David Kontak might be your next-door neighbor. His modest little home, tucked away on a sleepy cul-de-sac in south Concord, looks like a typical suburban settlement. Looking at it, you might think it holds a nice family with a dog that greets you at the door and paintings on the refrigerator from their kid's art class. And you'd be right. Hang around long enough, though, and you'll start to get suspicious. What's with the strange noises and lights coming from the basement?
No need to get all Tom Hanks in "The Burbs" and start prying around, because the world is about to see what's been going on in his cellar laboratory. Kontak makes experimental musical instruments down there, and you've never seen anything like them.
"This experimental stuff is pretty unique," Kontak said. "No one else is doing this."
Kontak cobbles together some pretty crazy music machines in that basement lab. Think Dr. Frankenstein meets Brian Eno. He's fused instrument parts, household appliances and children's toys into an army of hybrid sound - soldiers standing at the ready for another foray to the frontlines of ambient noise jam.
"I want people to have a reaction of 'What a strange idea! How did he come up with that?' " said Kontak. "A lot of people play experimental music on traditional instruments. When you play with experimental instruments, people's expectations are going to be skewed."
Kontak started redesigning musical instruments 20 years ago as a young jazzman playing bass. Fed up with getting a sore back and shoulder while awkwardly twisting his body around his axe, he started cutting up his bass guitars and making them more ergonomic and user-friendly.
That was the seminal moment in his musical and professional careers. These days, Kontak is the director of Assistive Technology at Greenfield's Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, a job that goes hand in hand with his musical creativity. Kontak said he often uses some of his more traditional redesigned instruments during his day job in occupational therapy.
"The mentality is really the same," said Kontak, "whether it's helping a kid with disabilities or making crazy sounds, it all comes from the same place. It's just being open to the idea that noise can be fun."
Take one part PVC pipes, two parts guitar (strings and pickups), add amplification and stir with battery-operated hand fans, and you've got a prototypical Kontak noisemaker. Many of his creations involve machinery or appliances as part of the musical process.
"Machines create really interesting sounds that aren't bound by human cliches," said Kontak. "They create patterns, but the patterns are ever-changing and organic. When a lot of musicians improvise, they have a lot of pet notes and cliches that they play randomly. I like to take those decisions out of my hands. It's like Jackson Pollack throwing paint on a canvas. He didn't try to control where it landed. I like to let myself splash like that."
When Kontak assembles his music machines onstage for a sound exploration journey, it's almost pure improv.
"There will be a sequence of events I throw into motion," said Kontak, "but after that it's all very loose."
There might not be enough onomatopoeias in the world to describe the sounds that emanate from Kontak's creations. They stretch the limits of auditory imagination, expanding and contracting like the coils of his amplified Slinky as they whoosh-bang, whoosh-bang, crrrrrrrrrrrreak or ziggada ziggada ziggada. A rosin bow might draw across a tightening spring just . . . so! The right amount of water in an amplified metal bowl, given the right tap . . . there! Or a child's toy keyboard, with a modified humbucker hovering above, tweaked . . . now! (next page »)