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ECLECTIC GENIUS: Tim Kaiser’s performances — musical, narrative, visual — garner fans and grants, including an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Musicians and collectors commission his instruments. Studio heads clamor for his signature sounds, to make their bag of sonic tricks cooler than the competition’s.

When English soccer star David Beckham bends the ball, the international sports world watches in awe. When American musician Tim Kaiser bends a circuit, the audience listens just as intently, be it in an art or performance space, or a bar, bookstore, or library.

MAKE, Volume 12 (page 14) introduced readers to Tim Kaiser, but even people who’ve never heard of him have probably heard his sounds. These may emanate from the instruments Kaiser himself creates and plays, such as Bungee Drums made from concrete post forms or the New Metal Violin made out of the battery compartment of a minesweeper. Or they may issue forth as distorted or modulated samples from one of Kaiser’s Atomic SonicFX Boxes in the hands of other artists.

Among those emitting Kaiser sounds are Duran Duran and film score producer BT (Brian Transeau), who recently featured some of Kaiser’s instruments in his recording This Binary Universe.

Cords and Chords

As cutting-edge as Kaiser’s work is, it’s rooted in musical and technical fundamentals ranging from Franz Joseph Haydn, who evoked a ticking clock, to Reed Ghazala, who first bent a circuit.

Kaiser learned how things are made by fixing them. During high school he was a guitarist in what he calls Northern Minnesota’s first punk rock band. “We were all broke, and the equipment we had was crappy, so we had to learn to fix our own stuff.”

Contending with an amplifier that routinely overheated, Kaiser thought, “In junior high I learned how to solder. Why couldn’t I just cut a hole in the back and put a fan in there?” No wonder he still considers basic electrical and soldering skills “super-valuable” for makers.

He cites an early realization that a manufacturer’s delay pedal with just 2 seconds of delay was more about production costs than possibilities. By changing a few potentiometers, Kaiser increased the delay to 4 seconds. The internal workings of many of his devices result from swapping out components to make something more versatile. “I’m Mr. Void-the-Warranty,” he says. “People who know how to do things with their hands are the ones who make the world better.”

Kaiser often tries to re-create a real-world tone that resonates with him — such as the sound of a train braking while the Doppler effect lowers the pitch. That makes him heir to avant-garde musicians John Cage and Nicolas Collins, who used “found sound” electronically, and to traditional composers such as Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Saint-Saëns, who orchestrated sounds of dogs and bones, birds and storms.

Kaiser begins compositions by improvising with a tape running. He then scores the parts he likes so he can replicate them in performance. As he composes, Kaiser doesn’t consciously employ traditional musical elements such as motifs and variations, but he hears them in his finished works.

Solder and Sounds

When making instruments, Kaiser sometimes starts from scratch or from scrap foraged from yard sales and salvage yards. Other times he transforms traditional instruments.

His background in guitar and music theory came into play when he turned a simple dulcimer into a cello — sort of. When he changed the distance between the nut and the bridge, the scale was no longer diatonic. He pulled the frets and smoothed the fingerboard, then replaced the three dulcimer strings with cello strings. But, because the body was small, the modified dulcimer lacked a cello’s deep resonance. Naturally, Kaiser’s response was to plug it into something.

Cue the piezoelectric transducer. Kaiser attaches piezos to all his instruments that start out acoustic and become electronic. Inexpensive and versatile, piezos are little metal disks with a special ceramic inside. Apply pressure to them and they output voltage. Apply signal and they output vibration.

If you know how to solder, Kaiser says, it’s simple to wire piezos to a circuit or a jack, or to add a volume knob. He uses poster putty to test placement and two-step epoxy to affix piezos permanently.

One of Kaiser’s commissions came from Shawn, a heavy-metal guitarist in California (he prefers not to give a surname). Now in a wheelchair, Shawn can no longer do the “spandex jumping-up-and-down-on-stage thing.” Asked to amplify Shawn’s autoharp and make it look cool, Kaiser replaced the soundboard with diamond plate, installed pickups, and added blinking lights and a Buick “Special” emblem. He also built FX units that Shawn’s Atomic AutoHarp plugs into for distortion and delay. Kaiser is sure it sounds “fantastically hellacious.”

When Kaiser had the Atomic AutoHarp on his workbench, his creative fancy turned to thoughts of piano harps, then zithers. Ultimately he created the Newport Custom for his own performances. It sounds like a “prepared piano” and beats hauling a baby grand to gigs.

That’s typical of Kaiser’s openness to experimenting and letting things evolve. “I’m a firm believer in discovering something while you are in the process of looking for something else.”

As he was building a tall, stringed instrument to be played with mallets — fashioned from piano hammers sunk into drumsticks — his violin bow fell onto the workbench. “Ah,” he thought, “It’s a bass!” He now plays that Upright Spring Bass exclusively with a bow.

In Kaiser’s ears and hands, almost anything can become a musical instrument. He got funny looks at a Goodwill store when he plucked the tines of a candleholder base and “they really resonated.” That 49-cent object became the JuJuBe, which Kaiser plays by running a violin bow around the tines and sending the sound through a modulation delay. “If I’ve got the right soundman, I can really rattle the windows.”

Bent, Not Broken

Kaiser’s scorecard doesn’t track fame or fortune: “I’m as famous as I deserve to be, and I don’t need to be stinkin’ rich. I’ve got kids and a beautiful wife, and a nice house. I’m always looking for the next interesting thing, and it’s that process that gives me fulfillment.”

Kaiser’s website: tim-kaiser.org