Love Letter Day X
I played a cymbal for several hours today to isolate a sound inside a sound with new mallets I just ordered while they were on sale. I hummed to match the tone that flitted in and out, and thought how a microphone would pick up more of the sound, or how a speaker might react to it, or how my guitar might become attracted to it, or how I might’ve just had it placed at exact right place in the room to catch some combination of a bad ear and the rest of the drum set underneath it. I stood and hovered, then pretending I was the microphone, imagined the sound coming out in my breath was the song. A song.
Try as I may to avoid sounding like a self-important or therapy musician, this isn’t an essay about noise—I was just in my studio with new mallets I got on sale. I’m trying to describe the desire to find secondary use out of specialized instruments and my unavoidable fascination with it.
The industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa has a great talk/essay about secondary design (I don’t remember if that’s the phrase he uses but pretend for the moment that it is). In Tokyo, for example, one finds rounded bumpy yellow tiles made of hard rubber, indicating pathways on the sidewalk and subway corridors of the city, to aid the blind and other disabled folks who need bright haptic color signifiers to find their way as pedestrians. They serve as cues for walking sticks, wheelchairs and those with low vision. That is the primary function of the tiles. However, in the age of smart phones and other urbanities, Fukasawa argues, one finds many non-disabled people rely on the bumps to give them guidance while they have their faces buried in their devices. They rely on the bumps and the peripheral vision of yellow color paths to guide them in a straight line. They even serve as entertainment. People will walk on the yellow tiles because they feel good on your feet. Fukasawa also noticed much more sporadic and temporary secondary uses. The yellow tiles also serve as temporary umbrella stands. Wet umbrella tips would otherwise slip when propped on wet concrete, but while waiting for a walk signal or the next train, you might lean the umbrella tip on a rubber tile for assurance.
Secondary design includes the use of plastic grocery bags as trash bags, and large plastic bottles repurposed as planters. In my house, I have a collection of small chairs discarded from elementary schools, which serve the perfect height as step stool. I only occasionally use it to sit.
If I hit my cymbal for two hours looking for a voice, it’s not because I don’t recognize the sound it makes as a crashing metal but that for now, I wanted to hear a voice inside it.
There’s a fantastic book about the history of karaoke called Don’t Stop Believin’ by Brian Raftery, I highly recommend for anyone who loves to karaoke. In it, one learns that karaoke, like DJs, initially served as a sort of replacement function for bars and clubs that couldn’t afford or accommodate bands for entertainment. Someone realized that their bar patrons could provide their own entertainment, and actually pay the jukebox for the privilege of doing so instead of making the owner hire actual musicians. To me, that’s another secondary design; not of the coin operated jukebox that would play MIDI versions of popular band recordings (karaoke is a portmanteau of “vacant orchestra”), but of the entertainer. Given the ability to provide one’s own entertainment, doesn’t the song become a part of you? Isn’t this a kind of self-discovery? And if it isn’t beautiful, could it at least be functional? Is the secondary design of art, personal entertainment?
I have believed I am an instrument. I would not mind finding out now that I have a secondary design. I want you to find the sound within the sound of me and I want you to know that with me, your umbrella is going nowhere.