BILL COLVIG by Sasha Bogdanowitsch
Born on March 13, 1917 in Medford, Oregon to a musical family, Bill Colvig was exposed to music at an early age. His father being a band master in the local schools led Bill to take up brass instruments, most notably the trombone. During his college years at the College of the Pacific and the University of California at Berkeley, he continued his concert band experiences, but majored in electrical engineering.
Working as an electrician in San Francisco form 1946 to 1967, Bill used frequently to visit the Old Spaghetti Factory where he saw numerous contemporary composers present their work. It was here in 1967 that he met the prolific composer and Asian music scholar, Lou Harrison, who inspired Bill to take up instrument building and the playing of oriental instruments. Soon thereafter, Lou and Bill moved to Aptos, California, near Santa Cruz. There Bill became one of the foremost builders of gamelan instruments in North America, introducing new materials in traditional gamelan construction and new instruments for non-traditional use, combined with the use of the rational tunings of just intonation.
An important facet of Bill Colvig's instrument building has been his tremendous contribution towards the growth of the American Gamelan, the greatest examples being the Gamelan Si Betty of San Jose State and the Gamelan Si Darius and Si Madeleine of Mills College. Using a variety of materials, including such commonplace materials as electrical conduit, aluminum, and tin food cans, Bill recreated the full range of instruments of the conventional gamelan of Java. Traditional influences can be seen through his remodeling of the standard wooden trough resonator and iron slab metallophone, the saron, the bevel-edged bronze keyed tube resonator metallophone, the gender, and the small bossed gong chimes, the bonang, and the end-blown ring flute, the suling.
But Bill Colvig ventures from the conventional Javanese constructions frequently in his instruments' register expansions, tunings, and "American" materials. Although a majority of the construction was modeled after UC Berkeley's Javanese Gamelan, Kyai Udan Mas, there are many exceptional forms in Bill's constructions, like the unique bossed octagonal aluminum plates of the bonang and the large iron slabs and resonators for the kempul, the conventional suspended bronze gongs. An exhaustive overview of all of Bill Colvig's gamelan constructions would be too large for this publication, and since all the instruments' design and construction are noted in the Mills College Gamelan book (reviewed in EMI Volume IX #2), this article will focus on only three of Bill's gamelan recreations, including the popular idiophone, the saron, from Gamelan Si Betty, an Indonesian Chordophone, the celempung zither, and the widely used fipple aerophone, the suling. Along with these three instruments, the major focus in this article will be on Bill Colvig's unique individual creations that take inspiration form the traditional instrument of ancient Greece, the Orient, and medieval Europe, combined with the influences and ideas of longtime friend and collaborator, Lou Harrison.
Having its earliest known traces from Greece in the 5th Century BC with the theoretician, musician, and healer, Pythagoras, the monochord was and still is the most useful tool in measuring musical pitches within the various modes and intervals in Natures harmonic series. It is because of this fundamental usage and principle that it is mentioned first, for it is in this sense the father of all instruments. Quite simply, the instrument is a single string stretched across two fixed bridges that are erected onto a sound box of some sort. Usually a movable bridge is situated underneath the string, dividing it into two parts. Marks on the instrument demonstrate the positions where this bridge needs to be in order to obtain the certain harmonic proportions.
The picture above is of an earlier model of the monochord that Bill created before he perfected the easier-to-build "tweezer" monochord, whose details on construction are specified at the end of this article. It is built from pine, mahogany, and plywood, with piano end pins from a ruined piano of Lou's and using a pipe/nail tuning device for tuning the pegs. Underneath the soundboard, a heavy metal pipe is set to insure stability and provide the most needed support and accuracy in keeping the monochord in tune. Incidentally, this special monochord has been a constant companion on their trips around the world to such varied countries as Japan, Czechoslovakia, and New Zealand.
The Standing Harp (near right) was designed to be used in conjunction with the monochord and was built to realize and explore the modes that were discovered from its one stringed ancestor. To ensure fine tunings it employs two different tuning mechanisms for each string. It takes its design from the Chinese vertical harp called the konghu, which spread to China via the Silk Route during the Han Dynasty, 200 BC to 200 AD, from the Near Eastern countries of Mesopotamia. Its beautiful painted designs are by Lou Harrison.
The Psaltery (plucked zither, shown at far right) incorporates the sonic elements of the Western medieval psaltery, with the Chinese pitch modulation bridges of the cheng, and the visual appearance and boxlike structure of similar instruments around the world. This particular one was made in New Zealand where Lou had a Fullbright Scholarship, using the local wood materials and standard zither tuning pins. Of special note are the unique wooden bridges that take inspiration from the cheng and Vietnamese dan tranh bridges known to symbolically represent a flock of geese, and the special wooden platform designed to orient the fingers of the player to where he/she is on the instrument.
The Bowed Psaltery or yacheng is a unique zither rarely found throughout Asia. Originally from China, dating back to the Tang dynasty, this ten stringed instrument has counterparts in Korea, where it became the ajaeng; the seven stringed bowed long zither used in traditional Korean court music, and Mongolia, where it became the yatugalig.
The story of the origin of this instrument is an interesting one. Lou and Bill used to have in their possession a traditional bowed psaltery and boasted the rareness and invaluability of it, which seemed to prompt a break in at their house where it was stolen. Not knowing it was really missing until it was desperately needed in an upcoming music ensemble, Bill decided to build his own. After several experiments, he came up with a version he liked better than the traditional on, shown on the first page of this article. Bill's instrument uses thin birch plywood, zither tuning pins and plastic bridges from Taiwan, and is played with an erhu bow, while it rests on a four-legged wire stand to facilitate playing and increase resonance.
The Gitchak is a modern version of the Afghanistani instrument with the same name. It was inspired by a photo on the back of a record jacket, and is related to the more popular sarinda from southern Afghanistan and South Asia, where it appears as a double-chested fiddle used in exorcism and curing melancholia. This version's resonator is from an olive oil can (copied from the record jacket) and its two strings are tune a fifth apart and played with a cello bow.
Inspired by the duple divisions of the tetrachord written down by Greek mathematician and music theorist, Ptolemy, the Ptolemy Duple metallophone is a gender hybrid designed for Lou's piece, Homage to Pacifica. It utilizes aluminum bars and tin can resonators, hidden by the ornate painted wooden box surroundings crafted by Lou himself. It is played with traditional gender padded, disc-shaped mallets, but is not intended for the dampening technique that the usual instrument often requires.
The Indonesian style zither, the celemplung, is made from pine, mahogany, and plywood, in the shape of a large trapezoid. Bill's instrument sits on four legs, two longer than the others, making it slant upwards for the performer, who plays it by plucking with fingers or plectrum This version had more resonating capability than the Indonesian ones, as noted even by Indonesian instrumentalists.
In the aluminum metallophone, the saron of Gamelan Si Betty, Bill has expanded the traditional instrument's range to encompass ten keys instead of the traditional six or seven. The traditional trough resonator is made by a delicate process of bending and gluing the thin plywood, accommodating less space for the higher notes and more for the lower notes; a much different procedure from the carving of wood that Indonesians specialize in.
Lastly, Bill's bamboo ring flute, the suling, like the bowed psaltery, was made out of need from a pre-existing traditional one. Using the readily available materials of PVC and aluminum, Bill was able to take measurements from the suling of the West Javanese Gamelan Degung at Berkeley to make an astoundingly beautiful and cheap instrument. Usually the fipple mouthpiece is made from a wedge-shaped hole cut in the node of the bamboo and covered slightly by a thin bamboo ring which guides the air stream between the hole and the ring to obtain the sound. Bill constructed his from a wood plug, a thin slice of PVC, and epoxy to hold it all together.
Typed by C. Vega 5-18-96