was playing his accordion a few blocks away. He looked at my hang picture and told me he had seen one before, but he had mixed feelings about the instrument and what it could do. You can't play classical on it, he said.

Suddenly street performers were everywhere. There were two young men — boys, really — singing an a cappella version of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" in a thick German accent. "Hello dockness my old fhwend ..." Around the corner was an acoustic guitarist teaming up with the player of an erhu, or Chinese violin, which filled the air with a mournful groan. The guitarist had seen a hang in the area just recently, he said. I had every reason to believe I was getting warmer, but maybe it was too much to think I could spot one on my first day. Not far away, though, was someone who could fill me in a bit more on the hang's beginnings.

I went to meet Thomas Burkhalter, a musicologist who ran a world music website called Norient. Thomas had reinvented himself as a journalist after ending his days playing alto sax in jazz groups in and around Bern. In 2001 he interviewed Felix Rohner for a story about the hang that he was writing in the local newspaper. "He was very open," Thomas recalled, "but then, he wanted to sell the hang, you know."

In 2002, Thomas started Norient to showcase experimental music. As Thomas and I talked about the website, his colleague Theresa Beyer joined our conversation. An editor at Norient, Theresa was studying for her PhD in Swiss folk music and knew three people with hangs. "Everybody who has one is really proud," she said. She had been to a party where the host had a hang and brought it out to show people, but then the host suddenly turned nervous as the hang was handed around and said, "'Be careful, be careful!' So it's a sacred thing."

We talked about how the hang fit in with the current music scene in Switzerland. Thomas said the traditional music of Switzerland — largely made up of yodeling, accordions, and alphorns — had grown in popularity because of the recent rise of the conservative movement. "In Switzerland we have a big struggle between the left and the right," he said. "You have the conservative side, and that is against Europe, against foreigners, against everything, basically. And then you have the more left side, where we are the part that wants to show another feature of Switzerland that is modern and open to the world." Theresa added that the country's traditional instruments had been co-opted by the right wing of the country, as if to say, Why would we ever need anything else? "So there's the motivation to show, for these musicians, that they are not part of the right wing," Thomas said.

It was creeping into evening, and as we said good-bye they wished me luck on my hunt, though by then most of the street musicians had packed it in for the day.

On day two I was headed east to the Emmental, a countryside of rolling hills, chalet-style farmhouses, and cows and sheep that dotted the plush landscape like snowflakes. The area is most famous for its cheese production, which plays a major role in the Swiss economy, but there's another production that goes on here to create some of the country's most recognizable music. I wasn't likely to find the hang on this excursion, but makers of other instruments had agreed to talk to me, and I was hoping that, as fellow creators, they might offer a useful perspective on Felix's off-kilter sales philosophy. Plus, in getting an education in the instruments that had, for better or worse, helped shape part of the country's musical image for the rest of the world, I'd have a deeper appreciation of the hang's place in the pantheon.

Our first stop was what my driver and interpreter, Christian Billau, called the Rolls-Royce of accordion makers: Hansruedi Reist's workshop. Hansruedi made a Schwyzerörgeli, a distinctive accordion with buttons on both sides (no keys) that was also notable for its slender size and elegant craftsmanship. When we walked into the two-story factory, the air was so thick with the scent of lumber it was like walking into wood itself. Normally the place would have been teeming with employees, but many Swiss were on holiday, and there was just Hansruedi, one of his sons, and one other employee. Hansruedi told me the story of the business's origins, and Christian translated.

Back in 1966, Hansruedi's father, Rudolf, a mechanic by training, found himself out of work. To put food on the table, Rudolf decided to sell everything he owned — even his beloved accordion. His only idea to earn money was to build an accordion to sell. But how to make it stand out from all the others in the marketplace? Rudolf's stroke of genius was to modify the treble key arms, which control the air coming in and out, by making them out of metal instead of wood. The difference was significant. In humid conditions, the wooden parts made the sound inconsistent. Metal solved that.

He sold that first instrument to a good friend who was a truck driver. "When he was making a break at the truck stop somewhere, he [brought out] his instrument and played in the restaurant," Hansruedi said. People were curious about the instrument, and he would tell them that his buddy Rudolf made it. That word of mouth, Hansruedi said, is how the business "keeps rolling" today. Hansruedi took over the business from his father in 1994, and now Hansruedi's two sons worked under him. Rudolf, at eighty-eight, still liked to come in each day.

As we toured the shop, where saw blades were arranged on the wall like family portraits, Hansruedi said the waiting list for a Schwyzerörgeli was at least a year. Roughly 140 instruments are produced annually, at prices ranging from three thousand to thirteen thousand dollars each.

Hansruedi had grown up around the accordion, and he was an accomplished player himself, but I wondered if at the end of a day's work, the accordion was the last thing he wanted to pick up. He chuckled at the very idea. "The goal," he said, "was less work, more playing."

Before we left, I fished out my picture of the hang and asked if he had ever seen it. He studied it, then shook his head no.

Back in the car, Christian said we were now about to meet the Rolls-Royce of alphorn makers. (Was this just a Swiss way of seeing things? Was there also a Rolls-Royce of fondue pots?) The alphorn's sound is common in traditional Swiss music, but you might know it more for the way it looks: typically about ten feet long, its silhouette conjures an indoor plumbing pipe. The alphorn has no valves, so it's played like a bugle, with no keys or buttons. All the variations of sound are produced by manipulating the shape of the mouth and the force of breath; notes push down through the instrument like downhill skiers.


Excerpted from "Wherever the Sound Takes You"
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Copyright © 2019 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Prelude: The Necessary Equipment
Chapter 1: “In Switzerland Nothing Is Easy”
Chapter 2: Do You Feel Like We Do?
Chapter 3: Complicated Rhythms
Chapter 4: The Keys to Happiness
Chapter 5: Going for the One
Chapter 6: Into the Darkness
Chapter 7: “You May Have Never Heard Nothing Like This Before”
Chapter 8: Two for the Show
On the Record
Liner Notes

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