In celebration of Ursinus College’s 150th Anniversary, the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art presented a truly unique auditory experience: Douglas Henderson’s Music for 150 Carpenters. The site-specific, live performance piece held in October was made in collaboration with professional and regional carpenters, local artists, museum professionals and Ursinus faculty, staff, alumni and students as a symbolic tribute to the many hands that helped build Ursinus. This is one carpenter’s firsthand account.
What are the sounds of 150 hammers banging, 150 bags of nails jangling and 150 lunchboxes clanging?
No, I’m not composing a nursery rhyme or a Christmas ditty for a construction crew. I’m just writing a piece about performing a piece called Music for 150 Carpenters.
Seven score and 10 of us christened the stereophonic sound happening in October at the Berman Museum of Art as a celebration of the college’s 150th anniversary and the Berman’s 30th. Our workshop orchestra rattled, clobbered and even crunched, simulating everything from rain tattooing a tin roof to feet stampeding bleachers.
Charlie Stainback, the Berman Museum director—who retired on Feb. 28, making this opus a grand finale to his Ursinus career—booked Music for 150 Carpenters to stretch his mission to invigorate the senses. A drywall specialist during his graduate-school days, he envisioned the composition as a splashy sonic supplement to the museum’s envelope-ripping shows showcasing copies of the backs of famous paintings and glass jars of paints mapping buildings on the Washington Mall. He discovered the musical installation from a colleague who hosted a 100-carpenters performance in 2009 at a Brooklyn arts space with a massive boiler.
Back then, composer Douglas Henderson was living in New York City, earning most of his money by running a company that renovated brownstones and lofts. He created the carpentry piece partly to honor his “tool-bag years,” a period illustrated in a same-name Berman exhibition of playful drawings by David Scher, Henderson’s former construction comrade.
I interviewed Henderson the day before the Oct. 26 concert, when the Berman resembled a construction site. We discussed his meticulous process of recording—the sounds of wind-gusted leaves; subdividing sounds into pitches, pulses and grains; and layering them in “cloud masses” that challenge conventions of hearing music made by humans and elements.
An American living in Berlin, he noted that he constructs scores to be seen, as well as heard. The 100- and 150-carpenter works were videotaped from above and projected on the floor after their performances, accompanied by a multichannel soundtrack and leftover hammers, tool bags and sawhorses. Immersing yourself in the floor video, said Henderson, “is like walking on your head in a swimming pool.”
Henderson then introduced me to Scher, who was drawing construction characters on sheets of paper on both sides of a wall. I asked him what sort of sounds I would be summoning with my 149 carpenter colleagues. Prepare yourself, he said, to be in a beehive of “metallic wasps.”
Everyone signed up for Music for 150 Carpenters for an injection of unique fun. Charlie Jamison, the college’s special collections librarian and the first carpenter recruited, had the extra incentive of hammering with his daughter, Katie. Aidsand “Ace” Wright-Riggins, onetime trombonist and drummer, looked forward to performing in the kind of diverse community he advocates as Collegeville’s mayor.
And me? I was hired solely for my skills as a wordsmith. I’m exceedingly messy with a hammer, although I nail equally well—and badly—with either hand. I’m better at arranging pictures than hanging them, and much, much better at chopping wood than nailing it.
An afternoon rehearsal made me feel less like a carpentry greenhorn. We set up shop in 20 rectangular spaces arranged around rectangular audience areas in the Berman’s main gallery, two carpenters to a sawhorse topped by a wood block suitable for nailing. Our band included geologists Eric Jacobsen and Gil Marshall; Emily Artinan, an artist who runs a Chester County arts space she founded; and Heather Lobban-Viravong, vice president for college and community engagement.
We were conducted by “head carpenter” Kate Teale, wife of the composer’s brother, David Henderson. Tall, cheerful and very English, she reminded me of my late English mother and my mom’s late English best friend, both of whom were handier with hammers than me.