First published in and written for Rubberneck (seems to have been closed down now), England 1997.



Johannes Bergmark

The conception that music is played on instruments that produce tones is an obstacle against the understanding of the basis of music. Classicism has the highest status and is the model for "proper" music.

Musician and instrument are bodies in motion with direction, speed, density and pattern of movement that correspond to thought. Melody, harmony and rhythm correspond to a minor part that pretends to be a major one.

Harmonic vibration produces a tone, but periodic vibration is a special case. Resonance systems with tones seem to dominate in strength, but inharmonic systems, misleadingly called "percussive" are richer in timbre, however shorter sounds. Microphones open the soundworld where damping is as central as resonance.

In free improvised music the musicians think like composers. The music is made by (often) many equal people. The notion of "work" is different. The process is resulting in an object but doesn't replace it. Through creation, many contradictions disappear, but in ordinary classical concerts, they reappear. Only inspiration can mend the gap.

[Rammel & Bergmark]
Hal Rammel (left) and Johannes Bergmark playing a saw duet, displaying two of Rammel's instruments. Photo © by Gina Litherland.
The lack of model often gives rise to a special form. Free improvisation abolishes dramatic-functional, hierarchic systems. One has to be able to collectively change direction every second. The dethronization of certain parameters has given priority to other: timbre, dynamics and a quick interchange of short notes, which links it naturally to acoustic damping.

This is a way to create beautiful music, and a way to live in curious, sensitive and creative respect. This music can become a surrealist utopia of free activity with revolutionary potential, in extreme cultivation of inspiration. Others call it an anarchist ritual.

All performing arts are ritual. It's important to show what you desire, not in the form of a message, but by what you do, and the images you create. Not excuse it as symptoms of the times, private or social conflicts. You have to be responsible for what you do to others even if it's on stage. You have to create beauty, not an idyll; violence and ugliness must be part in the adventure.

Free improvisation is connected to the design of my instruments.

I have improvised since 1985, and have built instruments since 1991. My keyboard instruments have been supplemented with the didjeridu, saw, gopychand and lots of objects.

My initial (and continuous) source of inspiration is Hal Rammel, who made me play the saw, and is the designer of beautiful and unique instruments. We've had contact in 11 years and play together whenever possible.

The visual aspect is always meaningful, but I became aware of it first when I started playing the saw.

[The Whalefish, front.]
The Whalefish, front.
In acoustic playing, the audience has to be silent, or the instruments loud. I use contact mikes now, instead of resonators. The instruments become smaller, more dynamic, can give strength to sounds on the level of insects, but also whisper.

After many instruments, also some traditional ones, I built a one-man-band, the Whalefish, which collects sound sources I like: wooden sticks, metal rods, loose strings and a wooden tongue with flexible length/pitch.

It was built on a piano soundboard which left space for things under development. At present, there are: tunable piano strings, almond grinder, mbira, music box, telephone-, door- and alarm bells, finger cymbals, spring, hacksaw blades, egg slicers, butter ball maker. The moveable tongue is an older instrument, the Hedgehog, also with wooden sticks.

[Bergmark playing the Whalefish]
Bergmark playing the Whalefish. © by Bertl Muetter, Austria.
[The Hedgehog & Forked Silver Tongue]
Bergmark playing the Hedgehog. (The Forked Silver Tongue above it.) Photo © by Christian Werner.
It can be played sitting, standing or walking. The protruding parts can be screwed off for packing.

A number of tools go with it: bow, plastic forks and spoons, onion holder and -saw, toy guitar, back scratcher, coffee stirrers, nut grater, moustache brush, shell, ice strainer, holder for mock-flowers, cake cutters, feathers, sand paper, table duster, steel brush, screw, cork, miniature saw, spring, polenta grinder and unidentified things ... found on flee markets, cooking stores, toy stores, workshops, cafés and travels.

[The toolbox]
The toolbox (a violin case).
I've also collected some wind instruments into the Monstrosity to be able to quickly switch between them: melodica, electrical pipes that work as overtone flutes (with a horn mouth piece, and with a kazoo on the end), whistle, unfolding paper whistles, slide whistle, toy trumpet, mouth siren, arghül, toy pan flute, echo "microphone", plastic harmonica, all fastened with gaffa tape. It's a complement to my voice.

These combination instruments, voice and saw are my standard outfit, which manages most situations and ensembles.

But I still keep some older favourites:

[Bergmark playing the Monstrosity]
Bergmark playing the Monstrosity. Photo © by Greg Locke, St. John's, Newfoundland.
[The Stringed Stirrups]
Bergmark playing the Stringed Stirrups or Angel Strings. Photo © by Gudrun Edel-Rösnes.
The Angel Strings are 2 piano wires attached to a high point. In the lower end are hanging stirrups that the musician is standing in. The resonance box is attached to the musician's chest. The strings go through loops on the soundboard. So the musician is stuck hanging in the strings, leaning a bit backwards. It's a great sound in these strings, played with wooden beaters, bows or longitudinally with rosined gloves. I made a copy to be played by my duo Acrobatic Music with Terje Mentyjærvi. It's my most theatrical instrument, used in a lot of situations. The idea came from the tension a piano string can take: you could build a piano with a person hanging from each string.

Twice, the knot has opened, and once the thinner string (1 mm) broke. The thicker (1.5 mm) has never broken, and I've found myself playing, rotating around the string.

[The Stringed Stirrups, closeup.]
A closer look at the instrument.
[Bergmark playing the Finger Violin]
Playing the Finger Violin. Photo © by Greg Locke, St. John's Newfoundland.
The Finger Violin comes from an acoustic idea. I like loose strings without neck or finger board so you can change the tension quickly. My first instrument, the Butter Bass, has a string between a neck strap and the butter box that the feet hold. I wanted more strings, and put them on the finger tips; the other end in a wooden piece behind the arm and a wooden board between, with a contact mike on. In the last second, I decided that the form would be of a violin - my first visual consideration.

When you've made an instrument, you have to learn how to play it, discover how it can be played with other tools or grips. The combination of a home-made instrument and free improvisation should lead to subjectivity. But the instrument has its own will, shows the way and teaches the musician as much as the other way around! The musician becomes like a medium, played by his listening.

[The Butter Bass]
The Butter Bass.
[The Metal Harp]
Bergmark playing the Metal Harp.
The Finger Violin wanted to be held under the chin like an ordinary one. The Metal Harp, which is metal plates around a tube, wanted to be held in the lap and treated with a hoof scraper (instead of just a bow).

With the Brillolin, the visual is dominating. A pair of glassless glasses looked funny when I put strings between them and a miniature violin.

[The Brillolin]
The Brillolin.
[The Veloncell Marcel]
The Veloncell Marcel.
Veloncell Marcel, is a hommage-copy of the bicycle wheel on a stool of Marcel Duchamp. The dynamo works as a tone generator, and a contact mike in the hub amplifies the sound of the spokes and everything else that is in contact with the instrument, like balloon, spring muscle trainer, comb, piano hammer, brushes ... contact mikes make anything into an instrument. The Veloncell is not so transportable, but can be wheeled when turned upside down.

I don't want to replace traditional instruments. Why be against something because it's old or new? You have to be against stupidity and commercialization! I want to inspire the making of low-tech "poor man's music" on instruments or whatever around us.

The old tradition is that musicians make their own instruments. Someone said "tradition of renewal" about African musical history. The petrification of the instruments' development is the divergence!

My music is full of disappointment, hair-raising risk of pretentious trash, and desperate attempts to save the situation. It's frightening to discover that what you know, doesn't work a bit. The best music is often made without audience. Nevertheless, I love to be on stage wondering where this comes from, how exciting it'll be ... !

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Updated the 14th of December 2008.