Accidents of Manufacture

While several, or possibly many, new music improvisers frequently state that they play with “found objects,” I find that my default lies with what I call “accidents of manufacture.”1 What I mean by this is that many items that I find delightful were actually designed for something else. The classic item would be empty tin cans, which, while designed for something else, provide musical possibilities in several ways. One is lining them up by size and playing them with chopsticks or wood pencils with their erasers. Another is rolling them around and/or spinning them like tops.

The most exotic and earliest version I have ever seen happened to be one in which I assisted in its construction. This was in the late 1960s or early 1970s when composer Robert Erickson was building a tube loudspeaker system. Made of various sized cans with both ends cut out, many of each size were taped together to make upright metal tubes. On the bottom of these tubes were taped small, appropriately sized loudspeakers all hooked together to work through a stereo amplifier. The result functioned like a glorious pipe organ, absolutely beautiful and warm.

It is no secret that many accidents of manufacture become found objects.  However, probably half of found objects are not manufactured in any way but are what might be called “accidents of nature” that also work as instruments. This can be anything from grasses and reeds to shells, sticks, stones, and many other things. This could cross over into “manufacture” by the use of animal skins for drumheads. But these are not accidents, rather on purpose.

The history of accidents of manufacture in America can be noted, for instance, in early use of automobile brake drums and other “instruments” dating primarily from the 1940s with early works by composers John Cage, Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison.2 Of course, during the late 1800s and early 1900s there were instruments that were jugs (as in jug bands) and jazz brass players used tumblers and plungers as mutes. Then there is the use of oil drums that over time became tuned musical instruments now known as Steel Drums or Steel Pan Drums. There is a huge amount of information on Steelpan and one can do a lot worse than simply looking it up on Wikipedia.3

Back to my own personal use of accidents of manufacture, I can cite with impunity my use (love) of (1) sewer pipe to make various instruments including North American versions of Australian aboriginal didjeridus; (2) garden hoses for faux brass instruments; (3) shells, particularly the conch; (4) pot lids (more percussion); (5) toys and what I like to call “little instruments;” and (6) cisterns and various other reverberant instruments and spaces.


Let’s take these one at a time:

1. While I have a preference for ABS over PVC pipe, either can work. ABS is the typical black pipe one finds at hardware, plumbing, or builder supply stores. It is also lighter and to my ear has a more resonant sound. 1.5 inch is my favorite diameter for didjeridu making, although some have used a “bell expander” on the end to simulate a bell on a brass instrument. For a mouthpiece, I like using a 1.5 to 1.25 inch female trap adapter (with cinch ring). Larger size tubes provide for good stamping tube possibilities. Inexpensive “instadus” (instant didjeridus) can be found at golf pro shops in the form of golf tubes.

2. Garden hoses come complete with a coupling that can work as a mouthpiece, although I cheat and use a trombone mouthpiece. However, I use old hoses where I can cut them up to appropriate lengths. There are different sizes—bores—that can make for different (brighter or warmer) sounds. Other “enhancements” can include funnels to simulate an instrument “bell.” This category can include the “bathophone” that is adapted from those very inexpensive little tubes with a sprayer designed to be pushed on to an old-style bathtub spout in order to make a kind of shower. This should not be confused with the rather elegantly designed variable height Scandinavian-designed shower adaptors.

3. Shells, particularly the conch, have a long and storied history. Again, one can do a lot worse than consulting Wikipedia about this.4 The original “residents” (sea snails) of the shells certainly did not “manufacture” conches for use as instruments and thus, they fit my definition of an accident of manufacture. My only concern now is that they have become, in some quarters, endangered species and so need to be respected in their acquisition and not wasted or purchased simply as a “trinket.” However, coastal aboriginal peoples did make changes much like we do now. A “mouthpiece” has to be prepared by cutting off the correct amount from the pointed end and smoothed, not usually an easy task.

4. Pot lids have their own storied history. While minuscule by comparison to shells, it is hard to meet a musician, in America anyway, who has not banged pot lids, particularly classic “Revere®” ware. There are many other brands that offer interesting possibilities and one can go further in checking out mixing bowls and pots. My favorite happens to be aluminum pot lids from the 1950s sold door to door.5 The particular ones I use have a reverberation time of nearly a minute or more. Seattle drummer/percussionist Paul Kikuchi is an expert at finding all kinds of beautiful bells and bell-like objects, while Seattle drummer Greg Campbell is the local expert on found pot lids, mixing bowls, and various tools mostly located at Hardwick’s Swap Shop in north Seattle.

5. Toys and “little instruments” provide an amazing and copious array of possibilities. Some of my favorites are pet toys. I have a cheeseburger that is beyond reproach (not above or below), and a “wiggly giggly” presented to me by Seattle’s own found instrument person Susie Kozawa. Of course, perhaps both of these pet toys were manufactured to be dog “instruments” but I don’t care. They are definitely treasures. Others are toys intended for children. Among my favorites are a toy cell phone, and various items that composer Pauline Oliveros has found for me, the most special being “Rocky the Talking-Teaching Robot.”6 Then there is a huge category of very small items such as birdcalls, bottle caps—alas, an amazing Crystal Geyser cap is no longer made—and several little percussion toys. It just goes on and on and is  worthy of anyone’s personal investigation.

6. I have spent a significant part of my life in the Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, WA, an amazing reverberant space of 45 seconds fondly known as the Cistern Chapel. I have personally been involved with a number of recordings in this space, the earliest ones being my New Albion Recordings.7 The most recent was in 2008 when the aforementioned Paul Kikuchi invited me to record with him. This resulted in “Flightpatterns.”8Earlier examples for me go back to my first tour with Merce Cunningham Dance Company when I recorded “Stuart Dempster Inside the Abbey of Clement VI.”9 I have been fascinated with reverberation ever since I played my first gig in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in the late 1950s. Since that time I have found out about all kinds of interesting spaces, everything from stairwells (University of Washington’s Meany Hall dance studio comes to mind), reverberation available from a piano with the sustaining pedal held down, and other possibilities such as bunkers and caves.

The appreciation and/or study of “accidents of manufacture” amounts to paying attention to possibilities that surround us all the time everywhere we go. I have a fond memory of my 1952 Buick Special that was, well, rather special. It often was a performance piece doing much of anything, particularly the clutch pedal mechanism that offered all kinds of squeaks and groans. Even better, I could choose how and when to play it. Sadly, that car has reaped its “Carma” and found its way to car heaven as well as my memory. Be aware and “at the ready” to do a little inventing!


1 As far as I am aware I am the only one using this term, especially in reference to music.

2 There is an amazing and interesting Seattle connection in the late 1930s in the founding of these and many other “instruments” – see and/or 1.3 1937–49: Modern dance and Eastern influences).

5 As of this writing I don’t know the brand and, as far as I know, they have not been available for decades except possibly in antique or second-hand stores.

6 Manufactured by Playwell.

7 The following CDs from the infamous cistern were released on New Albion Records:

Deep Listening (NA 022), Spring 1989, and The Ready Made Boomerang (NA 044), Winter 1992 (both Deep Listening Band); Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel (NA 076), Autumn 1995 (Dempster solo with trombone ensemble).

Flightpatterns was released on Prefecture Records (004) on CD and LP, October 2010.

9 First released as an LP on 1750 Arch Records (S-1775), Autumn 1979, released later on CD by New Albion Records (NA 013), 1987.

Image: Dempster playing a didjeridu made from pipe

© 2011 Stuart Dempster

Dempster and Paul Kikuchi perform in The Project Room September 23- read more here.