Sculptures of Sound

Oliver DiCicco founded Mobius Operandi as a showcase for his experimental instruments. They're beautiful to look at. But is it music?

A secluded Mission District building houses a collection of curious objects. One is an imposing metal rod surrounded by a taut exoskeleton of wires. Another is a seemingly random assortment of valves and tubes, rising from a black cylinder and melding into two separate mouthpieces. There is also a crazy dental sculpture of thin metal rods shooting up at sharp angles. All of the contraptions are, in fact, musical instruments, and all were designed and built by Oliver DiCicco, owner and proprietor of Mobius Music, the studio he has operated for the past 23 years.

DiCicco has been interested in designing instruments since college, when he learned about Harry Partch. An Oakland-born musical maverick, Partch took to designing his own instruments after becoming frustrated with the limitations of classical ones. He is generally regarded as the father of experimental instrument-making. "I thought it was really incredibly fascinating," DiCicco says of Partch. "I didn't really know that much about him. I just knew that he was doing this and I was totally intrigued by the idea."

DiCicco soon tried his hand at building instruments himself. In the early '70s, he began working for the pioneering synthesizer company Moog Music; when that job fell through, he took the knowledge and equipment he'd accumulated and opened his own studio. Mobius Music has quietly become known as an excellent place for acoustic recording, and a broad range of musicians have recorded there. "Everyone from the Dead Kennedys back in the punk days, Romeo Void, to Windham Hill," recalls DiCicco. "I've worked a lot with Henry Kaiser over the years and Fred Frith, [John] Zorn, Bill Frisell ...."

Mobius, Operating: Jason Reinier, Christie Winn, Pamela Winfrey, and Oliver DiCicco.
Mobius, Operating: Jason Reinier, Christie Winn, Pamela Winfrey, and Oliver DiCicco.

Over the past 23 years, the studio has grown from the rudimentary equipment DiCicco started with to "pretty much state-of-the-art acoustic," but the price for this growth was DiCicco's own pursuits. "The studio took up a big chunk of my time from the mid-'70s to the late '80s," he says, "and by the late '80s I was established and I was getting to the point where I needed to get back into my own creative space again, and not be facilitating other people's art. And that's when I started building instruments again.

"But when I approached them the second time," he continues, "I had a lot more knowledge under my belt, certainly about acoustics and about electronics, and I had a much more mature approach to what I was going to do."

The Double Bass -- DiCicco's first real instrument, and still his favorite to play -- resembles a pedal steel crossed with a zither, with four strings and 19 movable frets. More improbable instruments followed. There's the Abdul, a circular instrument, 6 feet tall and circled with strings. Or the Trilon, which has a harplike triangular shape and includes 18 strings divided at the center by a brass rod, tuned starting at B-flat on one side and F on the other. DiCicco's first love was the guitar, and stringed instruments seem to have a special place in his heart. But he has also invented the amusing Due Capi, a saxophone built for two. On the Due Capi, two separate mouthpieces lead down through a series of tubes and valves to a common air chamber, so that the players' breath interacts, pushing and pulling as they blow. And he has built a number of drums, many of them based on African principles, but made of industrial materials and outfitted with coil pickups.

As the instruments piled up in DiCicco's workroom, the question became not only what kind of music to play on these devices, but how to play them. There was also the question of who to play them with. In 1990 DiCicco was introduced, through a mutual friend, to Peter Whitehead, a musician who'd also been building his own instruments.

"He [DiCicco] invited me over to his studio to see his instruments," recalls Whitehead. "At that time he said to me, 'I kinda got an idea about putting a band together.' So we had an evening where we took his instruments and my instruments and just kind of jammed around. It was OK, but it didn't come to a lot. We did that a few more times until we hit upon a group that seemed to work." Mobius Operandi was founded in 1991, and it has continued with various personnel changes (Whitehead left the group last year to pursue his own music, while vocalist Christie Winn joined) as one of the very few experimental instrument ensembles in the country. Jason Reinier and Pamela Winfrey fill out the current group.

The band's early days were devoted to learning the instruments; everyone took turns playing different ones, while the musical focus was on improvisation. "We just got together and it was really exciting to be in this place of creating something in the moment," says Whitehead. "We looked at that later as a period of learning rather than anything else -- learning how to play an instrument we didn't know, feel our way around music that wasn't familiar."

"It's taken a long time," says DiCicco. "Building the instruments was easy. The hardest part is creating music that I feel matches the level of the instrumentation."

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