When it comes to knowing Joshua Tree by its people, it won’t take any time at all to know that above all, the community is diverse. There are desert rats, misplaced urban gentry, artists, musicians, working people and mystics. If the community were a piece of music, it would be the kind of music called a “polyphony.” This is a multiplicity of independent sounds or melodies that somehow find their way to harmony, and if anyone understands the community of Joshua Tree in this polyphonic way, it would be Bob Fenger, the guy everybody knows as Piano Bob.
The colorful piano outside Joshua Tree Health Foods is Bob’s work. So is the one in the Beatnik Cafe. These and two other pianos, one still to be placed, are Bob’s gift to the people, and this public piano project of his is just the most visible example of why Piano Bob stands out as a pronounced sharp among the many people whose independent sounds and melodies make the music of the community of Joshua Tree.
An ear for sound
Certainly a clue to the fact that Bob has something more in mind with his installation of the pianos than just idle entertainment can be found on a page of his Web site, where he describes the phases of his life as, “attempts to search for the psychic sound nebulae somewhere in my mind and soul.”
As abstract as this statement might sound, it is the subject of “sound” in it that makes the statement so sensible in Piano Bob’s case.
A UCLA Ph.D. student in systematic musicology who is on extended-temporary leave, Bob is genuinely cultivated in the art and science of music. He knows its math, its mechanics, its history, its moods. Yet Bob is even more interested in the raw sound behind music, and especially in how sound affects its listener.
Although he knows the acoustic reasons why certain sounds register as musical to the human ear and why others don’t, he’s interested in exploring the path a sound makes from noise to music. “Every instrument in history,” he writes, “evolved from some kind of noise maker.” It has been the exploration of this evolution that has led Bob to experiment with the musical properties of everything from plastic cups to hubcaps.
Bob isn’t the first to pursue this interest, and the subject of experimental instruments will be found in categories of music study ranging from ethnic music to electronic. Particularly the piano has been used for over a century to produce experimental sounds, and Bob’s own affinity for and training in piano has made it a focus for some of his most ambitious experimental projects.
As a thesis project for his Master’s program at Cal State, Dominguez Hills — where Bob incidentally received the school’s Certificate of Academic Achievement for highest grades — Bob built his own version of the prepared piano. This is a piano whose strings are fitted with accessory objects that cause the strings to vibrate differently.
An experimental practice that originated with the addition of “registers” to 17th and 18th century harpsichords, the concept was most elaborately applied to pianos by 20th century composer John Cage. Prepared pianos have been used by numerous pop musicians — David Bowie, The Grateful Dead and Elton John, to name just a few.
Calling his version the “acousticizer,” Bob’s mutant raised hackles on the necks of some classicists in Cal State’s music department, but it made great copy for media organs like Keyboard Magazine and the L.A. Times.
Starting with a 200-year-old Viennese baby grand, Bob whittled the keyboard down to a more manageable 50 keys. He then attached washers, metal shavings and just about anything else that would resonate to the strings. Built-in speakers and a guitar pickup gave him volume and feedback capabilities, and in order to keep the entire structure from coming unglued during high-decibel use, Bob reinforced the framing with lag-bolts and covered the entire case with fiberglass.
What he had in the end was an instrument whose action could still be described in the mathematics of music but whose sound was altogether new and inventive.
Over the years since its completion, Bob has put the acousticizer to use in countless performances and has found it to be a valuable tool in his study of sound’s journey from noise to music.
Moreover, he has come to the conclusion that experimental instruments, drums and just plain noisemakers have enormously positive affects on us, either individually or in groups, because they don’t necessarily involve standards for performance or require familiarity or mastery of a rigid structure.
Improvisation, art & living
Listening to Bob talk about sound and music is a little like trying to hear every instrument’s part in a symphony. For him, sound and music are really only two parts in the greater overture of life that includes all other senses, emotions, and the interests and obsessions we pursue. He makes connections between sound and sight, lifestyle choices, desert vistas and philosophy as easily and sensibly as a violin takes over the melody from an organ in a Bach concerto.
For instance, Bob is a confirmed recycler. When an item in his reach outlives its original usefulness, he will employ it alternatively, and quite often for use as an experimental musical instrument. If it fails in this application, it will find its way into his other art work.
He ties his interest in sound and music, therefore, to the way he lives in his environment, observing that, “in the innovative use for things for practical application, music or art, we have opportunity to think creatively and this, in turn, moves us closer to living artistically and in a more peaceful rhythm with the world around us.”
Bob’s public pianos are an invitation for people to take a few minutes, sit down and improvise. If they know how to play, fine; but he hopes even those who don’t have any training will take the opportunity to just explore.
He put the instruments outdoors strictly to help reduce the sense of self-consciousness people might feel if they were playing in a closed environment.
“I really hope people will just express themselves spontaneously and have fun,” he said.
Every now and then he stops by to check the pianos’ tuning and, of course, can’t resist the urge to make a little noise himself. Although, in Bob’s case, the noise is pretty unmistakably musical, whether he’s playing jazz, classical or pop, or just letting go with a unique improvisation.
Anyone lucky enough to be passing by at the time will certainly find cause for stopping to listen when Piano Bob is making the piano sing. They better be prepared, though, for the piano player to stop what he’s doing and invite them to lend a hand. “Just do whatever feels right,” he’s likely to tell them. “Join in the music. Make a little noise.”