invention

Bob Dylan was born in his hometown, but Duluth performance artist Tim Kaiser has a different musical hero: Harry Partch (1901–1974), an underappreciated composer who invented new microtonal scales for instruments he built himself.

“He was a curmudgeon and a brilliant musician who couldn’t stand convention and created his own,” says Kaiser, who also coaxes foreign sounds from far-fetched equipment made by hand.

As a teenage musician, Kaiser discovered a new auditory universe at the University of Minnesota and began assembling avant-garde noisemakers to suit his sonic tastes. His technique? Scrap parts and a junior high school electronics class.

Some 20 years later, Kaiser has made more than 150 instruments, including a stenography keyboard wired with the guts of a mini teaching piano, a green effect box with beehive lenses that loops a 2-second delay, and an old espresso bin called TankPodDrum, fitted with all things pluckable and tappable. Kaiser takes commissions, but saves his favorites for his own live shows.

TankPodDrum’s shell is a hollow, 6″-diameter, 14″-tall stainless steel vessel that Kaiser scored for 70 cents at a salvage yard. In his home studio, he used stove bolts to add a right angle fitting from a hot water heater, brass bells from a rotary phone, a comb of rods from a toy piano, music box tines, bits of chrome, and rack handles. When Kaiser bangs on the attachments with a mallet, the drum acts as a resonator. A pickup epoxied to the barrel’s interior connects to an amp or, if Kaiser is playing, a modulation delay that echoes and fades not only the pitch but also the frequency.

After Partch died, the American Composers Forum inherited the rights to his work and released more than 100 of his recordings on the Innova record label. “I’ve always dreamed of being on Innova,” Kaiser says.

Dreams apparently come true. In June 2007, Kaiser’s latest solo album, Analog, was released on — you guessed it — Innova.

Watch and listen to Tim Kaiser: tim-kaiser.org