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Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Music for the masses

Designers hope to help festival-goers find their own beat

July 15, 2001

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It doesn't look like a typical musical instrument or, for that matter, like something that makes music at all.

But a new contraption made by three men two from Lawrence and one from near McLouth is designed to be drummed, banged and thumped by thousands of people at the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival next weekend in Penn Valley Park, Kansas City, Mo.

Tom Alexios of Lawrence, who helped build the instrument, calls the unusual creation an "interactive percussion sculpture."

Made of odds and ends gathered from junkyards and roadsides, the sculpture will be in the music festival's "Soul School" tent throughout the weekend.

There, festival performers will explain music from their perspectives and help people learn to make music of their own. Groups of seven or eight people at a time will be given donated drumsticks and invited to bang away at the interactive sculpture.

"Most of the old blues players had to make their own instruments," Alexios said. "This (sculpture) helps us get back to the roots of making music, using whatever you have."

The sculpture is designed to inspire self-expression. It's also meant to be a tool for music education.

"Through the interactivity, we're trying to open up people's imagination of what an instrument is and about what kind of music can be created," said Alexios, special projects coordinator for Down Beat magazine.

The sculpture for the Kansas City festival is one of many music-related projects Alexios has launched since 1994 with Down Beat's support. The magazine the world's oldest and largest blues and jazz publication will feature a story about the sculpture.

"Through the pages of Down Beat, we will make information available about how this can be done anywhere," said Alexios, who's on the festival's education board. "This is the sixth or seventh pilot program I have started here that we have rolled out nationally and internationally."

Alexios had plenty of help with the festival project.

Dan Lash, a 21-year-old Kansas University student working toward a bachelor's degree in music therapy, and Gerald Morrison, McLouth, an electrician and longtime friend of Alexios, helped design and build the sculpture.

After the festival ends, the artwork will be donated to the Spofford Community Center in Kansas City, Mo., a residential facility that helps children with emotional problems, at-risk youngsters and their families.

Alexios, Lash and Morrison plan to make and donate more percussion sculptures, to be placed throughout Lawrence.

A little bit of everything

Because the sculpture is intended to illustrate that music can be made by anyone, using just about anything, its components are cheap, common objects.

"We've got everything in the piece from wheels that go back to the 1850s or 1860s, cast-iron skillets, wood yokes, a stainless-steel holding tank, part of a piece of drainage tubing and plow discs from the early 1900s," Alexios said.

He and Lash bought some objects from antiques stores and junkyards, and came across others in trash bins and on roadsides. The pieces, acquired over a couple months, cost less than $200.

Assembly of the sculpture took about a month. Morrison fabricated the sculpture in his workshop with an electric arc welder.

"Tom and I were kind of talking about (the sculpture) at his house one evening, and I told him I would be glad to collaborate with him on it," Morrison said. "I think it will be great therapy, simply from the point that people can take out their aggression on this thing. It's pretty indestructible."

Lash and Alexios have known each other since August 1999 and have worked on several music projects together. They share the belief that music can go beyond entertainment to boost personal growth and healing.

In cooperation with Lawrence Memorial Hospital and medical centers in the Kansas City area, they have set up "Rhythm and Rehab" projects. Through the program, drumsticks and drum pads are donated for use by music therapists and patients.

The percussion sculpture, though, isn't designed to be a therapy project as much as it is meant to heighten music awareness.

"It's supposed to demonstrate the accessibility to music that everybody has, but that they might not otherwise recognize," Lash said.

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