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Instruments That Look and Sound Like Earth : Ceramist/musician Brian Ransom creates art that's both aural and visual

December 11, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

Brian Ransom marches to the hoot of some very different pots . . . and flutes and drums and horns of all descriptions.

"I like really eccentric sounds, and I always have," Ransom says. His efforts to embody some of those sounds in ceramic vessels of visual as well as acoustical delight have led the 34-year-old musician/artist on a long journey--geographically and technically.

The journey began 15 years ago at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Ransom was playing jazz while studying ceramics. In his compositions, he wanted to explore his own scales and tunings, awkward on conventional instruments.

"I thought, 'How great to be able to tune instruments the way I want.' It stood to reason then that I should try to make some there in the (ceramics) shop."

The result of Ransom's quest is a big collection of original and transformed ceramic instruments, ranging from saxophones and fluegelhorns through all kinds of flutes to congas, bells and plucked strings with resonators.

Enough instruments, in fact, for a band: Ransom's Ceramic Ensemble is a flexible group involving up to eight musicians.

"Playing (a Ransom creation) is not like playing any other instrument," Norma Tanega says. A core member of the Ceramic Ensemble, Tanega says the instruments are not hard to play--the only difficulty is getting them in tune for Ransom's microtonally inflected modes.

Tanega says she was brought to the deliberately eccentric instruments-cum-sculptures by "the sound . . they sound like the Earth." Plus, she said, ". . . they are such exciting sculptures."

Many of the Ceramic Ensemble's concerts have been given in conjunction with gallery and campus exhibitions of Ransom's instruments, and Ransom is more than a bit bemused by the lack of recognition from L.A. venues and organizations, particularly in light of the attention he has received elsewhere, such as his exhibition/performance at Philadelphia's Nexus Gallery.

Part of the problem, Ransom agrees, is that his work is difficult to categorize, being as much visual as aural.

Even considered on a purely musical basis, Ransom's efforts resist pigeonholing. They vary from relatively straight-ahead jazz, backed with synthesizers and drum machine effects to soft, quasi-minimalistic, microtonal meditations. Most of his pieces involve improvisation, and all reflect his joy in unusual scales and modes.

He thinks a convincing demo recording will help dent the awareness of local impresarios, though he says the acoustically unstable sounds of his instruments make microphone quality and placement crucial. "The same stuff that makes my music interesting to listen to," he says, "makes it wild to record."

The process of mastering his chosen medium has left Ransom with a dizzying academic itinerary, leading from Rhode Island and the New York State College of Ceramics to the Claremont Graduate School, via Universidad de San Marcos in Peru and the University of Tulsa.

It was in Peru, investigating pre-Columbian instruments on a Fulbright fellowship, that Ransom discovered whistling water jars. Despite misgivings from local officials, he persuaded museum authorities to allow him to fill ancient ceremonial vessels, whose original use had been forgotten, with water.

When the jars were tipped, the water pushed air through internal passages, creating a deep, moaning whistle.

"They made sounds like a voice clearing its throat across eons of time," Ransom reports, "and all of the guards ran out of the room."

These Peruvian vessels inspired a series of characteristic instruments/sculptures that Ransom calls Triformations. As the name suggests, there are three sounding chambers, each producing its own note when tipped in the appropriate direction. It is also possible to tilt the instrument to sound two pitches simultaneously.

"There is no chance involved in the pitches of any of my instruments," Ransom insists. His control over such an ostensibly musically intractable medium is the result of his extensive training, research into the artifacts of other cultures, experimentation and self-tutoring.

"I can pretty much make what I want," he states. "I've had to become a chemist, and I'm involved in a lot of physics. I've stopped pretending I'm a spaced-out artist--I've really had to get down and technical."

For Ransom, ceramic form follows musical function. Extravagant as his instruments might seem, their design is understated and self-contained. He relies on muted earth-colors--a startling baby-blue fluegelhorn is an exception--and is embarrassed by an early flute decorated with a totemic face.

Every aspect of Ransom's music is influenced by his concern for its visual aspects. His scores are pieces of highly individual graphic art in themselves, relying little on conventional notation.

So are his performances, in which he aims for a ceremonial sort of performance art.

"I prefer it to be as environmental as possible," Ransom says, and he includes the physical environment in his considerations. "Rooms are very tunable."

An odd combination of dreamer and technician, currently supporting himself by teaching, Ransom is the sort of impractical perfectionist for whom everything is a work-in-progress.

"I like working on projects that I can really develop," he says. "The whole process just reinforces itself."

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