Inside Mark Stewart’s barn of wacky and beautiful

As Mark Stewart pedals, a helicopter-like structure of tubes spins above him and sets a chorus singing. He holds a mallet to strike a piece of metal hanging from the ceiling. And he starts to sing.

The bike-powered music-making machine, dubbed a WhirleyCopter, is among the many one-of-a-kind instruments that fill this carriage barn in the backyard of the North Adams home the artist shares with Karen Curlee, his wife.

Wind chime-like instruments made of found objects and bells hang from a ceiling in the barn. There is the stash of “LazySusanna-phones,” an instrument made from Lazy Susans, with various sound-making pieces on the surface.

A room on the barn’s first floor holds “the stacks,” as he calls them — a stash of materials for instrument-making, like tubes and rakes “waiting to be turned into ‘boingers’ of different sorts,” he said.

Musically, he’s all about things that go “boing” in the night.

This week at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Stewart will play some of the countless instruments he’s created as part of LOUD Weekend, three days of music from Mass MoCA and Bang on a Can. Stewart, founding member of Bang on a Can All-Stars, is leading the Orchestra of Original Instruments and playing in pieces like the weekend’s opening event, “Steel Hammer,” on Thursday.

“It tells the story of the John Henry legend in all its conflicting versions, and deconstructs the text,” Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon recently told The Eagle, speaking of the opening piece. “It features folk instruments mountain dulcimer, banjo, bones, and Mark Stewart, who’s a local hero, clogs.”

Stewart lives in North Adams and in Brooklyn, N.Y. He and Curlee co-founded SoundstewArt, a company that makes instruments, builds sound installations and leads workshops where “everyone is a musician.” The couple started coming to North Adams for Bang on a Can, and then Stewart curated “No Experience Required,” an exhibit at Mass MoCA showcasing instruments from Gunnar Schonbeck, the late Bennington College professor.

LOUD Weekend celebrates culmination of 20th year of the Bang on A Can Summer Music Festival at Mass MoCA

On a recent Friday afternoon, Stewart was in that gallery playing many instruments, from strumming the strings of one massive piece to fetching up the trumpeting of an elephant from a long plastic tube.

Audience members hummed on cue. Music is for everyone, he told the group.

That’s in contrast to his job as a guitarist and musical director for Paul Simon’s band. “I make my living playing remarkably exclusive music,” said Stewart, who has long toured with Simon and worked with big-name musicians, including Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.

“I spent a lot of time in a kind of rarefied environment. Here’s the stage, here’s the where the stage ends. This is where the audience begins. But my favorite kinds of music are inclusive — where those borders are blurred.”

‘Immediate delight’

The instrument he was playing at the Mass MoCA gallery, for example, is made from a piece of PVC pipe from the hardware store. “It just so happens that if you put a baritone saxophone mouthpiece on it, it makes a tremendous sound,” he said. “One of the things I delight in is making instruments that anyone can play. … And they immediately delight the player, no matter who it is, I can hand that horn to a 4-year-old and they will make a sound like a mastodon … they will make a sound like a huge creature. … I can hand it to people who have told themselves their whole lives that they are not musicians and they will prove otherwise very quickly.”

Stewart, 61, grew up in a music-filled home with musician parents. His family formed an ensemble that played gigs and used proceeds to pay for the children’s music lessons. “Mom brought home a guitar when I was nine, and I thought I thought my life is perfect,” he said.

In the 90s, Stewart was playing in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in New York City. After the performance, the musician Paul Simon approached him. “He called me the next day,” Stewart said. “I’ve been with him ever since.”

Though Stewart has long been playing music, he did not start designing and making his own instruments until he began touring with Simon decades ago. “That’s because when you’re on a pop tour, it’s really cushy,” Stewart said. He had to work hard in rehearsal and during shows, of course, but he otherwise found himself with an abundance of free time.

“So I just started working on different projects,” he said. He taught himself how to play the didgeridoo, a wind instrument from Australia.

“I discovered that every tube was a didg (didgeridoo) waiting to happen,” he said. “Then I just started looking at things — everything — as though it could be an instrument.”

Plastic tubing used for sump pump drains are not just for pumping water out of your basement. “If you cut them into sections and twirl them, they sing,” he said.

An old metal bed frame he found on the street in New York City hangs from the ceiling of the barn like an odd chandelier he strikes to make music. “It is a fantastic echo chamber,” he said, hitting the frame.

Circular blades once used to cut open New York City streets hang on his barn wall to be struck as gongs. And he loves to use Styrofoam to amplify sound. “Every time I see a fish box or an Omaha Steaks box,” he said, “I snag the thing.”

The NYC dumpster dive

Once when he and Curlee were dating, they were walking down the street in New York City. “There was this amazing dumpster in the Garment District filled with incredible cardboard tubes,” he recalled. “I still have some from that night. I say, ‘Babe, hold on one second.’ I leaped up and oh, right over the top, in I disappeared.”

At the time they were both working in a musical, “Show Boat.” He played in the pit orchestra and Curlee was on stage. You have a good job, she said, why are you jumping into dumpsters?

Well, Stewart likes to divert material from landfills. “I see it as patriotic behavior,” he said. But it’s more than that. “I like the way my brain works when I’m looking at garbage, something about, what is the potential? No one wants this, what could this be?”

A butter knife in the gutter of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for example, inspired him to create the Big Boing. The long table in the barn has 490 playable pieces on it, “boingers,” including a bobby pin, a nail file, a piece of a rake, a ruler, and, of course, a butter knife. Each one can be adjusted with a thumbscrew to change the pitch. It’s a descendant of the mbira, a thumb piano, he said.

man flicks objects attached to upright board with surprised look

In the barn behind musician Mark Stewart’s North Adams home, he plays an upright section of The Big Boing, a 24-foot-long version of an mbira, a thumb piano that originated in Zimbabwe. Stewart’s Big Boing, however, is made entirely from repurposed objects like nail files, bobby pins, butter knives, and an array of all manner of objects that can go ‘boing,’ spanning a distance that can fit up to 30 children playing at once. 

It only needs one person to play it, but can accommodate up to 30 children sitting at the table. He takes great joy in children playing the instruments in his barn. “All the neighborhood kids are welcome,” he said. “It’s a real romp room for sound making.”

Sometimes it’s not trash, like an abandoned butter knife, but necessity that sparks an idea. At one point, he wanted an acoustic instrument he could play on plane. “Oh! I’ll make an instrument with a stethoscope,” he thought. Thus he created the “microsonophone,” an instrument one can only hear wearing an attached stethoscope. Strumming a bow-shaped piece of wood with a few strings on it, wearing an attached stethoscope, he demonstrated one in action. “They’re wonderful because people have privacy,” Stewart said.

So many ideas, so little time

Not all his instruments are so subtle as the microsonophone. Two bike-powered pieces are on loan to an opera in San Diego, “The Aging Magician.” They are 10- and 14-feet-tall, bicycle-powered “Ferris wheels of spinning tubes,” as Stewart puts it.

One day, he hopes to make a bike-powered instrument that can roll down streets in parades. “My idea would be that the feet would power the spinning tubes, and the hands would do the locomotion. Because parades, you don’t have to go fast,” he said.

It’s one of his many ideas. “I have a codex I filled up of 1,000 pages of designs and drawings. I’ve only built about 100 pages out of it. … I’m never gonna get to all of them.”

People ask him if he will patent his designs, Stewart says, but he has no interest in that. “I’m not planning on suing anyone,” he said sitting in the bicycle seat of the WhirleyCopter. “Patents are overrated.” He even has a “recipe card” posted on his website with instructions to make a “chaladoo,” a wind instrument that uses a PVC pipe and a baritone saxophone mouthpiece.

barn filled with musical inventions

Surrounded by his invented instruments, musician Mark Stewart’s music barn behind his North Adams home is an organized chaos of fun, creativity and sound. 

In his barn, he played the Big Boing, striking the nail file and pieces of metal like keys on a piano and filling the room with sound. “Nail files are great,” he said after plucking one. “That’s a rake,” he said plucking another piece of metal, its sound reverberating as it moved. “Oh that’s a good one!”

He tries not to work too hard to find what sound a found item can produce — it’s usually near the surface, he said.

“Really what you do when you find something that’s going to make sound, you have to let it be the teacher. What does this thing do? … It’s going to do at least one thing perfectly. So my job is to find out what is that thing it does perfectly.”

He strummed a ruler attached to the Big Boing, which vibrated and made a deep tone. “These rulers are wonderful,” he said. “Every first grader knows that actually. Remember that when you put the ruler off your desk and you go ‘boing?’ Oh, that’s a good moment. I’ve just made a career out being a first grader with a desk.”

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