Bones are one of the oldest materials used to create musical instruments. Currently, the world’s oldest known instruments are flutes made out of bones (Turk, Turk, and Otte 11). In fact, bones have been used to create or enhance musical instruments in a variety of settings throughout history and in modern day instrument making. Bone bull roarers, jaw bone percussion, clappers, trumpets, drum shells, lyres, or construction parts, such as frets, plectrums, pipes and pipe fittings, embouchure adjustments, or percussive strikes are just a few of the more common uses of bones in musical instrument construction. One man even made a guitar out of the skeleton of his dead uncle to memorialise the person who influenced his musical tastes and career (Bienstock). Bones can therefore be taken as a somewhat common material for making musical instruments.
All of these instruments share a common trait, and not just the obvious one that they are all made out of or incorporate bones. None of these instruments are intended to represent something monstrous. Instead, they represent the ephemeral nature of humanity (Cupchik 33), a celebration of lineage or religious beliefs (Davis), or simply are the materials available or suitable to create a sound-making device (Regan). It is not possible to know the full intentions of a maker, in many cases, but a link to monstrosity and a representation of the ‘horrific’ or ‘freakish’ seems missing for the most. There are instruments, however, that do house this sentiment and some that utilise bones in the construction with the purpose of making this connection between the remains and something beast-like. In this article, I argue that the Bone Guitar Thing (BGT) built and played by raxil4 is one of those instruments.
Introducing the 'Thing'
Raxil4 is the stage name of sonic artist Andrew Page. He has been playing his Bone Guitar Thing for almost twenty years in a variety of settings (Page, email interview, 25 June 2021). The instrument has undergone slight changes during that time, but primarily it has retained its specific visual, timbral, and underlying associative features. The BGT is complex, more so than it may seem at first. By investigating the materials used, the performance techniques employed, and raxil4’s intentions as a musician, instrument maker, and community member within his circles of activity, the monstrous nature of the BGT comes to light. The resultant series of entanglements exhibits and supports a definition of what is a 'monster' that, like several definitions in monster theory discourse (Levina and Bui 6; Cohen 7; Mittman 51), includes challenging that which may be seen as ‘normal’ and thereby may nurture levels of unease or fear. However, in the case of the BGT, that which is monstrous is simultaneously being taken as something positive alongside its beast-like characteristics, and rather than evolving into something that needs to be repressed or eliminated, the ’monster’ here becomes a hero or champion, colleague, or even a friend.
The Bone Guitar Thing is not really a guitar. It is a zither with a piece of driftwood for a base, (currently) five strings, and an electric pick-up (see Fig. 1). The bridge for the instrument is two bones, and the pitch and timbre of the strings is sometimes changed with bones used for Cage-like preparation (Cage 7-8; Bunger). Bones are also used to play the instrument, sometimes like a plectrum, others like a hammered dulcimer, or occasionally, simply pounding the string or the soundboard with great force to make a combination of percussive and string sounds. Glissandos are created by using the plectrum bones as a slide, and Page also uses jaw bones to introduce ratchet sounds, string scraping, and precise pitch bending (with the sharper edged part of the bones) (raxil4, “Livestream”). The instrument is electric, so the bones are enhanced with guitar pedals (typically reverb, distortion, and octave-splitter; Page, email interview, 25 June 2021), but the tonal qualities retain a semblance of the bone usage.
Fig. 1: raxil4's Bone Guitar Thing. Photograph: Andrew Page.
Page often uses the BGT as part of his sonic arsenal to perform dark ambient music, noisescapes, improv music, or live film soundtracks both in live concerts and recording situations. He plays solo as much as with ensembles, and more often improvises his music or parts, but occasionally works with predetermined organisation or scores of some description (although he admits to typically abandoning predetermined passages or scores during live performances; Page, email interview, 14 July 2021). Currently in London, raxil4 presents concerts in a variety of settings, typically well-suited for his brand of sonic art, such as Ryan Jordan’s long-running concert series Noise=Noise (raxil4 feat. King Sara), experimental music shows at the Barbican (raxil4 + King Sara + P23), and dark ambient showcases promoted and arranged by one of his record labels, Sombre Soniks (Wright).
Sounds beyond Words: Monstrous Music
One series of performances in which raxil4 used the BGT took the form of an immersive theatre show produced by Dread Falls Theatre called Father Dagon, based on the works of horror author H. P. Lovecraft. The performance incorporated a breaking of the ’fourth wall’ in which the audience wanders freely through the performance space, with actor- and sometimes audience-interactive musical performances of partially improvised, partially composed passages by musicians located throughout the set. Director and writer Victoria Snaith considered the use of live, semi-mobile, experimental music dispersed through the audience (mixed with an overall backing soundtrack) as heightening the intensity of the experience by introducing unfamiliar aspects to the setting. She discusses having made this decision based on Lovecraft’s own approach to story-telling that highlights a sense of unfamiliarity and therefore sense of “fear of the unknown”. The usefulness of creating unfamiliarity in this context
can serve to support the parts of the narrative that contains supernatural and monstrous aspects. Given that the elements of the supernatural and horrible monsters in Lovecraftian tales are primarily indescribable (both because Lovecraft would recount beasts and fantastic magical happenings in his works as being such, and because in a practical theatrical situation, these things would be impossible to describe, especially without text or specific props or costumes, which the show purposefully uses sparingly, also as a conscious choice to embrace the unknown). Sounds created on instruments that are unique, or generated through unusual performance techniques would lend themselves to being more difficult to describe, and therefore fitting to support a desire to present something regarded as also difficult to describe, that being supernatural happenings or horrific creatures. (Connor 77)
Page’s use of the BGT in these performances added directly to this notion both sonically and visually. The homemade nature of his instrument increased the potential that audience members would be less familiar with the source of his sounds, even if they were watching him perform, and the resultant soundscape he provided introduced harsh timbres, undulating pads, and aggressive punctuation of movement. Page sees the BGT as an instrument “reclaimed from the watery depths” (matching the theme of the show’s narrative), therefore as one fitting into the Lovecraft show “quite nicely” (Page, email interview, 25 June 2021). He likens the sounds created by the BGT as presenting “otherworldly melodies” akin to those played by Erich Zann (a character in another Lovecraft story who conjures a gateway to an alternate dimension full of indescribable creatures and nightmares via performing unusual music on his viola de gamba), which Page also sees as fitting (ibid.). His instrument in this setting as a producer and provider of unfamiliarity is supportive of constructing and maintaining a definition of “monstrous” or “terrifying” (Levina and Bui 6).
Fig. 2: raxil4 performing in Dread Falls Theatre's Father Dagon, London 2012. Photograph: Pierre Ketteridge.
Finding Community in the 'Freakish'
Raxil4 also notes that the Bone Guitar Thing is appropriate for creative input within improv music circles (Page, email interview, 25 June 2021). Generally speaking, contemporary improv music (meaning the broad genre) is improvised performance focussing on sonic exploration over melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic content (even though all will be present in most cases; Toop 132-137). In my experience working with improv musicians since 1981, I find that these performers typically attempt to create sounds that are unusual or unexpected. Players often embrace extended techniques, repurposing non-musical items to be sound-making devices, and employ self-built instruments. Improv musicians seek to break free from the constraints of what may be seen as Western standard musical practices (ibid.), but they simultaneously strive to uphold some parallel aspects of artisanship and virtuosity, perhaps as a means to validate their departure from Classical/mainstream music norms. The instruments and approaches can be seen as factors that separate the experimental artists from the conservatory-based performers, yet still affords them the clout of being hard-working, innovative, expressive, and professional.
As the name implies, improv music emphasises improvisation. André Hodier (23-36) in his classic book The Worlds of Jazz likens improvising jazz musicians to an alien race who battle each other on a daily basis (via jazz battles) in order to see who resides at the top of the improvisation chain. Improv musicians (some of whom come from a jazz background) tend to engage in this sort of hierarchical status ranking system using a much more ’polite’ and co-supportive mentality (at least in the scenes in which I have been privileged to participate). Improv musicians can occasionally embrace a friendly attitude that one should surpass the experimental nature of other performers, and may do so by presenting a new sound, technique, or instrument. The BGT can serve this function. It can stand out among other improv musicians’ gear, even if a majority of the instruments are self-built, through its use of bones and its intentional evocation of something horrific.
Improvised music is sometimes looked down upon by musical communities who value conservatory training, popular music, or more traditional Western classical approaches to music. Referring to avant-garde jazz in the 60s and 70s, Valerie Wilmer (6) recounts that critics and Classical music enthusiasts perceived experimental and improv music as “‘freakish’ and only worthy of passing interest”. The dynamic is different today, but the overall attitude remains, at least in part. The improv music scene is creatively valid, but in comparison to conservative or more mainstream music, incorporates more experimental practices, therefore sometimes musical form, interactions, and preparation is less obvious to audience members outside the experimental music circles. The Bone Guitar Thing also plays into this construction. It is artistically valid, yet perhaps simultaneously challenging to the less-experienced listener. The BGT in this setting is multifunctional. Page (email interview, 25 June 2021) sees the BGT as a means to cut through or rise above other improv musicians, partly by being more recognisable as a “freakish” instrument at performances where the music is already considered freakish by some outsiders. Additionally, the fact that Page has taken the time to make this instrument, and uses notably practiced techniques to create the sounds he introduces, may position him as an innovative professional, rather than a non-trained imposter. The BGT can (at least for raxil4, but for others as well) become a monster among monsters that allows Page to validate his brand of creativity (Ibid).
Musical ’freakishness’ appears in other settings as well. An example of this is a performance in which raxil4 took part where an ensemble provided experimental music for a live tattooing event (raxil4, “Listening”). Here, the congruency with being monstrous or freakish is perhaps more overt. Similar to the soundscape being performed, Fenske (6) points out that tattoos may still be seen as unfit or unexpected for certain classes, genders, or education levels, and may even still be associated with illustrated circus performers of the past. Furthermore, Kinzey (32) suggests that avant-garde and counter-culture communities (such as ones where tattooing and live music converge in a single event) often value uniqueness that serves to “erase boundaries between everyday life and art”. The combined performativity of live music and tattoo inking (both the artistic activity and the art itself) associates raxil4 and the BGT with this non-mainstream circle (to some degree), potentially conjuring an identity of something freakish or monstrous to people with different values.
Engaging with Expressive Objects
The conception and evolution of the Bone Guitar Thing has its roots in personal experience, art experimentation, and material culture related to Page’s life and the musical communities in which he played and plays. In the past, Page endeavored to make small sculptures to be given as Christmas and birthday gifts from materials he found on the shore of the River Thames, many including bones. Page then began to create new musical instruments with what he had available. Page’s brother is a doctor specialising in gunshot wounds and knife trauma, and his apartment was filled with remnants of his brother’s occupation, including a number of crutches. From these, Page crafted his first instruments in this period: crutch harps that utilised the leftover medical devices to build stringed sound generators. He claims the instruments at first were not overly successful, so he began to experiment with his bone sculptures to create more serviceable instruments. An early attempt was a percussion instrument made from various found bones, which Page deemed the “Xylobone” (see Fig. 4). This instrument and advanced crutch harps (6-string tenor (see Fig. 3.) and 2-string bass) became his first arsenal of sound makers, but Page felt the instruments ultimately failed to meet expectations and opted to rethink his approaches and designs.
Fig. 3: One of Page's 6-stringed crutch harps. Photograph: Andrew Page.
Fig. 4: The Xylobone - raxil4's bone xylophone percussion instrument. Photograph: Andrew Page.
The BGT was intended to be more “playable”, “expressive”, and audible to battle louder co-performers. As mentioned, the driftwood base and bones for the instrument originated from the River Thames. The electronics come from a destroyed guitar that was the result of performing in a previous project in which Page was the singer, where the guitarist “had a habit of smashing his guitars on stage, in a sort of expensive tribute to [grunge guitarist] Kurt Cobain" (Page, email interview, 25 June 2021). The BGT started off as a 6-string zither that used guitar-gauge steel strings, but according to Page, given the harsh performance technique of beating or scraping the strings with bones, he was encouraged to switch to using wound, bass-gauge strings, affording him a lower pitch and greater resistance to energetic performance practices. One tuning peg, however, snapped off quite early in its life (as it was in a thinner, more weathered part of the driftwood), leaving the instrument one string shorter. Page says he likes to think that the instrument decided itself that it would be a “5-stringed beast” (ibid.).
The Bone Guitar Thing is, in fact, beast-like, at least in the settings, sonic attributes, and mindsets of the player and the communities in which the instrument is played, but it may not be the case that this beast-like nature is equal to being monstrous. Cohen (3-25) in his discussion of seven potential monster theories outlines several different notions of what can be considered “monstrous” and relates the monster in each theoretical situation to those fearing the monstrous construct. Most closely related to the situation in which the BGT is observed is a parallel theory based on the concept of “Us versus Them”, meaning “Us” as those who are dealing with the monster in question, and “Them” as being those on the side of the monster or the monster itself (Cohen 19-20). However, with the BGT, the monster is not unanimous with “them”, but rather with “us”. In all the situations outlined here, the instrument takes on the role of a beast, but not a negative role for Page (email interview, 14 July 2021) or fans of raxil4 (Wright). Instead, the beast is more like part of the team of noise makers actively engaged in the community’s activities of creation, entertainment, identity, and validation of values upheld thereof.
Each of the performance settings can be argued to exhibit a sense of welcoming outsiders or praising diversity, rather than ostracising it. The Lovecraft performance and story were constructed on the premise of questioning what is a monster and who determines that definition. The Bone Guitar Thing supports and interacts precisely within this parameter to enhance the artistic commentary presented. Within the improv music setting, the instrument assists Page to achieve uniqueness among that which is already unique and highlights the values of community including a show of innovation, exploration, and personal performance technique development. For the live tattooing, the instrument stands out as a unifying sonic flag, connecting other (perhaps less-monstrous) artists into a stronger group of alternative creatives. Effectively, the BGT is a 'freak among freaks', serving to simultaneously fit in and rise above, all while maintaining a sense of “us” within respective circles.
The beast-like nature is not entirely an outward force. Page (email interviews, 25 June 2021 and 14 July 2021) is aware that he has received no formal education in music. He admits he is less familiar with music theory, and more familiar with the science and technology behind the music. Page considers himself to be experimental in his approach to sound creation, which he sees as being more unique due to ignoring the “rulebooks” (ibid.). As a result, he feels (at least a slight) pressure of feeling “unprofessional” or “correct” in the eyes of Western conservatory-trained musicians and composers or those with a similar mentality (Page, email interview, 25 June 2021). The BGT was also, to a degree, built to battle being told what was “right”. For Page, his instrument is akin to a beast that helped him break free of the constraints of Western tonal and virtuosic constraints. “I made my own [instrument] so that nobody could tell me I was playing it the wrong way” (ibid.). His “beast” helped him break down barriers and asserted himself as an innovative musician and creative professional.
So, then, the Bone Guitar Thing is a monster; sonically, visually, and physically. It represents a monster, it is called “the beast”, and it takes on the role of a terrifying creature raging through (sometimes, extremely quietly – raxil4; raxil 4 feat. King Sara; raxil4 + King Sara + P23) soundscapes, settings, and performances, rallying the like-minded and routing the unsuspecting or “others”. That is an overdramatic take on the situation, perhaps, but the instrument does uphold a series of values and creative aesthetics that fosters positive relationships between the artist, the community, and the sonic and physical qualities of the zither. Rather than being a device that places a horrific barrier to be overcome in an “us versus them” scenario, the monster takes on an alternate role and becomes a source of empowerment for “outsiders” or marginalised groups or people (Mittman 51). Thus the Bone Guitar Thing allows Page to demolish barriers and amalgamate fellow community members into a larger version of “us” to create a space in which the beast is no longer a monster.
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Raxil4. Listening Circuits: 19/06/21 with Live Tattooing from Catmouse. 21 June 2021. 23 June 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZgUC5TTOxk&list=LL&index=3>.
———. raxil4 – Livestream for Iklecktik: 21/06/20. 22 June 2020. 23 June 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zW-Mw2jRDQ&list=LL&index=6>.
Raxil4 feat: King Sara. raxil4 feat: King Sara – Sawbones 13 – Live @ Noise=Noise (14/01/13). 26 Jan. 2013. 23 June 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxFMA77yQ_A&list=LL&index=5>.
raxil4 + King Sara + P23. raxil4 + King Sara + P23 – Barbican: 15/08/13. 11 Sep. 2018. 23 June 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N619ooZxx-0&list=LL&index=4>.
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———. Email interview. 14 July 2021.
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