Tools of the Trade By Geoff Gehman

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.

Sure enough, my rehearsal hammering was as rusty as a rusty nail. I bent nails every which way from Sunday. My sloppy ferocity kept yanking the sawhorse I shared with Marshall, also a big banger. I did much better shaking small and large nails in bags and a tool apron, biting an apple stored in a lunchbox and dropping the lunchbox to the floor on command.

I did even better at imagining creative sounds. Rustling small nails reminded me of the sloshing droning of a didgeridoo, Australia’s national indigenous wind instrument.

My comparison was endorsed by Australian natives Franco Serafin and Juliette Knight, whose daughter, Ruby Serafin ’20, starred in one of Ursinus’s other signature anniversary events, The Complete History of Ursinus College [Abridged], an original play written by Professor of Theater Domenick Scudera and staged just weeks before Music for 150 Carpenters. The play was featured in the fall 2019 edition of Ursinus Magazine.

Other carpenters imagined even more imaginative sounds. Shaking nails reminded Jamison of ocean wind whipped up by an approaching storm. Fortified by a buffet supper, we returned two hours later for the performance proper. Henderson advised us to synchronize our first apple bites for a louder, tarter crunch, and not synchronize our hammering for more spontaneous, more sympathetic noises. He advised listeners to close their eyes, the better to see aural cloud maps.

This piece doesn’t exist in my imagination,” he explained. “It doesn’t exist in a computer. It exists here, now.”

After an opening silence, Teale and her 19 fellow conductors began following color-coded sheets that told them when to start, stop and pace our cacophonies. This time the rustling of small nails reminded me of jingle bells while the rattling of big nails conjured sheets of rain rat-tat-tatting tin roofs. When we hammered group by group, creating sonic waves that circuited through the two rooms, we invoked a locomotive cutting through a herd of thundering elephants. Inside this stereophonic jungle I began to understand what Henderson means when he says he sculpts sounds while “discovering and charting a territory of the extra-imaginary.”

Ursinus “carpenters” shake bags of nails to create sound during Music for 150 Carpenters.

Henderson thought we all nailed it. “I’m exceedingly happy,” said the cheerful, tired composer. “This was the bomb, absolutely.”

During a post-show reception, I circled back to Zuzana Mlcak-Rehm ’85. She and her mother, Ava, a fellow carpenter, put a universal spin on our extravagant experience.

Zuzana: “It was a workout on the forearms.”

Ava: “It was hard work, actually. It was also sort of fun. You know, I was the general contractor for two of my houses, so carpentry is close to my heart.”

Zuzana: “Carpentry is the foundation of history.”

I drove home that night with a touch of carpenter’s wrist(s) and slight ringing in my left ear. But I was buzzing with good vibes.

Editor’s note: After the live performance, the remnants of 150 hammers, 75 sawhorses and some 10,000 nails remained as part of an exhibition with an audiovisual recording projected on the gallery floor to form a final, immersive installation on view from November to March.

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