Experimental Musical Instruments - a Fringe Scene

(photo © Sara Anke Morris)


In the early 2000s, Yuri Landman started developing and making experimental musical instruments. His most famous creation are third bridge zithers for which he quickly gained international acclaim. Landman made special instruments for among others, dEUS, Half Japanese, HEALTH, Liars, The Veils, Liam Finn, Lou Barlow and Thurston Moore. In addition to the third bridge zithers he also works with steel percussion, long strings, amped PET bottles and hard disk drives together with effect pedals and motorized installations to create rhythmic structures.


Why did you start making instruments yourself?

“All my third bridge zithers that work according to the principle of overtone resonance, can be traced back to fever dreams from my early childhood. I would hallucinate about a large dark void, accompanied by a specific pulsating spectral drone. A few years ago I discovered that ‘the void’ is phase three on the scale of near-death experiences. I recognized that sound in the album ‘Pornography’ by The Cure and even more clearly on the first albums of Sonic Youth who worked a lot with prepared guitars in their early years. “

What is the first instrument that you have build yourself?

“I made my first instrument in 2001. Cees van Appeldoorn — from the band Zoppo I was playing in at that time — brought a CD from New York from a street musician he had met, Bradford Reed. The booklet contained photographs of an unpolished experimental musical instrument, which Reed called the Pencilina.

Bradford Reed with his Pencilina

The instrument functioned in the same way that was developed by Harry Partch and further popularized by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth: sticks under strings that would enhance the sound with harmonic overtones.

Harry Partch with his Instruments

I understood that physical principle and applied it for years while playing guitar but guitar is less suitable for this technique. After seeing Pencilina, I decided that I could make something like that and destroyed my Ibanez for the spare parts. My first instrument was kind of a wooden block of 50 by 70 centimetres with strings attached to it. Under the strings, it had small old-fashioned curtain rails with hooks that could pluck the strings. However, the instrument failed on the tuners. It sounded nice but it was impossible to tune it accurately. Finally, in 2006, after trying several versions I designed the Moodswinger which is in fact the same instrument.”


In your performances your instrumentarium extends almost to sound installations. Do you consider the visual aspect of home-made instruments important?

“I have always focuses on the visual aspect. At first, I was a comic artist and then a graphic designer. In the instrument design, visual art comes together with music through design. When I started designing instruments for bands, I wanted to give them a striking appearance.

Instruments (from left to right) for Blood Red Shoes, Jad Fair, Lee Ranaldo and Liars, 2006–2008

In 2009, I started with the development of DIY workshops and I actually drifted away from the visual aesthetics. ‘Fast design’ and ‘form follows function’ (the axiom of late nineteenth-century architect Louis Sullivan: functionality comes first, rm), as well as the costs of the material dominated the design. “

DIY workshop collection for MOTA, Ljubljana, 2015

“I started to perform more around 2010. I noticed that I worked a lot on my table and I do not think it looks good on stage. I hate laptop artists and actually find keyboard players already boring to look at. My music is, although strongly rhythmic, more listening music than dance music. I am not a dancer either, even less so on stage. Therefore, I decided to make instruments that were more spacious and that moved on their own. That is how the instruments helped me in the stage dynamics. “

“The sound installations are a more recent development. The motivation for them is actually purely commercial. I discovered that other sound artists were at certain festivals and that my instruments would not fit well in that setting. It had to be more like an exhibition instead of a tool that the musician can play. And so I came up with the helicopters, which I am currently working on.”


If other musicians ask you to build an instrument for them, what exactly do they ask of you?

“I designed instruments for other artists between 2006 and 2009 which was actually for publicity reasons. I watched a guitarist’s playing technique and based on that observation and the wishes they formulated, I made an instrument that went beyond what a musician could accomplish on a guitar. In practice, it turned out to be quite disappointing. Those guitarists have become big by playing instruments with six strings and could excel in these conditions. An alternative, which involved enhancing an instrument, proved useless in almost all cases. Every now and then someone would use it in the studio for a backing track but I think my work does not suit rock guitarists. Exceptionally, I am going to do something for Preoccupations in 2018. However, that is a copy of an existing design and the group already uses other instruments in the studio which were made by me.”

Are there many makers of alternative instruments?

“It depends a bit on what you consider to be alternative instruments. Some people find a modular synthesizer alternative, whereas for me it is an existing system and nowadays almost a cliché. I get a bit tired of those spaghetti-pullers that eventually make music that is far away from my taste. In the end, I think I get more excited about rock and noise than bleeps.”

“When it comes to string instruments, I know one person who makes them for the market as his profession although I believe he may have already stopped. I myself have put this activity into a form of education and that works well. At educational level I only know Derek Holzer whose approach I can compare to mine. He mainly does electronic synth-based workshops and I do workshops on strings and fortified steel percussion. We complement each other nicely and share contacts from time to time. There are other workshop artists but they are smaller and often more active regionally.”


“There are many sound artists around the world. Most would focus on installations because that is the best market. It is a strongly subsidized field of work (in Europe, yl), quite invisible to the mass audiences but operating very internationally. With the rise of Arduino, Raspberry Pi and similar hardware, you can see a kind of explosion of kinetic or sensor oriented art of which often the sound is part. Often the artist is also part of the performance. You could call such an installation a musical instrument. The best known example is probably Godfried-Willem Raes who conducts his automatic orchestra naked.”

“If you take the definition more strictly and state that the musician/maker himself plays the instrument, such as a violin or guitar, there are maybe twenty or thirty who do this on tours. There are a lot of handymen but I do not see many of those artists at the level of, for example, Thomas Truax, or Pierre Bastien or Neptune. Then you are rather talking over 20 than over 100.”



Can you tell us how the field of ‘alternative instrument makers’ has developed? What is your ‘context’?

“The history of instrument makers is as old as people making music with objects. The oldest flutes date from 25,000 BC off the top of my head.

Paleolithic Flutes

I would start the history of what we now call an experimental musical instrument around 1900, with Luigi Russolo, who built his Intonarumori. He was the first that regarded his instrumentarium part of the art form. Before that you had Adolphe Sax but he was a craftsman who developed his instrument from the clarinet. He was interested in the sound and playing possibilities, not in the instrument as an art form.”

Russolo and Piatti with the Intonarumori

“Since Russolo a lot has been invented, especially due to the rise of electricity and the possibility to produce and develop electronic sound generators — synthesizers, electromagnetic devices, amplification, tape recorders, microphones and electric guitars — and hybrids in the form of effects equipment. With the advent of the computer, you see a lot of development in digital culture and a rise of sensor oriented art.”

There are artists whose self-made instruments mostly come across as a gimmick. How do you as an artist prevent it from just being a fun joke?

“I share your opinion. Usually you recognize such gimmick artists quickly because of the cheerful party tunes performed out of their home-made fish yarn banjo. Good for the general public as entertainment. I strongly doubt that my work will soon be booked at parties because of the cheerful notes that I bring out. My music is fast-cleansing where it comes to the desire for entertainment. I have been doing this for seventeen years now, so people are gradually starting to recognize what it is. It will always be for a niche audience and I find that, now that it works well enough, actually pleasant. At a healthy distance from the ‘music industry’.”

This interview with Yuri Landman by Robert Muis, originally appeared in Dutch in Gonzo (Circus) magazine #142. This interview can be read in Dutch on http://www.gonzocircus.com/interview-yuri-landman

Translation: Yuri Landman & Anna Drozd