Len Solomon is the Dr. Seuss of DIY Instruments
The Oomphalapompatronium in action.
Leonard Solomon is a legend. He’s played Harvard Square, traveled to Japan, and most notably he's assembled some truly bizarre homemade instruments. One of his handcrafted pieces, the Bellowphone, has been described "look like something out of a Dr. Seuss story." Fusing the talents of a master craftsman with roots in country and folk, Solomon has been building, performing, and playing for 30 years. Dude is hardcore. He even wrote a book about life as a street performer. The book is filled with charming and inspiring stories (and includes a bit of dynamite).
And don't forget the Oomphalapompatronium (not to be confused with Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka), which is made from a wheel, pottery, tin cans, and water bottles, among other things, which actually do sound lovely when put together in a DIY instrument. More than just an eccentric, though, Solomon takes this stuff seriously (but not too seriously, thankfully).
He constructed the Majestic Bellowphone in his basement woodshop, creates instruments with found objects, and plays famous classical pieces with everything from bike horns to train whistles.The masterpiece, you ask? He's been building the Oomphalapompatronium for 15 years now, although wants to rebuild it to be it less clattery and “more sweetly-voiced,” as he puts it.
His stuff has been shown in museums—the Cuckoo Machine, for instance, is on display at a museum in Acton, MA—but he's probably best known for his one-man variety show. Oh and he juggles, too. Based in Concord, MA, he's roadtripped around Boston, Maine and Philadelphia (read on, you'll see it isn’t easy getting stuff like this on a plane).
Noisey: Folklore has it you were a guitarist who fell into cabinetmaking. Have I got that right?
Leonard: Well, I never really fell into cabinetmaking; it was more of a slow swan dive. I have been studying the mechanical arts, including woodworking and metalworking, since the age of four. I would rummage the basement for old wood, nails, and wire, which I would saw, hammer, and twist into "useful" items. I never stopped doing that, and I like to think that my skills have improved since I was four. At age 14, I also started practicing guitar for many hours a day. I learned ragtime fingerpicking styles from books of tablature.
During high school and college I was performing solo folk gigs, and after college I made a living for three years working full time as a rhythm guitarist and singer in a country-rock band. While still in college, I learned to build dulcimers in an industrial arts class, and during the summers, I would work in cabinetmaking shops, learning that trade. I was also taking classical guitar lessons at college, so the music and the building have always been concurrent.
After three years of rock-and-rolling with the band, I quit and spent 10 years as a cabinet-maker in a furniture shop. But of course, I began itching to perform again, so in 1983, at 33-years-old, I built my first honking one-man-band, the Majestic Bellowphone. I took to playing on the street, combining the musical numbers with a five-ball juggling routine. During my first weekend performing out in Harvard Square, I made more money than I was making in a week working at the cabinet shop, so the transition back to performing was easy.
The Cuckoo Machine and Wimshurst Electrostatic Machine.
Where do you get your materials from? I see some are recycled goods.
The Bellowphone is made of 93% materials I found or salvaged: metal pipes, cardboard tubes, springs, coat-hanger wire, sheet-metal from a toaster, vacuum-cleaner pieces, tin cans, plumbing parts. Seven percent is stuff I bought: playground balls, funnels, screws, kazoo, and nose-flute. The other instruments have a higher percentage of bought materials, but all the parts, including the organ pipes, are scratch-built from commonly available things from the hardware store.
I’m fascinated by the breadth of your instruments—from the Bellowphone to the Cuckoo Machine. Why is it important to keep a sense of humor about what you do? Something about it is very Fraggle Rock or even Willy Wonka.
A lot of people say the Bellowphone looks like something from out of a Dr. Seuss story. I'll be glad to give Dr. Seuss some credit, since I carefully studied all his books when I was a kid.
Leonard playing the Bellowphone.
How do you transport the Bellowphone? It doesn’t look like something you can stuff in a taxi to Japan.
No, unfortunately, the Bellowphone fights back if you try to take it anywhere. It takes about six minutes to take it apart and pack into its case, and about the same time to set it back up. That doesn't sound like much, until you have done it a few hundred times. Or, if you are performing outdoors, and it starts to rain. Or, after you have finished street-performing, when you have it half-disassembled already and someone comes by and says, "What does that thing do?" Most of the machine packs into a long box, leaving a wooden framework. These two pieces fit into my station wagon, but for flying anywhere, both pieces have to go into oversize road cases, and be shipped separately as freight, not luggage.
On the other hand, the little pipe organ, the Callioforte, folds up in 20 seconds, and it can be carried away like a suitcase. Designing and building it to do that, was my present to myself after I had been dealing with the Bellowphone for a few years. For flying, the Callioforte must also be shipped in a big road case, along with another case for the other parts of my act, so it's a lot of extra work to go do a show farther away than I can drive.
The Sectorless Machine.
What is the mighty Sectorless Machine? How does it have 300,000 volts?
This device (properly called a Bonetti machine) is a variation of the Wimshurst Machine, invented and developed in the late 1800s. It is in a class of electrostatic generators called "influence machines," which are capable of producing very high voltages, although at very low current. The jolt from one of these machines can be quite stunning, and they must be operated with due caution; they are the 19th century equivalent of a taser. I learned how to build them from an article written by Jake von Slatt, in Make magazine.
Oomhalo Pompatronium button keyboard.
Len Solomon's workshop overview.
Could you please explain the Mad Minstrel's alchemy laboratory? In the picture, it looks like you have a hamster chilling in the corner? Where do you even get those glass tubes anymore? Incredible.
The Mad Minstrel, when he's not declaiming poetry, performs experiments. For instance, he distilled a quantity of ordinary tap water into four equal amounts, collecting the water into four separate test tubes in succession. He then found that the distilled water in the test tubes will evaporate at different rates; fastest to slowest corresponding to the order in which they came over from the retort. He then draws mystical conclusions from these observations.
Those are field mice in the cage. They insisted on coming to live in my house, so I prepared suitable quarters and installed them there, rather than having them perpetually raiding my boxes of cereal.
As for the future, what are you looking forward to the most? What do you have upcoming next?
I want to finish building the Oomphalapompatronium (I've been saying that for 15 years now). Even more, I'm looking forward to some inventor figuring out anti-gravity. I've always wished I could fly.
This guy rules.
Nadja lives in Berlin and she's on Twitter - @nadjasayej.