Around the same time this article was posted, I uploaded this Youtube video showing in action the sound instrument called Wood & Butter. The video doesn’t include descriptions of or additional information about the instrument. That’s the purpose of this article: to provide the background information that’s not in the video.

Wood and Butter is a kinetic instrument designed not for musical sound narrowly defined – standard scales and composerly rhythms are not its strong points — but it can provide a lot of interesting sounds which, for open ears, are musical enough in their way. The visuals – the observable mechanisms by which the sounds are produced — are essential to the effect. It’s one in a series of semi-self-playing instruments that I’ve devised over the years. Once a player has activated some part of it, it will continue on its own for some time, allowing the player to focus on bringing forth additional sounds even as the earlier sounds carry on.

The physical instrument has three free-standing parts. One is a set of tall upright rods on a floor stand. The player places specially made doohickeys on the rods, and these then jitter slowly down of their own accord, making sound as they go. The second part of Wood & Butter is a similar upright structure, but with strings instead of rods and its own type of jitter-down doohickeys. The third part is a stand containing a little audio mixer and graphic equalizers, allowing the player to manipulate the sounds coming in from the other two parts.

Here’s further detail on the three parts.

The upright rods range from about four feet to about seven feet high, and they are of two sorts: there are eight plain steel rods, half inch in diameter, and four threaded rods of a quarter inch. The jitter-down doohickeys are made of bent wire. At one end, the wire is bent to form a coil of about four or six turns, sized to fit over one of the rods with a bit of clearance. The other end extends out from the coil for some distance – some just a few inches, and some as much as thirty inches. Some of the these are weighted at the end. When you fit the coiled end over the top of the rod, the coil sort of leans on the rod due to the weight of the extension, and the resulting friction is enough to keep the bent wire in place. If you press down the end of the extension and release, the end starts to flex up and down. With each up and down there’s a moment when the slightly oversized coil loses contact with the rod, and the bent wire slips down a bit before catching again and repeating. This gravity-powered start-stop movement provides enough energy to keep the end of the bent wire in motion, and if all goes well the bent wire jitters its way all the way to the bottom of the rod. As it does so, the repetitive gentle hammering contact between wire and rod produces a sound which is colored by the resonances of the rod. Different rod lengths produce different pitches and tone qualities, while the differing lengths, thicknesses and weights in the bent wire doohickeys give rise to different jittering speeds and rhythms.   

Some of the bent wires have a slightly more elaborate form, with back-bends in the overhanging length so that the wire also hammers back against the rod a bit above the coil as it descends, adding another element to the sound. This mechanism will be familiar to you if you’re ever seen an old-fashioned toy in which a small piece, shaped and painted to resemble a bird, hammers its way down a narrow metal rod, looking like a woodpecker. That’s where the “wood” in this instrument’s name comes from; it’s short for “woodpecker,” since some of the sounding elements use this woodpecker mechanism.

For the threaded rods (but not for the plain ones) there’s yet another sounding mechanism available. If you place a suitably sized washer on an upright threaded rod and give it just the right sort of spin, it will proceed to very its way down the threaded rod. With a long-ish rod, it can be a long, slow journey. As it goes, it produces a sound whose tone quality depends on the length of the rod and the size of the washer. Perhaps this washer-spin-down effect is familiar to you as well, since many people have noticed it and a few have explored it further. Among them is Dan Senn, who did cool things with the idea in the 1990s. It was he who called the spinning-down washers “butterflies,” and that’s where the “butter” in the name Wood & Butter comes from.

The rods are provided with pickups near the base. The plain rods use magnetic pickups, while the threaded rods use piezos. The sound of the magnetic pickups is fuller in the low end, while the piezos are trebly.

Wood and Butter’s second free-standing component is an upright frame holding four musical strings. It’s about six feet tall, standing at a slight tilt. As with the first part, there are added doohickeys designed to jitter down the lengths of the strings in a self-perpetuating slip-catch-slip-catch movement, causing the strings to sound as they go. The doohickeys, in this case, consist of small components made to fit over the strings with the necessary slight clearance, plus an attached horizontal arm of springy steel. The arm may or may not have and additional weight placed at the end. There are piezo pickups attached to the frame top and bottom. The upper pickup picks up the sounds of the upper portion of any active string (the part above the descending doohickey), while the lower pickup responds to the lower portion of the string. As the doohickey descends, the upper portion gets lower in pitch as the segment above the doohickey grows longer, while for the lower portions the pitch gets higher as the relevant length gets shorter. The slight tilt of the frame helps keep the doohickey from swinging side-to-side too much. The strings have different thicknesses and are under different tensions, while the doohickeys vary in arm length, rigidity and weight; these things help to create different pitches, tone qualities and rhythms.

Wood and Butter’s third free-standing element is a stand on which rests an audio mixer and two small graphic equalizers. After starting one or more of the doohickeys descending on rods or strings, the player turns to the mixer and equalizers on this stand to modulate and manipulate the resulting sounds as they come in from the pickups. Each of the elements is sending two separate signals to the mixer: for the upright rods, there’s one signal from the plain rods and one from the threaded rods, while for the strings there’s one signal from the upper portions of the strings and one from the lower portions. At the mixer you can control how strong each of these inputs is. In addition, the signals from the rods and the signal form the strings are each sent separately to their own little equalizers, and the player can independently manipulate their tone qualities there. This is particularly effective because the sounds, especially those from the rods, have broad spectral content, so you can have a lot of fun using the equalizers to selectively highlight different frequency bands.

The playing of Wood & Butter is a matter of placing doohickeys at the stops of various strings or rods, setting them in motion and then, as they descend, turning to the mixer and equalizers to select and manipulate the sounds in various ways. In some cases the doohickeys take quite some time to travel top to bottom, so there is room to approach the manipulations in a spacious and meditative process. On the other hand, the player may choose a more active approach, setting multiple doohickeys going at once, frequently stopping and restarting them from moment to moment, and rushing back and forth to the mixer stand for constant variation. In that case things can quickly become entertainingly manic.

Share This