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Positively Monstrous!

Will Connor
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: Bones are one of the oldest materials used to create musical instruments. Currently, the world’s oldest known instruments are flutes made out of bones (Turk, Turk, and Otte 11). In fact, bones have been used to create or enhance musical instruments in a variety of settings throughout history and in modern day instrument making. Bone bull roarers, jaw bone percussion, clappers, trumpets, drum shells, lyres, or construction parts, such as frets, plectrums, pipes and pipe fittings, embouchure adjustments, or percussive strikes are just a few of the more common uses of bones in musical instrument construction. One man even made a guitar out of the skeleton of his dead uncle to memorialise the person who influenced his musical tastes and career (Bienstock). Bones can therefore be taken as a somewhat common material for making musical instruments. All of these instruments share a common trait, and not just the obvious one that they are all made out of or incorporate bones. None of these instruments are intended to represent something monstrous. Instead, they represent the ephemeral nature of humanity (Cupchik 33), a celebration of lineage or religious beliefs (Davis), or simply are the materials available or suitable to create a sound-making device (Regan). It is not possible to know the full intentions of a maker, in many cases, but a link to monstrosity and a representation of the ‘horrific’ or ‘freakish’ seems missing for the most. There are instruments, however, that do house this sentiment and some that utilise bones in the construction with the purpose of making this connection between the remains and something beast-like. In this article, I argue that the Bone Guitar Thing (BGT) built and played by raxil4 is one of those instruments. Introducing the 'Thing' Raxil4 is the stage name of sonic artist Andrew Page. He has been playing his Bone Guitar Thing for almost twenty years in a variety of settings (Page, email interview, 25 June 2021). The instrument has undergone slight changes during that time, but primarily it has retained its specific visual, timbral, and underlying associative features. The BGT is complex, more so than it may seem at first. By investigating the materials used, the performance techniques employed, and raxil4’s intentions as a musician, instrument maker, and community member within his circles of activity, the monstrous nature of the BGT comes to light. The resultant series of entanglements exhibits and supports a definition of what is a 'monster' that, like several definitions in monster theory discourse (Levina and Bui 6; Cohen 7; Mittman 51), includes challenging that which may be seen as ‘normal’ and thereby may nurture levels of unease or fear. However, in the case of the BGT, that which is monstrous is simultaneously being taken as something positive alongside its beast-like characteristics, and rather than evolving into something that needs to be repressed or eliminated, the ’monster’ here becomes a hero or champion, colleague, or even a friend. The Bone Guitar Thing is not really a guitar. It is a zither with a piece of driftwood for a base, (currently) five strings, and an electric pick-up (see Fig. 1). The bridge for the instrument is two bones, and the pitch and timbre of the strings is sometimes changed with bones used for Cage-like preparation (Cage 7-8; Bunger). Bones are also used to play the instrument, sometimes like a plectrum, others like a hammered dulcimer, or occasionally, simply pounding the string or the soundboard with great force to make a combination of percussive and string sounds. Glissandos are created by using the plectrum bones as a slide, and Page also uses jaw bones to introduce ratchet sounds, string scraping, and precise pitch bending (with the sharper edged part of the bones) (raxil4, “Livestream”). The instrument is electric, so the bones are enhanced with guitar pedals (typically reverb, distortion, and octave-splitter; Page, email interview, 25 June 2021), but the tonal qualities retain a semblance of the bone usage. Fig. 1: raxil4's Bone Guitar Thing. Photograph: Andrew Page. Page often uses the BGT as part of his sonic arsenal to perform dark ambient music, noisescapes, improv music, or live film soundtracks both in live concerts and recording situations. He plays solo as much as with ensembles, and more often improvises his music or parts, but occasionally works with predetermined organisation or scores of some description (although he admits to typically abandoning predetermined passages or scores during live performances; Page, email interview, 14 July 2021). Currently in London, raxil4 presents concerts in a variety of settings, typically well-suited for his brand of sonic art, such as Ryan Jordan’s long-running concert series Noise=Noise (raxil4 feat. King Sara), experimental music shows at the Barbican (raxil4 + King Sara + P23), and dark ambient showcases promoted and arranged by one of his record labels, Sombre Soniks (Wright). Sounds beyond Words: Monstrous Music One series of performances in which raxil4 used the BGT took the form of an immersive theatre show produced by Dread Falls Theatre called Father Dagon, based on the works of horror author H. P. Lovecraft. The performance incorporated a breaking of the ’fourth wall’ in which the audience wanders freely through the performance space, with actor- and sometimes audience-interactive musical performances of partially improvised, partially composed passages by musicians located throughout the set. Director and writer Victoria Snaith considered the use of live, semi-mobile, experimental music dispersed through the audience (mixed with an overall backing soundtrack) as heightening the intensity of the experience by introducing unfamiliar aspects to the setting. She discusses having made this decision based on Lovecraft’s own approach to story-telling that highlights...
Keywords: instruments / variety of settings / sounds / part / monstrous / Andrew Page / jaw bone / materials used / email interview / Bone Guitar

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