I got lucky with the sibling gene pool. I have a sister and a brother. I’m the oldest sibling. My sister Ellen O’Brien is next in line. She is a professor at Roosevelt University. She wrote this fascinating book, she has another on the way, and she is by far one of the smartest humans I know. She challenges me, indulges and educates me in every conversation we have, especially on English and Irish literature, feminism, and nefarious topics like terrorism and murder. She has certainly kept me in my rightful place since the day she was born. In the coming year, we will collaborate on a piece with verse of her choosing from her studies of Victorian crime verse, and I hope in particular, broadside ballads. I cannot wait to get started. I will talk more about my sister and our collaboration in future posts. For now, because a sound sculpture of his will be featured on my recital in March, I will move on to the other sibling, the youngest one, my brother Michael O’Brien.
Seems like it has only been a few years since that bicentennial baby boy peered up at me from his playpen (see photo below for proof,) but on March 29th, 2016 it will be precisely forty years. Despite the fact he is eight years younger than I am, Michael was one of the guiding forces who gave me the courage to leave teaching and pursue music composition. Michael has been a fearless artist since he was in high school, and his work these days is just extraordinary. These days Michael mainly works in bronze, and his abstract, clever, and humorous water pieces are among my favorites. Today he sent me a sketch of a new work in progress of which he has given kind permission for me to share on this blog post (seen above.) It’s stunning in new and unexpected ways. The narrative is his most perfectly encapsulated gem to date. I am also moved because of the "blood harmony" (a phrase taken from country singer Vince Gill who talks about the quality of harmony when singing with his family members) Michael and I sometimes talk about. He and I both work in similar nested forms, and we often speak in shorthand when we talk to each other about our work, make jokes, or what have you. So, when I saw the sketch of this piece and described to him what I see see in the final product from several angles, he said, "that's it exactly!" That's always fun for me. I cannot wait to see it in person. While we wait for it, though, let's go here to see some of his other work. There is always more on the way, and if you’re interested in buying, let me know. He is definitely selling!
About six or seven years ago, Michael was working at a bronze foundry in Texas. He cast bronze for other artists, and worked on his own projects and sold his sculptures in his spare time. I should mention that Michael has a great ear, too. He’s a natural musician, studied voice starting at about age 11, and has sung in several choirs, sacred and secular. He learned to play bass guitar and string bass very quickly, and he's even made his own washtub basses which sound really good. Michael is an all around intrepid experimenter with sound and building things. The reason I mention Michael's musical ear and curious nature is because the sculpture on my recital is something he discovered because of both while he was working at the bronze foundry.
The sound sculpture is sitting on a resonant walnut pedestal with differently sized holes to resemble worm wood holes, and it sounds like a miniature set of gongs. The top piece is made of stainless steel. The stainless steel portion was a victim of what Michael informed me is called a “short pour.” Molten stainless steel gets poured into a ceramic mold. If the steel isn’t hot enough at the time of pouring, the metal freezes before it can fill the entire ceramic mold, hence, what is known as a short pour. A day or so after the failed piece cooled, someone accidentally knocked it onto the foundry’s concrete floor. My brother heard it, thought it sounded amazing, and decided to use the stainless steel piece for a sound sculpture. This happy accident, in addition to Michael's ear and curiosity is how the gorgeous sculpture came to life! I’ve decided to call Michael’s piece Gong Tree. If you look at the Gong Tree’s slightly more intentionally created step-cousin, the bell tree, you can see why “tree” is a good way to describe Michael’s piece. Also interesting to note, and using foundry-speak, the stainless steel piece is called a “sprue tree.” A sprue is the channel through which metal is poured into a mold. It acts as an attachment system used in investment casting. Investment casting is the technique for making small, accurate castings with metal alloys using a mold formed around a pattern of wax, or in this case ceramic, which is then removed by melting.
The next phase of life for the Gong Tree was to find the best implements to strike the thing. I finally found the perfect brass glockenspiel mallets to get it to sing properly. For my piece using the sculpture I chose to use both direct strikes and glissandi on the Gong Tree and, pair that with glissandi inside of and along the keys of my antique Michelsonne 37-key toy piano, played by Mabel Kwan. Together they sound a bit like a miniature celeste and a miniature set of gongs. Add that to bass flute played by Shanna Gutierrez, and you’ll be hearing some watery magical goodness. I’m not going say this piece pretty much writes itself, but, well, ok, it sort of does, thanks to Michael.
Brother Michael, thank you for the inspiration and my Gong Tree. I am one lucky sister!