Tag Archives: wood

Wood makes the sound go ’round

If you travel to Phoenix, go to the Musical Instrument Museum. You can drink an iced coffee before you go, you’ll need the energy. But then go right away. 

Among the thousands of objects on display, one special exhibit currently devotes itself to Congolese masks and music and I promise it will blow your mind even if you’ve never had an interest in African rhythms or dance. It turns out these are less often face masks than they are full bodysuits and the person who wears one summons magic, especially for initiations of boys into adulthood.

Wherever I go, I like to see women represented; in movies, in music, and dance. That doesn’t always happen. So while I was disappointed that only men take part in the ritual dances of this part of the world, I noted that they sort of make up for it with their cross dressing costumes to represent the strength of the female gender.

Note the breasts. And I could not help but think that the Congolese women probably play a rather large role in crafting these costumes. The sleeves and torso are woven somehow with a jute-like material; sometimes dyed and fastened with cowrie shells. How did these women make these garments? I wondered. I wanted to see the patterns, the looms. Or was the fiber somehow knitted?  The otherwise elaborate placards did not say. I am always interested in how something is made as much as the finished product. 

Which is why when I went back in the museum to the American instruments  I was fascinated by the wood instruments, all of them made by hand. There are thousands of string and wood designs throughout MIM. Some are put together with animal skins, like this harp-lute from Guinea.

Some are large, like this guitarrom from Southern Honduras.

Or this gigantic Mando-bass made in Chicago in 1913, with an interior label that boasts it has “the greatest power of tone the world has ever heard.”

But I digress.

The exhibit I thought really excelled showed a Martin workshop complete with all the tools of the trade. The museum info talked about the development of the Dreadnought guitar, its larger body, wider waist and tapered shoulders, the difference of its frets, how it became the premier guitar in America (Martin helped fund the exhibit.)

But what did I like the most? The fact that clothespins are used in the modeling of the musical form.

Wood shaping wood, wood making music.

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Wood and water

Look at the header of this blog and you’ll see a familiar shape, familiar in the way things of some vintage seem to be, something that you have inherited a knowledge of but can’t quite put your finger on. Still retaining its glossy red paint after what must be many decades – or even a century or two – it was given us by by my brother and sister-in-law and adorned the cabin porch in the time we lived there. It seemed to fit in an abode that dated back to the 1790s.

A yoke, together with an oxbow, comprised critical farming equipment until the beginning of the twentieth century, when machinery took over. (Some “rusticators” still keep a team.) The ox is apparently a creature that despite its tremendous strength and iffy moods can be tamed with a wooden apparatus fitted around its neck. The word yoke dates back to the twelfth century.

Yoke beams were traditionally fashioned of the wood of the hornbeam, Carpinus carolinia, a hardwood tree in the birch family, because of its strength and durability. It’s also sometimes known as blue-beech, ironwood or musclewood. An old English name, the word’s two syllables denote, first, hardness and horn, and second, the old English word for tree, beam. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. I find that what I like beyond trees themselves is the culture of trees, what they’ve been used for, how they’ve been used and consumed over time. The relationship between people and trees. Coach wheels, piano actions and the pegs of windmills have seen the benefit of the hornbeam’s durability, but the wood is nearly impossible to carve.

Another kind of oxbow has nothing to do with farming – or pianos or windmills, for that matter. An oxbow is the meander of a river, stream or creek that has come separated from the main artery. 

Oxbows store excess water that might otherwise flood an area, filter water and provide a habitat for wildlife. In Iowa, the Nature Conservancy is working with partners to restore three different watersheds. They identify places where oxbows once existed, then work with the locals to excavate the original U-shape, making it possible for small fish to move in and get protection from larger predatory fish. Dozens of kinds of fish have spawned in oxbows, including the fathead minnow, the green sunfish and the Federally endangered Topeka shiner. Waterfowl also find it to be a felicitous nesting site.

Of wood or water, an oxbow just makes sense.

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