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Original text written in Swedish for Mannen på gatan #2 - Surrealism 1994 / The Man In The Street #2,, Surrealistförlaget, Stockholm 1994. Enlarged and translated for Experimental Musical Instruments vol. 10 #4, June 1995, California.

Comment, 2004: After ten years, some of the opinions and some of the statements in this articles have naturally changed. Some information could be added about the development (or not) of some of the ideas, some new instruments have been made and some more references could change. However, I have only chosen to replace directly misleading things, like literature references that should be links instead of (old) addresses. For the developments of my ideas, my music and instruments I simply refer to newer sources and articles on my web site. This article is still well worth reading anyway.


Call For The Hidden Sounds

Johannes Bergmark

1. Birth of music magic.

Sound is movements of matter. Matter in stillness has a quality that I will label as sound potential energy, like a rock which can start falling at any time from a mountain top if you push it. Music is mediation of movements between human bodies, through pulses in the air (sometimes with a middle link of location energy - recording; sometimes only the musician's own body in loneliness communicating with itself through the medium). It is always an indirect mediation of the body movements: the body is never self-sufficient, not even when you are dancing or singing. The body, moreover, is spiritualized, researching its relation to the spirit, excited by the vibrations. All the joints involve spiritual attitudes, sexual and sublimized desires, back to the own body of the musician, to the amount of air to the meeting (listening) bodies (and their thinking), to the bodies themselves in potential movement and to all the matter that leads the movement away from all bodies in endless dilution. To the degree that the music is opened for a total investigation and bewildering of all the joints, or if it is overmastering in a direction beyond the everyday, it can have magical potential - it can reveal important hidden forces. Certain dominating attitudes to matter and people, however, limit this magical potential and form conventions that define what is (communicates as) music and what is (does) not.

A deepening of the understanding of the movements of matter and its meanings to the movements of the body starts with an inventory of the collected potential energies that lie hidden in and around the body: a concentration in stillness and silence. At the first scratch, bang or hiss (sometimes even a movement in silence) a focusing takes place, the point of departure for a movement of movements. Through this meta-movement, desire - this huge collection of abstract potential energies - is given possibilities to transform itself into concrete but transient pulses through matter. These pulses recreate new movements through the bodies but are at the same time apprehended as independent objects that last longer than the actual sounds by their being incorporated into imagination. Such sound-referring objects of movement are identifiable in the same way as words and visual forms, and even though these domains are kept apart by senses and concept, they are born in a corresponding way and can have parallel inner laws and structures. Here, a spiritual concretization takes place, which is soon surrounded by memories, prejudices, conventions; and the reproduction, the mediation, of the pulse of movement becomes followed and affected by the parallel spiritual pulse and their structures mirror each other. The inner relation that you perceive between musical objects indirectly mirrors the conception you have about the objects in the thinking.

Here is thus a corresponding parallel fork in the road of attitude: the pulse of movement can be halted or directed into systems that aim at maintaining or establishing a certain material or ideological structure. Another way is, by means of active interest for, or passive curiosity on the unknown possibilities of development of the pulse, to open doors, to draw threads, to attach resonators, to lead the spark over to other rooms. But also to actively break off and shock it in order to discover patterns of surprises. This play without evident goals does not necessarily have anything to do with knowledge, skillfulness, message or art. It is a native life instinct, the one that from the very beginning made us discover everything. The person trying this road, will see that it, as time goes by, is neither structureless nor arbitrary. The structures are a potential inherent in the details, and if this is developed freely, structures are created by themselves. They can even create traditions - yes, all traditions are created that way.

The given music and the given instruments around us are only one, and a very winding, road. To choose this without regularly returning to an inventory of the bodily potential energies - desire - is a failure, a tragic forgery. The illusion of stage art, to manage, to rapidly conquer a social role, distorts the picture of the real possibilities, even the social ones. The free development of play to make life more beautiful and give us deeper knowledge about the material bodies, presupposes a total despair of or suspicion of all means, above all those (art, stage ...) that are connected to promising the kind of place of the ego in the world, where it is given a touch of fame - immortality, immobility, self-sufficientness, non-curiosity, symbolism, giving-up, conservatism, stupification.

But the stage, and all other means, must also be able to be used as fields of experiment to refine the sensibility. This sensibility for musical (poetic) potential energy, though, is not necessarily expressive. Communication doesn't have to start from stage, it could have as its point of departure the kidneys of the audience as well as the cold air outside. Noone has basically anything more to express than anyone else. But the sensibility demands training, renewed training.

* * *

2. Birth of means.

My interest in music was liberated by quitting my piano lessons. I was mostly curious on "incomprehensible" music, but came to beleive that I was in conflict with my political commitment. The conflict was clarified for me by surrealism, i.e. creation as a result of all the psychic levels in accordance instead of only consciousness or tradition. Ideas of complexity, pedagogy or message, I rejected in favor of poetic freedom. I indulged in free improvisation and Cecil Taylor became my "master". Many experiments and much searching was made in the Stockholm Surrealist Group (of which I am still one of the members) when it formed in 1985. We played on anything in spite of "previous knowledge". The focussing of the playing was gradually increased. I discovered an until then, unknown power in my body, independent of my consciousness, capable of guiding the course of events independently and creating its own structures. The formal freedom, then, was not anymore such a central point, but instead the invocation of, the listening to this corporeal demon - individually as well as in collective playing. I understood that there must be a correspondence to this in dance, and my childhood passion for acrobatics and climbing got a new significance through this return. (Later, I found a surprising connecting link, though not a full equivalent, to the Japan-born Butoh dance movement.)

The Chicago (nowadays Cedarburg, WI) surrealist Hal Rammel introduced me to the playing of the musical saw and instrument invention as well. I made experimental tunings of my piano, first at random (inspired by a text by August Strindberg), then a "wave-tuned" non-even-to-the-octave (narrower in the middle). I got the Australian drone wind instrument (with circular breathing) didjeridoo and the Bengal one-string gopychand, both very expressive and rich in spite of their simplicity.(1) With my first instrument, the piano, I was lacking this simple inner understanding, which led me to the only vocational education I have ever started voluntarily: the piano technicians' class. In the workshops at the school, I started to build instruments.

Those who have once tasted the powerful nucleus of improvisation, can not return as the same person; I think this is also the case with instrument invention, which is the same kind of search for the naturally hidden sound - in the body, or in objects of all kinds, without separating "practical" objects from "aesthetic" ones. German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr e.g., writes in "Sedna oder die Liebe zum Leben" (1985): "Generally, the music bow of the bushmen, which also appears among the negroes of Africa [...] is identical with the hunting bow [...], but that doesn't necessarily have to mean that the bow was first used as a hunting tool and then as a musical instrument. What if the relation was opposite!" My reaction was: "what if the musical saw came before the tool saw?" ... Then, after having read about one of those having united "practical" and "aesthetic", and his instrument inventions (Emanuel Winternitz: Leonardo da Vinci as a Musician 1982), I got two dreams:

[Rammel & Bergmark]
Hal Rammel (left) and Johannes Bergmark playing a saw duet, displaying two of Rammel's instruments. Photo © by Gina Litherland.
I saw a one-string instrument (similar to the gopychand but with no neck) where the resonator is held and kept in tension with one foot in the air (you stand on only one foot) and the other end of the string is fastened and kept in tension with a thong around your neck. You play it with a bow.(2) I wanted to realize this, and found a butter box which would serve as a resonator, and made a double, crossing loop of thick piano wire through the bottom, that would serve as a bridge by the string going through it.(3) The instrument's name became butter bass. It turned out to be very rich in overtones: it can embrace a large timbre field, although it doesn't make it easy to play conventional "melodies". As the tension of the string can be varied very quickly, the instrument's sound can jump between earthquake-like percussive roar, lyrical chirping of flageolets which are achieved with the light touch of the free hand (4), and a gigantic train brake when the bow plays strongly close to the end of the string. That's more than usually expected from a single string! To realize the strange one-legged playing position from the dream, I thought about placing a stirrup at the far end of the butter box, but the stirrup idea would only return later in another instrument. The butter bass became a seated position instrument, with both feet against box and floor. [The Butter Bass]
The Butter Bass.
[The Hedgehog & Forked Silver Tongue]
Bergmark playing the Hedgehog. The Forked Silver Tongue above it. Photo © by Christian Werner.
In the other dream there was a drum with a metal tongue fastened on the skin. The tongue would be played with a bow and, according to the dream, change pitch as the skin was pressed. (5) The dream is acoustically not logical, as the drum skin would be a resonator and not alter the pitch of the tongue. I haven't built this instrument according to the dream either - but it has made me aware of the easily accessible possibilities to sound variation that all thin, stiff and slim objects like knives, ice cream sticks etc., have, when held against the edge of a resonator (e.g. a table or a drum) and played on their overhanging part with a bow. Here too there is a surprising range of variation from creaking, whistling, squeaking and humming, depending on length and material and on the speed, pressure and placement of the bow. The ice cream sticks can be surprisingly similar to the human voice's complaining, singing, sighing or wondering sounds.(6)

I also made a special silver-plated tool, called silver rod, to make the maneuvering easier. It turned out to be too squeaky but it could produce an interesting ghostly vibrato through its bigger size and weight. Later, when I cut the end in half, I got rid of much of the noise, and renamed it forked silver tongue.

The hedgehog is a more successful variation in wood, and has a garland of wooden sticks as well, that protrude at a small angle upwards on the finger holder, and who give a fine whistle or squeak from the bow.
[The Metal Harp]
Bergmark playing the Metal Harp.
Dreaming and chance, and the surprisingly useful turning-points that "failures" provide, were points of departure for creation, and lack of "ideas", knowledge and materials haven't been any decisive obstacles. Instruments that at first seemed to be "failures" in relation to my expectations, soon "taught" me what their point was and how they wanted to be played. That attitude I also try to have in relation to traditional instruments that I "can't play". I have also taken all the chances to make traditional instruments: 5-string kantele (ancient Finnish/Baltic string instrument), Swedish bagpipe, clavichord (2 different ones), lur (Nordic wooden harmonic trumpet), Hardanger fiddle (Norwegian folk variation on the violin and viola d'amore, with sympathetic strings) and renaissance recorder, and I also made a didjeridoo of clay, curved like an alto saxophone.

[The Clay Didjeridoo and Maiden Crown]

The Clay Didjeridoo and Maiden Crown.
Rammel's circular bowed instruments (7) and the saw gave me the idea to the metal harp, with triangular sheetings welded around a copper tube, which besides being played with a bow, also can be used as a trumpet, flute or percussion instrument. The bright timbre of the plates shimmers extra when you spin the instrument in your lap.

The maiden crown, circular as well and made of clay, I built when I discovered the beautiful ring as I used a bow on a protruding edge of the clay didjeridoo. It consists of a turned bowl whose edge I have cut up into nibs of different lengths, and on every nib turned out a sharp edge for bowing. It has turned out to function better as a percussion instrument, though.

I also wanted to make a didjeridoo with the possibility of playing polyphonic and melodic music. The double trumpet is a result; it works, but not as it was meant to (with circular breathing). However, it does have some advantages besides looking funny. (8)

When I heard that every string in the piano is under the tension corresponding to about 70 kilos, I imagined a man hanging in every string, and that was not very far from actually mounting a model in the ceiling of the workshop, with stirrups in the lower end of two strings. A stool was made into a resonator, with the same kind of loop bridges as on the butter bass (two of them) through the seat.

To hold the vertical resonator up and in tension, standing in these stringed stirrups, I first tried fastening my belt around the resonator and the chest and leaning backwards. The firmness of this belt was overrated, but the inglorious fall into the floor was documented on tape and has given me many good laughs afterwards. Later, I found out a way of fastening a strap around resonator and shoulders without everything gliding downwards into a cluster. Playing became comfortable and liberated both hands and four sounding string lengths for bowing, and beating with specially made felt- and skin-covered blocks. With a contact microphone, the floating, long-ringing, thundering bass tones and intense, whistling overtones come out clearly. Vibrato and pitch change can be achieved by displacing the weight between the feet. From the Opera terrace in Stockholm I also developed longitudinal vibrations - the hanging length was over 7 meters! These shockingly strong tones were made by rubbing along the strings with rosined pieces of cloth.(9) The thickness of the piano wires are 1.5 and 1.0 mm, which makes a pitch difference of a fifth if the tensions and lengths are equal. For safety, I climb and play the instrument with protective goggles, which might be unnecessary, but the astronaut- or frogman-like appearance at a performance I think is rather desirable. The spotlight ladder I mounted the instrument in at Unga Atalante in Göteborg (Gothenburg) formed a triangular room which related me back to childhood obsessions: vehicles, outer space, climbing, circus, diving, aquarium.

In two dreams I actually also have returned to the water with music: in one I took a bath and played on the bathtub and the water in a duo with saxophone player Evan Parker; in the other I sat on the bottom of the sea and played the saw. The marvellous deep and long sound that this produced naturally inspired me to make experiments awake, in bathtub and pool, with specially constructed water-resistant bows (and after persuading the suspicious bath attendants). I saw before me concerts in swimming-baths for a snorkeled audience, and in dolphin pools with underwater windows - what would whales think about saw music, which can be so similar to their own singing (and what do they think about underwater musicians)? But the ring was difficult to produce and was in addition rapidly deadened by the water - which will provide the fertile soil for new solutions ... large-sized metal sheets cemented firmly to the bottom, so that the musician must swim with webbed feet to bend them? (10)

[The Stringed Stirrups]
Bergmark playing the Stringed Stirrups or Angel Strings. Photo © by Gudrun Edel-Rösnes.

[The Stringed Stirrups, closeup.]
A closer look at the instrument.

My friend Petra Mandal had a dream about an instrument that I have now started to make, the stringed coffin: a box in body length contains the musician, and some strings are strung over the lid. Through a little hole, the musician sings and the voice directs the tones of the strings. (11) [The Stringed Coffin]
The Stringed Coffin. (Model by Petra Mandal.)
[Bergmark playing the Finger Violin]
Playing the Finger Violin. Photo © by Greg Locke, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.
The finger violin consists of two wooden laminae in the form of flat violin soundboards with five piano strings drawn through them, stretched between the fingers (who are attached to the ends through rings), and the back plate, locked behind the back and left arm. The strings, being so stiff, cannot be tightened enough by the fingers to make a clear fundamental tone, so the sound consists primarily of rumbling, creaking and overtone whistling, which is very effective with a contact microphone. Sometimes it sounds like a terror-struck choir when I bow a cluster on all strings. Other sounds can be achieved if you play on the edge of the lid with the bow, the teeth or anything, or shake the bow between the strings. Pizzicato also works, of course. An interesting sound is also the amplified putting on and pulling off of the instrument.

The violin form of the wooden laminae in the finger violin is not acoustically motivated, but a purely scenic point, which made me excited to research the scenic side of the musical performance more, especially in my solo playing. For many audiences, this side is more important than the musical one! I also started to mix with poetry, acting and objects in my concerts.

My first electric instrument, which also has some electro-acoustic possibilities, turned out to be a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the first ready-made by Marcel Duchamp: "bicycle wheel" from 1913 (which I was unaware of - just like I was unaware of that it was the 100th anniversary of the Ferris Wheel). It is a copy of the same constellation of a bicycle wheel sitting on the front fork stuck through the seat of a kitchen stool, with one important addition: it still has the dynamo left. I attached the electric wires to a plug and could bring out the unadulterated sound of the power generator through loudspeakers. It is a very strong signal which put an end to a fuse in my stereo at first attempt. Later, when I made a parallel coupling with the sound signal and the attached bicycle lights, the sound signal was reliefed a bit, and at the same time I got a nice light effect when playing on the dynamo! One acoustic possibility is to play the spokes, e.g. with a double bow - two violin bows put together with the horsehair in different directions (which I made to play two saws at the same time). Another possibility is to let the spinning spokes strike different materials. A contact microphone in the hub even amplifies details like the scraping of a comb on the fork. I also added a table-lamp spring in the wheel which gives a bass drone and various scraping. The name of this instrument is Veloncell Marcel. [The Veloncell Marcel]
The Veloncell Marcel.
[The Brillolin]
The Brillolin.
The Brillolin is a further development of the hedgehog. The fingerholder is here formed like a miniature violin, where the protruding part, in two "floors" from top and bottom, comes from where the violin neck would be (later, the upper floor broke). Instead of wooden sticks, there are pieces of piano wire coming out, and additionally, two strings are placed between fingerholder and an empty pair of glasses that the musician wears on his or her face. ("Briller" means glasses in Norwegian.) The origins of the instrument is the finding of the empty glasses, which I thought had a comical quality which ought to be used in an instrument.
On an abandoned industry I found 22 well sounding lamp-shades of glass. I took them home, sorted them according to pitch, and made a simple stand for these glass shade bells with 6 shades. Unfortunately, the 22 rapidly turned out to reduce its number during transportations, so not many extras remain today. [The Lamp Shade Bells]
The Lamp Shade Bells.
My repertoire of over 30 instruments and sound tools lead to a puttering about that I want to alter with a kind of one-man band which combines bowed idiophones (saw and bowed sheet and rods of metal and wood), strings, percussion and wind instruments. I have continuously revised the outline of this instrument, till I made a full-size cardboard model and gave it the name crow castle.

In a dream, I have now seen a flute which is also a two-stringed bowed instrument. The finger board of the string instrument coincides with the body of the flute. A normal descending scale on the flute would result in an ascending one on the string instrument! A related bass version with a plastic tube didjeridoo and strings waits to be made.

In waked state, I have approached the road to the one-man band by playing several instruments at once: didjeridoo, piano and saw; two saws at once; finger violin and stringed stirrups etc.

Another of my waiting projects will be to build a boat that can hang freely in the air in piano wires, e.g. under bridges. The musician will stand in the hanging boat. This vision might have been inspired by my childhood reading of Jules Verne's Lord of the Air.

[Cardboard model of the Crow Castle tried out]
Here I am trying out a cardboard model of the "Crow Castle". Photo © Hans Einar Nerland.

* * *

3. Death of prejudice.

This story is not finished - I collect and search for sounds everywhere; look for, meet and read about instrument inventors; try the sound potential of lamp-shades, household utensils, tools, pots, balloons, junk and body parts; bang, rub, knock, sing through time and matter. I feel closer to my nature, and to nature, in irregular rhythms, uncertain pitches, uncontrollable timbres and indefinable squeaking - but also with variations, contrasts against these. All or no sounds are strange or unusual - but only some have the character of discovery or revelation - what interests, inspires me most is the communication, identity, truth, openness with the context in which I meet the sound. I sometimes feel richer when I am not the whole factor of power, in the encounter with image, word, others playing or dancing, in a bigger context.

To be able to improvise freely and communicate with other musicians in the moment, it helps to leave behind sounds that tend to refer to an inner structural hierarchy, such as functional tonal harmony and regular rhythm. These willingly demand their own attention. To completely leave their commonly prevailing supremacy leaves the musicians naked in front of each other with their bodies' impulsive life and leaps between strength, weakness, rest and intensity. To leave the traditionally goal-oriented drama with its one-way time sequence demands an electric attention to the whole rather than on one's own part, which almost automatically seems to lead to short, fast contributions, pauses and sharp changes. The better the communication, the bigger the tension and unpredictability, since the intensive listening automatically opens for the inexhaustible curiosity and desire to experiment which is always brooding behind the "presentable". "Communication" is in this case something other than "dialogue" or "conversation". A better simile would be that every participating musician and sound are poetical elements that connect sparks between each other in analogies, above the logic of the conversation. I conceive this as a surrealist state of mind.

To present a sound drama with a predetermined solution through functional tonal harmony or regular rhythm is what is usually identified as music. Without openness for crime, this corresponds to a way of thinking which grants the highest value to the functional and regular. The reaction of fear and repression against threatening crisis is to confront chaos with order. What is needed of the human spirit and body is to confront the orders of realism and adjustment with inspired and unbridled chaos, but also to try new and other orders - orders that arise from the chaos that human desire at the first glance seems to be. Both of these ways have been opened in music by e.g. free improvisation and instrument invention. This is not something new but has always been the case, before the music became ordered, in the now prevailing sense of "composed" - but the sight has often been dimmed by musicians having become content with, or found honor in, style making, fame or positions. There is no unified movement and there is no purity in any sense. Every honest and curious musician is a lonely example: François Bayle, Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane, Sven-Åke Johansson, Spike Jones, Thomas Magee, Phil Minton, Conlon Nancarrow, Hal Rammel, Jon Rose, Giacinto Scelsi, LaDonna Smith, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Karl-Erik Welin, Christian Werner, Lasse Werner or Davey Williams (to just mention a few of those standing close enough to me or at a far distance enough) ... in relation to each other very different in temperament, style (and fame) but all alike in their release of strong powers of chaos from which new poetic orders arise, orders that show that not only music but all life can be lived in so many more, and more beautiful ways than what the law and habit command.


1. The didjeridoo is a piece of a branch hollowed out by termites, adjusted in the mouthpiece and painted. The gopychand (also called ektara) has one string ending on a tuning pin where the legs meet in the top of a forked neck, and the other string end in the middle of a drum skin. As you squeeze the neck, the pitch goes down. The Bengal bauls pluck it as they sing. I usually play it with a bow.
2. This instrument, though of the same size as the gopychand and with the same name (or gopijantra, oop-goopi) actually exists in Bengal, I later discovered! They hold the resonator under the arm and pluck the string with a plectrum.
3. This inverse bridge also exists in the musical bow berimbau.
4. A playing technique that was also used on the tromba marina.
5. Like the baya, the lower one of the Indian drum pair tablas. As an instrument, it would be related to other friction drums as the cuica or rommel pot.
6. I am not alone in this discovery: since it was made, I have seen Swedish/German percussionist, accordionist and poet Sven-Åke Johansson do similar things, and the German Hans Reichel has earlier developed the idea into his daxophon. Many percussionists also use a bow on cymbals, vibraphone or bells. The saw, the most distinguished of bowed idiophones, was already known to me.
7. E.g. the triolin and the aerolin, in the tradition of the "nail harmonica" and the Waterphone (of Richard Waters). See e.g. Rammel's essay "Instrument Invention and Sound Exploration" in "The Man in the Street - translations of some writings by surrealists in Swedish", Surrealistförlaget, Stockholm, and his articles in EMI.
8. Double wind instruments is a very old idea, e.g. the ancient Greek aulos, Yugoslavian and native American flutes, and of course the bagpipe and the organ. Roland Kirk was one of the foremost in double - and triple - saxophone playing (with circular breathing, too!). But I actually don't know of double trumpets, before Hal Rammel's report of having seen Lester Bowie and another one that have played two trumpets at once.
9. Long strings and their longitudinal vibrations have been used by many artists and musicians, e.g. Ellen Fullman, but playing on strings that you are hanging in yourself I have never heard of before.
10. I have come across several water-based instruments, and water drums and water flutes moreover, do have some history. Many have communicated with whales, e.g. dolphins and killer whales, with music played through underwater loudspeakers. Very few instruments that I've heard of, are supposed to be able to be played under the water: the waterphone and the dolphin sticks. The whalesinger drum is played floating but intended to be heard by whales. (See EMI vol VI #4.)
11. How to solve this technicality remains, but I am thinking about the idea of electromagnets driving the strings, directed by signals from a microphone by the mouth. It is problematic, though: German instrument inventor and composer Volker Staub informed me of someone who has tried electromagnetic steering of string vibrations: when the amplitude of the string becomes too big, the string suddenly gets stuck to the magnet with a bang.

NOTE: Another article was planned to be parts from a Nordic Instrument Inventors' Dictionary, to be published in Experimental Musical Instruments, the best source on Instrument Inventions (now closed down). EMI also edited yearly cassettes. A lot is still for sale.

The only journal exclusively on free improvisation is The Improvisor.

For my own music, see my discography.

Johannes Bergmark
Contact (Bergmark).
This page updated the 11th of April, 2012.

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