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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?

Wednesday, Dec 29 1999
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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 ...."

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."

But if the group wasn't quite ready to play for an audience, it still found ways to perform: DiCicco took to producing vast, multimedia performance evenings at SOMAR, extravaganzas that called to mind everything from dada to '50s Fluxus "happenings" to Partch's own productions. "Each show would get a little more elaborate," says DiCicco, "and I'd start to design sets that made sound and the performers would interact with [them], and then pretty soon we started moving the audience through the shows and creating spaces and having the story unfold in a very physical way."

In this format, the musicians became performers, the instruments, a part of the set -- sometimes, indeed, the stars. This was no accident: DiCicco's strange instruments are meant to amaze and amuse, but most of all make people think of the endless possibilities they imply. "I look at what I do as both visual art and sonic art," says DiCicco. "They're both equally important to me. I spend time making the instruments look nice because I feel they're pieces of sculpture." And Whitehead, who began as a sculptor, says, "I like the sculptural aspect of things. That's important to me."

This emphasis on the visual aspect has landed both of their instruments in museum shows -- samples of DiCicco's handiwork are loaned out frequently to traveling exhibitions, and both had instruments in the recent "Sounds Like Art" exhibit at Yerba Buena, curated by musician and composer Beth Custer, who also used some of their instruments in her Vinculum Symphony, which fused local improvisers, a chamber ensemble, and 10 West Coast experimental instrument builders.

"I find them all beautiful to look at," says Custer of the experimental instruments she chose for the show. "I think they're all great ... in Oliver's case, he's building beautiful sculptures -- they're like Italian nouveau, or something," she adds, laughing.

On the other hand, the beauty of experimental instruments -- especially DiCicco's -- leads to the charge that their "novelty" detracts from their musical worth. "Some of his [DiCicco's] stuff, to be honest, doesn't sound all that great," says Custer. "But he's learning. He keeps challenging himself." Bart Hopkin, who runs Experimental Musical Instruments, a California-based organization that promotes the instruments and, until recently, published a quarterly newspaper, agrees: "A rap against Oliver's instruments that comes up sometimes is that they are more impressive visually than sonically. There may be something to that, but I suspect Oliver can't help it -- he's a diligent worker in the shop and always does a beautiful job of putting the instruments together."

Whitehead and DiCicco both acknowledge the musical challenges their work creates. "One thing I've realized," says Whitehead, "is that the more instruments I have, the less well I play any one of them."

"It's not like you've been playing your guitar for 10 years and you just show up at the gig and play the song," says DiCicco. "You know, we've got to learn the song and the instrument, so that's why it takes so long and why it can be so frustrating at times."

Only in the last year did DiCicco feel Mobius Operandi was ready to record an album, and the result was What Were We Thinking, a title DiCicco gleaned from an audience member's remark at one of the band's shows. The album documents an almost total metamorphosis from the band's early, improvisational focus -- "Pop music for experimental instruments" is how DiCicco describes it -- and features the vocals of Winn and Winfrey, with the role of the instruments understated. "I've got two good vocalists in the group, so we feel that lyrics is something we like to explore," he says. "And when you've got people that sing that well, why not use their talents?" The result is an album that, in its best moments, approaches a Waits-like weirdness, with instruments like the Drone Drum, the Timbajo, and the Crawdad contributing carnival sounds. But in weaker moments, it sounds simply like New Age pop.

Now that DiCicco feels comfortable with the band's prowess on his instruments, he expects the next Mobius Operandi album to be somewhat looser, more improvisational. He may even go back to producing ambitious, large-scale performances, which he abandoned due to the sheer amount of work and money involved.

"Probably the thing I find most valuable about Oliver's work," says Hopkin, "is his approaching it with the ensemble in mind. He set out from the start to make a workable ensemble, and he's done that very successfully. This isn't just about instruments and their mechanics, it's about how a set of instruments can be a meeting place for a group of people. And you see this manifested in the fact that he has brought together wonderful groups of people to play the instruments."

About The Author

David Cook

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