When scratch culture meets the strings.
Walter Kitundu live in New Zealand
A wet dream for DJs who want to play in a live band without leaving the wheels of steel, California musician and instrument builder Walter Kitundu has built a family of "Phonoharps"—stringed instruments made from hacked record players.
It all began when the Bay Area artist started hitting his record player with chopsticks. Instead of stopping there, the first Phonoharp was built with 26 strings in 2001. From there, the instruments began to multiply. One Phonoharp is built from a rare Technics 1200 turntable, while others have been made into a wind-powered turntable and a fire-powered turntable which runs on 80 candles. If that wasn’t enough, the stylus glove is a claw with a record needle on each finger, which can scratch four parts of a record at once.
The scratch breaks drew Kitundu into 1990s hip-hop. Kidundu, who has an exhibition at the Bolinas Museum, reveals his love for music history and the influence of Malian Kora.
Noisey: At what point did you realize you wanted to bring together strings and a record player?
Walter Kitundu: I had been DJing for a few years and performing in live bands. I wanted to create sounds in the moment in addition to using the recorded ones locked in the surface of records. This led to playing the turntable percussively (by turning the volume up and hitting it with chopsticks) and eventually I discovered that it would amplify notes as well as percussive sounds. This is what let me to create a family of Stylophones, stringed instruments which directly resonate the stylus. That led to the realization that I could build record players with the strings built right in, and the Phonoharp was born.
I understand the turntable was your first instrument. What does it symbolize? How much has it changed in the collective unconscious?
This is a tough question. It means different things to different people. For me, it meant a link to history. Deep history in the sense that it was a physical mechanical process of creating sound, as in the gramophone and Victrola, and immediate history in that people were using it to create new forms and re-contextualize sounds in hip-hop.
How difficult was it to cut open your Technics 1200 and build a new instrument from it?
It would have been tougher if I wasn't riding a wave of momentum from instruments that I'd just built that were urging me to continue. I felt like it was the next logical step. Destroying that Technics turntable to create a new instrument turned out to be a wonderful decision. Nowadays, they've been discontinued and are becoming rare, so I'd think twice... but I'd still do it.
How important is the scratch to you, both in what it represents historically and its sound?
For me, scratching was the signature of hip-hop. It was the sound that made me curious and drew me into the music. I always focused on the scratch breaks and made mix-tapes full of them. DJs were the navigators that led me through the music and when I had a chance to look behind the curtain and find out how it was done, I took it. That was my official introduction to the turntable in 1991.
Where does your experience come from with stringed instruments? I see you’re using drum sticks? But correct me if I’m wrong.
My experience with stringed instruments came from the same place my experience with music, electronics, woodworking, and performing came from, a need to try things for myself. I've had no formal training in these fields but I've slowly developed a vocabulary based on experience and inspiration. Malian Kora master Toumani Diabate was a great influence from afar. I've had a great deal of support from musicians and builders like Douglas Ewart, Carei Thomas, Meshell Ndegeocello, David Harrington, and others. They encouraged and informed my direction and affirmed my decision to do the work I was compelled to do. That has led to some wonderful things.
How do the several elements work together—the record player, the strings, scratching and the loop playback?When you pluck the strings the vibration is passed through the record and picked up by the needle. Instead of the vibrations being released by the record's rotation, the vinyl is used as a direct physical medium through which the sound travels. This works beautifully for the lower frequencies but less so for the high ones, so I often add a pick-up microphone to capture the higher notes too. The strings can be plucked, muted, fretted, bowed, struck... and the case itself acts as a percussive instrument, along with the turntable which can be played as a drum in addition to playing records. I use a loop station to build compositions in the moment, responding to each layer as if I was another member of the band. It helps you discover what you are capable of and shines a light on what the instrument can do, too.
How did you decide on the design? Was it purely practical? Why did you decide on blue?
The design was informed by practical matters like the size of the turntable and the length of my arms, but the shape and style was an aesthetic decision. I just grabbed a piece of wood and drew a shape on it that felt good and went from there. The process is deeply organic and improvisatory. It mirrors building a composition. Once done, I tightened up the strings to a nice open tuning based on where each string seemed to sound the best, and then got out the tuner and wrote down the notes. That's when I learned what the nature of the instrument would be, it wasn't pre-planned. Then I had to sit down and learn how to play the thing. The blue color was available from the local store and I took a chance on it. I wish I still had that stain as it's been discontinued.
It seems awfully close (but unique from) the PhonoSarangi and the Nautilus Harp. Did this instrument influence the production of others you made after?
Certainly it did. That instrument and I travelled the world and there were so many things about it that I haven't been able to replicate in others. It taught me a great deal and I tried to apply some of those lessons to instruments that came later.
It sold in 2006. Why did the buyer want it? Will you build another one? Could you manufacture them?
It was sold from a gallery exhibition. The collector was looking for a work of art, a sculpture, and it resonated him. I can't speak to his motivations more than that other than to mention that he is a really nice guy and has always told me I can have access to it whenever I'd like. I have built others like it including one just last year... but that one is mine. I'm not too interested in manufacturing them. I'm happy to talk to anyone who wants to make something similar for themselves. You learn a lot from building your own instruments and the idiosyncrasies don't have to be ironed out because they just give it personality.
How much would this sell for today, if you could say?
I have no idea what the market would decide. If I built a new one for a collector or a musician, perhaps $8,000 to 12,000. It really depends on the nature of the instrument, materials, timeline and other factors.
What are you working on now, instruments or otherwise?
I've just installed a kinetic photography exhibition at the Bolinas Museum and a turntable-based kinetic sculpture of a bird at the Oakland Museum. I'm looking forward to learning about the art scene in Chicago next year. Apart from that, I'm doing some traveling, writing, and nurturing an obsession with motorcycles and long distance travel.
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