Category Archives: friends and family

sip4: cricket v. space invader

In week four of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, we focused on the basic components and technology of commercially produced music synthesizers, and we looked at plans for making two simple synths: one that sound like crickets, and one that can replicate the sounds of 1980s Atari games like Space Invaders.

Our inspiration this week came from Thaddeus Cahill’s prescient 1897 invention, the Telharmonium. This awesome contraption was a synthesizer long before the invention of synthesizers, music amplification before the invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers, a music streaming service long before the internet. Sadly, the Telharmonium was never a commercial success, because it required the nascent telephone network for transmission services. But the demand for telephone service grew so rapidly, that there was no available bandwidth. However, its concepts didn’t disappear completely, as they led directly to development of the Hammond organ. And where would jazz, and rock, and church music be without that?

Breaking down the inner workings of a commercially produced music synthesizer was a revelation for me, as I’d never put much thought to how they work. I’ve just always been content that they make cool sounds. As an introduction, we fist learned that all the commercial synthesizers out there are using the same fundamental technologies and components to synthesize sound, whether those sounds are in the realm most people would call music, i.e., imitating the sounds of acoustical music instruments, or less readily recognizable sounds we’re more likely to hear in the experimental music realm.

We also learned that there is an east-west divide in the synthesizer world, not in underlying technology, but in the nature of the human-to-machine interface, the mechanisms the operator uses to elicit sound from the electronic beast.

Robert Moog at his synthesizer in 1970

East coast synthesizers typically provide a primary interface in the form of a piano- or organ-style keyboard to play the instrument, along with various knobs and switches to customize the nature of the sound. The epitome of this east coast style are the Moog synthesizers, the name that many people think of when the topic of synthesizers comes up in conversation. Robert Moog (1934-2005) was an engineer, not a musician. So he spent a lot time with musicians when he was designing his device. His objective was to make the Moog Synthesizer something musicians would find interesting and easy to play, thus, the keyboard interface so you can play it like a piano or organ.

Moog presented the first public live demonstration of his synthesizer in 1964 at the Audio Engineering Society’s New York convention. A 2014 video made by Moog’s company looks back on that day and the legacy of the founder’s creation.

Soon thereafter, it was clear that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument musicians could and would actually play, to amazing effects. Composer and performer Wendy Carlos blazed the trail for the possibilities of the Moog in the classical realm with her 1967 release Switched-on Bach. And Keith Emerson, of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, rocked the pop world with his Moog break in bandmate Greg Lake’s Lucky Man, changing pop music forever.

Stay tuned.

swamp rose mallow

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 6, 2020

red-throated flowers
bleed milky sticky-sweet goo
yummy marshmallows

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

For her homework assignment in the online class in Prairie Ethnobotany we are taking from The Morton Arboretum, Arlene selected the Swamp Rose Mallow plant.

Common names: Swamp Rose Mallow, Rose Mallow, Hardy Hibiscus, Marsh Mallow

Scientific name: Hibiscus moscheutos

What the scientific name means: Hibiscus comes from the Greek word Hibiskos, meaning mallow; moscheutos, from the Latin, means musk-scented

Native range: East of the Mississippi from Ontario to Florida.

Plant description: Hibiscus moscheutos, a perennial plant featuring hairy stems and leaves, grows in wet ground often near riverbanks or in ditches. Flowers are most often pink but can range in color from creamy white to deep rose, some featuring beautiful dark-red throats.

Historical human uses: The sweet sap of mallow plants was used by ancient Egyptians to make confections for the gods. The French, in the 1800s, discovered that cooking and whipping mallow sap with egg whites and corn syrup created a moldable substance, creating the marshmallows we know and love today.

Celebratory Haiku:

red-throated flowers
bleed milky sticky-sweet goo
yummy marshmallows

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

clafoutis madness

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 4, 2020

We are mad for Clafoutis! Everyone who know us, and most anyone who’s even tripped on us on social media, knows that from our frequent posts when we make one. In the middle of August, our friend composer Spencer Arias will release an episode of his Cooking with Creatives series on his YouTube channel, which features us making a classic Black Cherry Clafoutis in our kitchen, while he makes one in his kitchen. We had a fascinating conversation, via Zoom, along the way. We won’t spoil the show for you by spilling the beans on the conversation. But we thought it would be helpful to put up this post about Clafoutis (with buttons below to download our recipes), so Spencer can link to this page when he posts our episode.

Clafoutis is a centuries-old dessert from the Limousin region of France, famous Limoges porcelain, Limousin cattle, and oak barrels for aging Cognac. The name Clafoutis derives from the Occitan (an ancient language of southern France and neighboring areas of Spain and Italy) word clafir, meaning “to fill.” This is an apt name, as traditional Clafoutis is a custardy batter, filled with black cherries.

Classic Black Cherry Clafoutis

Clafoutis, of course, can be, and often is, filled with myriad other fruits. And we would argue that it ought to be made with fruit that is fresh off your local trees or bushes, in season. But some purists claim that a Clafoutis-like thing filled with anything but black cherries is not a Clafoutis but a flaugnarde. But then plenty of those same purist also say the pits should be left in the cherries. For simplicity, we call all these derivations Clafoutis, and leave it at that.

We don’t recall exactly where or when we were first served Clafoutis, nor by whom. But we were immediately entranced, and we set out discover how to make it. There are hundreds of Clafoutis recipes online. After reviewing many of them, we settled on one from chef Hubert Keller, proprietor of the famed Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco (now closed). We’ve made a few minor adaptations over the years, but we’ve had consistently good results with it. You can download our Classic Clafoutis recipe below.

Savory Clafoutis with Gravlax and Goat Cheese

A few years ago, something set us down a path to try making a savory version of Clafoutis. There are some recipes online, but we decided to see if we could simply tweak and adapt our own recipe. The first step was to remove the sugar and try filling it with some savory ingredients. That worked fairly well, but we decided we needed to increase the number of eggs. Our favorite variation so far, hands down, is home-cured salmon gravlax with goat cheese and herbs. You can also download our Savory Clafoutis recipe below.

We urge you to try making a Clafoutis, sweet or savory, in your own kitchen sometime soon. We doubt you’ll be disappointed.

prairie ethnobotanty

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 3, 2020

spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
rattlesnakes beware

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is the subject of the haiku above, the featured photo on this post, and Larry’s homework for a 2-session online course we are taking in Prairie Ethnobotany, from The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, 25 miles west of Downtown Chicago.

We’ve had a long affiliation with The Morton Arboretum, going back 30 years. It was an essential resource for us when we were developing the landscape, and later, our landscape plant nursery, at Acorn Ridge Gardens, our homestead in rural LaPorte County, IN. We attended many courses and seminars on trees and tree care, and Arlene earned a certificate in Woody Plant Propagation, studying with Pete Linser, Manager of Plant Production. Many plants in our Indiana garden were propagated from scion wood or seeds gathered at Morton as a part of those classes, and we regularly worked the sales tents at Morton’s annual Arbor Day Plant Sale. Kris Bachtell, Vice President of Collections and Facilities, was particularity helpful to us when we were starting the nursery, and was the featured speaker at one of our twice-yearly garden festivals.

Ethnobotany, for the uninitiated, is “the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses,” according to the Oxford dictionary. Our focus in this class is on the plants of the American Tallgrass Prairie and the practical and ceremonial uses of those plants by the indigenous peoples of the prairie and early European settlers. Cindy Crosby, steward of the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and a noted author and lecturer on the Tallgrass Prairie and nature conservation, is teaching the class. If you are interested in the prairie ecosystem and its plants, you should follow her Tuesdays in the Tallgrass blog.

Early 19th century geographic extent of the Tallgrass Prairie

The North American Tallgrass Prairie once covered a vast swath of land − about 170 million acres − from what is now Manitoba in the north, to what is now the Texas gulf coast in the south. The prairie ecosystem contained a rich tapestry of more than 500 species of deep-rooted grasses and forbs (broad-leafed flowering plants) in a symbiotic self-sustaining relationship. The relentless westward push of European settlers devastated the prairie, greatly aided by John Deere’s plow. Today, only around 1% of the Tallgrass Prairie remains.

Our own interest in the Tallgrass Prairie was piqued by one of our gardening mentors, Bill Brincka. Bill was a professor of three-dimensional art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most masterful gardeners we ever met, and a keen-eyed naturalist who studied with May Watts at The Morton Arboretum from the time he was a teenager. The first time Bill visited our garden and nursery, he literally jumped out of the car on arrival, shouting “Do you know you have a prairie remnant right across your street?” In fact, we did not realize it, but indeed there were several acres of undisturbed prairie right there, in all its magnificence, lying between 2 disused railroad tracks. It was bursting with a vast array of prairie grasses and forbs, familiar and unfamiliar − Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switchgrass, Black-eyed Susan, Cone Flower, Iron Weed, Boneset, Joe Pye Weed, Blazing Star, and Rattlesnake Master (one of out favorites, for its distinctive features). Soon, we added a steadily growing array of prairie native plants to our gardens and to our nursery product line. And we restored an acre of prairie at the back of our yard, on the crest of rise about 100 yards behind our house.

In 2013, various maladies of advancing age convinced us that living in isolation in rural Indiana, with several acres of gardens to tend, was no longer sustainable. So we up and moved to a retirement community in Oberlin, OH. In 2015, we started developing a “pond bank prairie garden” adjacent to our cottage. You can see in that prairie map, above, that small pockets of Tallgrass Prairie were found in Ohio, including near Oberlin, and many prairie plants can be found growing wild here. So it seemed a natural fit. The pond bank has been growing in nicely, especially considering we planted it all from seed without a lot of soil preparation, because it’s a fairly narrow, rather steep slope that does not lend itself to getting equipment in there.

We planted some Rattlesnake Master seeds three years ago, hoping for the best. But the last two seasons we saw no sign of it, which is not too surprising. Like many prairie plants, it takes a few years to establish itself, and wouldn’t likely bloom until after a few years of growing. Our patience was rewarded a few weeks ago, when our first stalk of Rattlesnake Master flowers emerged from the thicket of surrounding foliage. And that is why Larry picked Rattlesnake Master for his Prairie Ethnobotany class homework.

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Common names: Rattlesnake Master, Button Snakeroot

Scientific name: Eryngium yuccifolium

What the scientific name means: The genus designation Eryngium derives from the ancient Greek and is a somewhat rare case where the name simply means “sea holly,” i.e., this type of plant, and has no other meanings. The species designation yuccifolium means “having Yucca-like foliage,” which is an apt description.

Native range: Native to the American Tallgrass Prairie.

Plant description: Rattlesnake Master is a perennial forb that grows from a corm-like crown into a large rosette of long, narrow, fibrous leaves. It flowers in mid-summer on tall leafless stems bearing many small blossoms aggregated in spiky balls, which are silver-gray in color.

Historical human uses: Rattlesnake Master, as its common name indicates, was used by indigenous North American peoples to ward off the effects of rattlesnake venom when handling rattlesnakes and as a curative for a rattlesnake bite. The sap and roots were also used in various tonics, including as a diuretic, and the fibrous leaves were used for making baskets and footwear.

Celebratory Haiku:

spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
rattlesnakes beware

First Rattlesnake Master in our pond bank prairie garden
Arlene with an 8-foot tall Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbekia triloba)
Pond bank prairie garden, Acorn Cottage Oberlin
Acorn Cottage Oberlin, from across the pond

sip3: talking machines

by Klutzy McFumblefingers (aka Larry Dunn)

Week 3 of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, focused on two things: talk boxes and learning to solder.

One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.

At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.

Rough illustration of a talk box setup

It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.

We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.

Caution: HOT IRON LOOKS THE SAME AS COLD IRON!

The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.

After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!

Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.

Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.

sip2: amazing oscillators

by Larry Dunn, July 21, 2020

Create the Future! Building our own amazing oscillators was the objective for week 2 of Synth in Place, the online course in building DIY electronic music-making machines, taught by Kirk Pearson and presented by Dogbotic sounds labs and Thingamajigs. We took our inspiration for this challenge from a couple of truly awesome, and famous, installations, made by pioneers in the electronic museum field. One of these was composer and sound artist David Tudor‘s Rainforest V (variation 1), at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, as shown in this 360° video.

Another inspiration came from Daphne Oram of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which she founded in 1958. Her Oramics Machine is a visual synthesizer that uses drawn images to create sounds.

Of course, our first oscillators could not even scratch the surface of the genius of the work of these transformational thinkers and makers of electronic instruments. But we nonetheless are doing our work in homage to their path-setting work.

Oscillators are a foundational building block of electronic music synthesizers. For the uninitiated, an oscillator is an electronic gizmo that makes electrons move back and forth in a normal predicable manner. That predicable pattern can be exploited to activate other electronic components such as led-lights and speakers. With the proper setup of circuits and wiring to control the frequencies in the pattern of electron movement, what comes out of a speaker in such a setup can be pitched sounds in the range we typically call music.

Our first oscillator, a flashing LED (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

Using a breadboard (a temporary circuit board made for prototyping electronic gadgets); a 555 Timer (a ready-made microchip that can control electron pulses in a variety of ways, depending on how you connect it); a handful of capacitors, resistors, and wires; a bare-wire LED bulb; a potentiometer; a small speaker; and a 9-volt battery, with snap-on connector; we set out to create the future. Our first oscillators evolved through several versions. The first, show above, implements a simple strobe light. The frequency of flashing is controlled by your choice of capacitors. If we add a potentiometer (a sort of switch that can be used to vary the flow of electrons) and a speaker into our design and rewire things a bit, we suddenly have a user-controlled noise-making machine. And if we can get the frequencies in the right range, our noises will be pitched sounds we could call music. Below is a look at that setup.

Prototype sound-producing synthesizer (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

For the final trick, we ventured into Daphne Oram territory. Remove the potentiometer and do a bit of rewiring to connect a piece of corrugated cardboard filled with a heavy smear of pencil lead (graphite, i.e. carbon, i.e., a conductor of electrons) using an alligator clip in contact with the graphite smear, with a bare wire at the other end suitably connected to the breadboard. Use another wire of the same configuration, similarly connected, and you can “play” the graphite smear using a drawing gesture with the other alligator clip. Here is the way that setup looks.

Crude homage to Daphne Oram (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

I struggled to get my own version of these oscillator variations working properly. These components, especially breadboards, can be temperamental, to begin with. And whatever manual dexterity I once had (which was not that much) is fading fast with age. As arthritis and other woes take up residence in my hands, you can call me Klutzy McFumblefingers. But, despite the challenges to actually get these things working, learning how they go together to make newly-imagined instruments is a thoroughly engaging experience.

Stay tuned.

cornmeal waffles

by Larry Dunn, July 18, 2020

Until recently, we’ve never been particularly avid fans of waffles. Sure, we had our moments in the late 60s at the old Star Waffle Shop on Cass Avenue in Detroit, only a couple of blocks from our apartment, or the Apartfug, as we called it (fodder for its own post at some point). We’d wander in there in the middle of the night, they were open 24/7/365, all toked up on weed or flying high on LSD, and we’d order the namesake waffle, with a scoop of ice cream, and either maple syrup or hot fudge. A tantalizing sensation when your taste buds are in a heightened sate.

My mother made waffles several times a year when we were growing up, and they we’re tasty enough. But Arlene and I never invested in a waffle iron over all these years; waffles just didn’t seem worth the trouble, when we could more easily make pancakes, if we were in that sort of mood for breakfast or brunch. And we have a great, and easy to make, whole wheat (or multi-grain) pancake recipe. Arlene has regularly ordered “chicken & waffles” in restaurants over the years. But if those waffles are ever any good, it’s a bonus. For her, it’s always about the fried chicken.

Cornmeal Waffles, ceramic bowl by Brian Dunn (photo: Larry Dunn)

Our waffle consciousness changed last fall during a brief R&R side trip to the Catskills when we were in NYC for some music events. We’d first been in the region the prior summer, when we met our Florida family there for a week’s vacation. We were charmed by the area, and shocked that it could seem so remote, only two hours from NYC. On the summer visit we’d tried to grab a meal at Phoenicia Diner, which all the people and all the guides say is a must, only to find it mobbed every time we drove by. But on a late Monday morning in October, we had no trouble getting seated immediately. “Chicken and Waffles” on the menu caught my eye, thinking I’d recommend it to Arlene. But I decided to order for myself, when I learned the waffles were made with cornmeal. That seemed worth trying, and my hunch paid off. Crispy, even, crunchy, exterior, but still light and fluffy inside, and the cornmeal added aroma and a flavor punch far beyond what any standard whitebread waffles can deliver. I was hooked, and left there determined to find or devise a recipe to make them at home.

I spent the rest of the fall and early winter researching recipes . . . oh, yes, that, and having major surgery on my cervical spine and then a long slow recovery. I devised a recipe and aimed to try it during our annual winter sojourn to visit our Florida family in Sarasota. They have the waffle iron; no sense in our buying one until we knew we had a winning recipe. We made them for the whole crowd one Sunday in February, with sliced fresh local strawberries and maple syrup. They were a big hit.

Cornmeal Waffle with fresh local organic blueberries (photo: Larry Dunn)

A new waffle iron was waiting for us when we returned home to Oberlin and we’ve been making cornmeal waffles every few weeks ever since. They are especially welcome at this time of year when we have so much local fresh fruit in Ohio, as we go through a sequence of strawberries, cherries, blueberries, apricots (if we’re lucky), peaches, plums, and apples. Each waffle batch leaves us with eight or ten squares we can put in the freezer, and they taste almost as good warmed up in the toaster as they do fresh off the griddle. As soon as the freezer supply is gone, we make some more. If you’d like a PDF of the recipe, press the “Download” button below.

There’s a bit of a serendipitous postscript on my search for a cornmeal waffle recipes last fall. At the time I could find no recipes from the Phoenicia Diner, nor even any claiming to be like theirs. But as I was starting this post, I stumbled upon the fact that the Phoenicia Diner released a cookbook, just as the pandemic shutdowns were starting. I have verified that the waffle recipe is in the table of contents, though you cannot see the recipe itself. In the TOC listing, it makes no mention of them being “cornmeal waffles.” It would be hilarious if that was all a figment of my imagination! But our cornmeal waffles are a treat, no matter where I got the inspiration, and I’m guessing that cornmeal is in their recipe. The waiter must have told me about it. I’m going to get the book and find out.

Notes for Restricted Diets. Some of the Florida family have dietary concerns with milk products and with gluten. So, when we made these waffles down there, we replaced the buttermilk with almond milk, soured with one tablespoon of vinegar, and used a “vegan butter” product instead of actual butter. We swapped in whole-grain oat flour for the whole wheat pastry flour. Getting the consistency right took a bit of fiddling. But in the end the results were deemed outstanding by all our eaters. I believe you could take the recipe the rest of the way to full vegan, by substituting silky tofu for the egg yolks and whipped aquafaba (garbanzo bean liquor) for the whipped egg whites. If you try that, please let us know how they turn out.

All gone (photo: Larry Dunn)

sip1: ins and outs

by Larry Dunn, July 15, 2020

Last week I attended the first session of an eight-week online class called Synth in Place (SIP). Our friend and sometimes collaborator Kirk Pearson is teaching the class, which is presented by Kirk’s own Dogbotic sound lab in collaboration with Thingamajigs, a genre-crossing arts organization that fosters music created with made and found materials and alternate tuning systems. I’m unsure what I may do in the future with the knowledge I gain in this class, but, at the very least, it seems like a fun way to chew up some pandemic quarantine hours.

There are nine brave souls in our section of the class (Kirk is juggling several similar sized sections, some with teenagers, and others with older folks like us). In our group, we range in age from 20s to 70s and bring an interesting mix of backgrounds − several composers and performers, an electrical engineer and circuit board designer, a graphic artist and animator. We are also quite geographically spread out, one of the benefits of online classes, with folks in London, New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, California, Oberlin, and places in between. Two of the attendees are people I know, and who also know Kirk (much longer than I have), which Kirk said was unique to this section. Jim Pugliese is a composer, percussionist, and educator, who recently retired from teaching at the LaGuardia high school for music and the arts in New York City. Nick Dunston is a composer and bassist, who has know Kirk since they were both at LaGuardia, which is where they met Jim. Small world.

Fully kitted out for Synth in Place (photo: Larry Dunn)

The objective of the course is to learn the basics of making electronic music by tinkering with the various component parts and sub-assemblies that can be created and manipulated to make sounds come out of a speaker. A few weeks back, Kirk sent us all a box full of components and connectors, packaged in envelopes with delightful Dogbotic graphics, designed by Maisy Byerly. He also sent us a list our own tools and supplies we will need − soldering iron and solder, batteries, tape, wire cutters and strippers, etc. After we gain some facility with all these pieces and parts, we will start plotting how to choose specific components and put them together into a working synthesizer.

Maisy Byerly’s illustrations are a delight (photo Larry Dunn)

Our first experiment in electronic sound-making involved connecting a box grater to a 9-volt battery and a small speaker, and then playing the grater with a spoon. Kitchen tool music is right in my zone!

Simple electrified box grater instrument (photo: Larry Dunn)

Next we riffed on the old saying about having, or not having, two nickles to rub together. Due to rampant inflation in the intervening years, we used quarters, which we electrified, again with the nine volt battery, and also connected to the speaker. Paper clips in the speaker cone add a nice buzz.

Rubbing two electric quarters together; don’t forger the paper clips (photo: Larry Dunn)

For our final exercise in this session, we experimented with piezoelectric microphones, which pick up sound and vibrations from things they are attached to (or are resting upon them). We made some cool sounds with a metal ruler held over the microphone and extended off the table for twanging purposes. We also did some drumming directly on the microphone surface with the quarters. In both of these cases, we connected the microphone via alligator clips and a mini-plug patch cord to a powered speaker.

Fun times with a piezoelectric microphone (photo: Larry Dunn)

The most profound lesson of the day was Kirk’s assertion that making DIY electronic music is an inherently political act. The electronic instruments we are creating make sound by manipulating electric voltage patterns. And these are sounds that no acoustic instrument can make. Thus making DIY electronic music is a rejection of the known universe and the creation of your own.

Stay tuned, to learn about the new worlds my Synth in Place colleagues and I create.

Synth in Place, presented by Dogbotic and Thingamajigs (illustration by Maisy Byerly)

a wedding blessing

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, February 28, 2016

In December of 2004 our niece Jodi and her husband-to-be Gary took a creative approach to the Jewish wedding custom of the seven blessings. They asked us, and six other couples who were important to them, to create and present our own unique blessing on a specific topic. They topic they assigned to us was “patience.”

After mulling over a few approaches, we settled on writing and reciting four haiku. It was a wonderful way for us to invest emotionally in their wedding ceremony and to give them a bit of advice in the form of this blessing. Each of the four haiku are anchored in something elemental to our lives at our beloved former home, Acorn Ridge Gardens in northwest Indiana.

After the wedding, our friend Peg Herbst had the inspired idea to memorialize these haiku in a set of painted ceramic plates. To be fair, she not only inspired the idea, but also designed the illustrative drawings and led the painting project. Here they are are.

Love blooms its brightest / Like agaves prize patience / Of the hummingbirds
Oh how love will thrive / When tended as a garden / Plow sow reap repeat
Dance through the garden / Each to your own heart’s rhythm / Love waits at the well
Lives join together / The wedding plants an oak tree / Love gathers acorns

We gave these plates to Jodi and Gary for their first anniversary. But they were in the process of moving from Chicago to New York at the time, and they asked us to hold onto them for awhile. Since then they have graced our walls, first in our guest cottage at Acorn Ridge, and now at our new home in Oberlin. Gary and Jodi later moved to Jerusalem, and just now, back to the New York area. They will find a place to hang the plates when they settle into a new home, in Montclair, New Jersey. We’ll surely have mixed emotions when we pack them up and send them to their forever home.