Interview with Neil Feather

You’ve described your work as an instrument maker and sound mechanic as a reaction against the “robot revolution.” What is the “robot revolution,” and should we be concerned?
NF: I am concerned about what we are collectively willing to trade for convenience, speed and gratification. We do everything on our smart phone despite the non-experience that is the smart phone. We have all our stuff in a “cloud” and pay rent on our own information. It is no longer important to remember things but we are so dependent on our devices that we are hybrid cyber-humans. Brain memory is important to historical perspective and to personal identity.

I am no Luddite. I enjoy the breadth of entertainment and information on the Internet. I use tiny devices that work well. However, we depend on an extremely vulnerable infrastructure. Capitalism favors homogeneity over diversity. People will continue to find new ways to be wonderful and/or horrible.

I fear that we are seeking to replace each other with robots that have no soul or personal needs or rights. We have a fantasy of robot slaves that will outlive our own necessity. We spend our time clicking on things so algorithms can better control/predict our behavior. Artificial intelligence will find the fastest way to hoist our own petard. The best part is – no one is responsible (ironic statement).

To quote the great Stevie Wonder, “If you believe in things you don’t understand, then you’ll suffer.”

Describe your workspace in Baltimore. Do you have a favorite poster on the wall or other decoration to remind you why you do what you do? Tell us about it.
NF: When I was young I saw a photo of Alexander Calder’s studio, a barn crowded with funny shapes and wires and machines. I hoped for that. I have a big room in an industrial park with 10 ft. interior walls and a 25 ft. ceiling. It is full of instruments and machines and tools and parts and leftover pieces. A LOT of the things are round. There are many bowling balls and tripods. It is not too comfortable but there is a coffee maker and a good reading chair. There are no decorations or Wi-Fi. I seldom listen to recorded music unless I’m editing.

How did you become involved in the production of Ballet X’s Sunset, o639 Hours?
NF: Rosie Langabeer, my friend and collaborator told me about her project with Matthew Neenan and the aviation story. The sounds of some of my instruments seem a perfect fit for a ghost airplane. Engine sounds have always excited me and many of my instruments use principles of engine design. Watching this ballet develop was a treat and a real learning experience.

What has been unique about working with BalletX and The Sunset Club, the band performing the music, compared to other projects you’ve worked on?
Rosie did an amazing job of composing for my instruments not to mention the rest of the ballet. I am responsible merely for wrangling the Magnapooters and Anaplumb that act as a chaos engine for the production. This a very complex and professional production. Most of all, working with Rosie, Matthew and the whole company is wonderful. The dancers and musicians are amazing.

The mechanical nature of your instruments seem perfectly suited for representing the technology aesthetic of the 1930’s era airplane in Sunset, o639 Hours.  Besides your instruments, what other old-fashioned technologies do you embrace in your life?
NF: I have a watch that belonged to my Dad that is self-winding and I love that it runs on spring power. I make objects for a living. I cook. I read books.

I have a project with Rosie Langabeer playing real theater organs. It was inspired by Chuck Arnao, former board president of Ballet X, who invited us to play the Dickenson Organ, the largest working theater organ in the world. We are also grateful to the Friends of the Wanamaker for their generous hospitality and access to their Wurlitzer theater organ in Macy’s, home of the Wanamaker Organ, world’s largest pipe organ.

Clearly your instruments are wonderful to look at, and sound amazing. What do they feel like to play? Do you think about the tactile user experience when designing them?
NF: My instruments are designed to be sensitive to the touch of the hand and reward play and exploration with endless interesting fun. Sensuality and irreproducible results are important elements. I want to make possible music that has never been heard before.

The instruments start with a question: What would it sound like if a certain physical event happened? So the first sound is unknown until I build the thing. After that is a long process of engineering for musicality, ergonomics, visual impact, reliability, safety, portability, etc.

There seems to be a high level of humor and mischief in your instruments. However, some of them create mechanical drones perfect for meditation. Do you think of yourself as more of a mischievous prankster or spiritual adviser? Can you think of a time when you really tricked or hypnotized an audience with one of your instruments?
NF: It seems to me that pranksters and spiritual advisors are pretty much the same thing. When I make myself laugh I have reached the right level of immediacy and complexity and absurdity. I am better at making people laugh than making them cry. Both skills are powerful and important.

Early on, it would worry me when there was a long pause after I finished a set. Then came the clapping. I came to understand that when I take the audience on a journey and land them just right they will want to stay there for a little before coming back to the seats and the room and the clock on the wall. The clapping is pretty great too.

I hear you’re a fan of monster movies. Assuming you’ve seen the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie Ed Wood, do you agree with the comments of Bela Legosi’s character in the movie about Boris Karloff? Essentially, the Legosi character claims Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein only requires putting on makeup and making grunting sounds, compared to Legosi’s portrayal of Dracula, which he said, “requires presence. It’s all in the eyes, and the voice, and the hands…”
NF: Frankenstien’s monster is a sympathetic character that squares with my take on technology. Dracula is a cursed aristocrat. Karloff and Legosi are both great and actually respected each other. My favorite might be Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Lon Chaneys Sr and Jr. and Vincent Price are also favorites.

What’s your next big project or dream instrument?
NF: I have a one-man show this summer at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. A large installation will be interactive and facilitate performances of my opera, The Music Myth. The Music Myth is a ham-fisted allegory about the origin of music and the nature of time itself. I am working on this in my studio with a full “orchestra” of my own instruments.