Monthly Archives: May 2007

Experimental music for kids on PBS

Every weekday morning, my kids and I enjoy some public television programming while we eat breakfast and get ready for our day. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the PBS morning programming for the last two days seems to have been themed towards experimental music.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is Arthur. The stories and morals are great, there are a lot of in-jokes for the grownups (always a plus in any children’s programming, as far as I’m concerned), and there have been some excellent guest appearances, including some great musical guests such as Yo-Yo Ma, Taj Mahal, and Koko Taylor.

Most episodes of Arthur contain two short stories, and the first story in yesterday’s episode was titled “DW Beats All.” In it, Arthur’s younger sister DW decides she wants to perform in Elwood City’s annual music festival, the Summer Serenade – but she doesn’t have the time to learn and practice a new instrument before then. After much thought, she devises a plan.

On the day of the festival, DW takes the stage wearing several noisemakers as her father wheels out a cart filled with even more. She then performs a piece of music on these found instruments – a hammer on a metronome strikes a pan, a fan blows cutlery and windchimes, she rubs her sandpapered feet on the floor, squeaks a rubber duck, plays a broken See-N-Say toy, and much more. At the climax of the song, an egg timer sounds, and DW opens an agitated can of soda – a soda coda!

The performance is very reminiscent of John Cage’s Water Walk, which I linked to in an earlier post. At the end of the story, DW taps the family car with a drumstick, and says that she plans to build something even bigger next time.

Another great kids show on PBS is Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman, where an animated dog sends a group of live-action young people on various missions to exercise their gray matter. This morning’s episode had him sending two members of his team to hang out with the Blue Man Group, where they learned to spit balls of paint at a canvas and play some PVC pipe instruments.

I don’t think my opinion of the Blue Man Group needs to be expressed. It can be safely assumed. If you’re not familiar with the Blue Men and their incredible work, be sure to check out the links at the bottom of this post.

It was great to see these two episodes about experimental music and found instruments. Thanks, PBS, for helping to foster the next generation of musical explorers!

(Oh yeah, and I still want these Blue Man toys something fierce:

Click the pics to find out more on

Errr… I mean my kids want them. *ahem* )

Learn more: Arthur episode 909a synopsis | Wikipedia: Blue Man Group | Explanations of Blue Man Instruments | Blue Man Videos on YouTube


Turn around, bright eyes…

How can anyone ever improve upon a piece of work like Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart? The passion and urgency of Bonnie’s throaty vocals, the bombast of Jim Steinman’s rock-opera arrangement… who could possibly attempt to rethink such a masterpiece?

Hurrah Torpedo, that’s who! This Norwegian trio puts their hearts and souls (and, in one case, ‘bottom cleavage’) into a timeless homage to the anthemic classic. Performed on guitar, chest freezer, and two ovens (one played with some sort of small club, the other with a large metal trash masher), this stirring performance is surely a fitting tribute to Tyler and Steinman’s magnum opus.

Watch it here – but get the tissues handy first!

(Just a mild warning – one of the percussionists in this video has a severe case of ‘plumber-butt’…)

Sadly, Hurrah Torpedo’s site appears to be circling the drain. At one time there were fantastic videos of innocent bystanders being subjected to their music. Nowadays, there’s hardly anything there but the occasional blurb in Norwegian. It’s a pity.

More!: All the Things She Said | Toxic | lots of interviews and stuff

Our Only Hope

I wouldn’t be a proper geek if I didn’t somehow recognize that yesterday was the 30th birthday of Star Wars. (Maybe now it can finally move out of its parents’ bedroom and find a girlfriend!)

In honor of this great moment in geekdom history, I present the following:

The Star Wars theme on a ukulele
…on a banjo
…on a 5-string bass
…on an accordian
…on an alto sax
…on a pair of turntables by a guy in a Darth Vader mask (check out this one, too)
…on bagpipes by a guy in a Darth Vader mask (no relation)
…on a Casio VL-1
…on bottles
…on a recorder
…on hand farts
…on a clarinet

And last but most earnestly not least – that lovable nutcase Buckethead playing the Star Wars theme on the guitar.

Just so you know, your personal level of geekiness is determined by how many of the above videos you clicked on – and how many you watched all the way through. (But it can’t possibly beat mine, for combing through a couple hundred YouTube videos to bring them to you…)

These are words with a D this time.

What follows is a personal story in which my own musical horizons are broadened. I hope you’ll indulge me.

There used to be a not-half-bad sketch comedy show called Fridays that came out around when SNL was starting to peak for the first time. I remember watching it one night when the musical guest was some group named King Crimson.

I’d never heard of them before, and when they started into a song called “Elephant Talk,” I had no idea what was going on. I had never heard this kind of music before, or seen instruments played this way. Why was that one guy strumming the strings on the headstock and twiddling the little knobs on that box? How was he making his guitar sound like an elephant? And what in the world is that thing that the bald guy is playing? Were these people insane or something?

At first, I thought I didn’t like it. But I was very, very wrong. It stuck with me for some time, and a while later, when my record club sent me a copy of Discipline (the album on which this appears) by mistake, I ripped it open and listened to it about a hundred million times.

Thanks to the internet, and YouTube, I can watch that performance again, and think back to that time when everything I thought I knew about music started to change.

In fact, my loyal Parts Unknown readers can watch it, too, and maybe even find their horizons broadened as well: King Crimson – Elephant Talk

Learn more: King Crimson’s official website | Elephant Talk, a now-defunct but still info-packed KC newsletter | Wikipedia: King Crimson
Other great King Crimson performances on YouTube: DinosaurThree of a Perfect PairFrame By FrameMatte Kudasai

Playing between the lines

In microtonal music, the spaces between the notes in our traditional 12-tone western music scale are explored to create new harmonies and voicings. You can think of them, like American composer Charles Ives did, as the notes in the cracks between the piano keys.

I’ve been wanting to really dig into microtonal music in some upcoming posts to Parts Unknown, but after a quick Google search to read up on the subject, I came upon this picture of a 62 tone guitar neck, courtesy of the Microtonal Guitar Gallery:

It’s like a map to another world, or the guitar equivalent of alien crop circles. I’ve been too hypnotized by it to look much further.

More to come, if I can tear myself away from it. Stay tuned!

Learn more: Microtonal | Microtonal Guitar Gallery | Micortonal Guitar Conversion FAQ | Wikipedia: Microtonal music

Listen to the music in your genes

UCLA microbiologists have found a unique way to compose music – by mapping tones and rhythm to genetic sequences.

This Science Daily article explains:

In the music, individual amino acids are expressed as chords, and similar amino acids are paired. For example, the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine are both assigned a G major chord, but they can be distinguished because the notes in the chord are arranged differently. The music has a 20-note range spanning over two octaves, but with just 13 base notes.

The end result is an aural representation of the genetic sequence, which can be used as a teaching tool in molecular biology. The music is converted into MIDI files so that anyone can listen online. You can even submit any genetic sequences you may have lying around the house and have them instantly converted into music.

You can listen to the music samples here. My personal favorite is the brisk, playful melody Carp Cytochrome C.

The Zadar Sea Organ

The 3000 year old city of Zadar, Croatia (Google Maps) is the home to a very unique musical instrument and work of architecture – an organ that is played by the ocean.

A series of 35 tubes rest beneath the wide steps of white marble that lead downward into the water. When the tide crashes into the steps, it forces air through these tubes, which creates random pitches determined by the force of the waves. The result is random harmonic music in an eternal performance that is never repeated.

First opened to the public in 2005, the sea organ is a welcome improvement to Croatia’s shores, which were damaged by conflict during World War II. You can hear samples of the organ at Oddmusic (MP3) and Wikipedia (OGG), and even purchase a CD of sea organ music at

Find out more: Sea Organ home page | Oddmusic | Wikipedia

Classic John Cage performance

(courtesy of boing boing and WFMU) – John Cage performs “Water Walk” on this classic 1960 clip from the gameshow “I’ve Got A Secret.” Instruments used in this piece include a prepared piano, four radios, a bathtub, water pitcher, pressure cooker, seltzer bottle, a rubber duck, and much more.

My favorite part of the pre-interview would have to be when host Garry Moore (no, not THAT Gary Moore) asks: “Mr. Cage, these are nice people but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?”

Cage’s response: “Of course. I consider laughter preferable to tears.”

Click here to watch it on YouTube, or visit WFMU’s entry to download the video and watch it over and over (like I’ve been doing).


(It’s old news, but I just read it recently on, and had to share.)

A crowd of five and a half thousand people have broken the world record for the largest coconut orchestra. Led by Monty Python alums Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, the crowd played coconut halves marked “left” and “right” by banging them together while singing the classic Python tune “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

The performance smashed the previous record of 1789, set in New York City in 2002.

Read more here:,,21722491-5012895,00.html