Peter Whitehead manipulates strange and beautiful sounds using unlikely materials

Pub date March 21, 2012
WriterMia Sullivan

“When I hear instrumental music, I often see how it’s designed – the movement of the different shapes in space; the changing of colors,” says Peter Whitehead, a San Francisco-based musician-visual artist who makes instruments out of found materials and visual art that represents his world of sound.

Whitehead began making instruments as a way to develop truly unique sounds; sounds he’d never heard before. “The process of creating an instrument that produces its own unique and beautiful sound is almost like alchemy to me,” Whitehead explains. “You take an array of everyday, familiar materials and put them together, and they are transformed into a system that can speak for itself as well as become a conduit for your own personal expression.”

His instruments include the Spoon Harp, Ektar, Buzzing Bass Lyre, Spiral Corrugahorn (to name just a few), and his materials have ranged from kitchen spoons to bicycle wheels to weedwacker line.

The Brightness of the Day . . ., an exhibit of Whitehead’s handmade instruments, along with his collages and paintings, opens this Friday at Gallery 60Six. Whitehead’s visual art illustrates pattern and variation – important elements of musical composition.

The exhibit bears the name of his new album, The Brightness of the Day is Bigger Than the Bed, which was released earlier this year and is a compilation of songs that have been commissioned for dance performances and films.

This album’s songs certainly lack stylistic cohesion and at times feature noises not usually associated with music  – a testament to his belief that all sounds are interesting.

Take “Wash (Short Cycle),” which was originally commissioned for a giant washing machine exhibit at the Children’s Creativity Museum. Whitehead produced a noise akin to someone screaming “wheeee!” coupled with high-pitched beeps over a deep accordion-like sound that calls to mind some type of twisted carnival. Whitehead tacked the piece onto the end of his album against the advice of others. “It drives people crazy,” he says with a chuckle, “but I wanted to put it on.”

“Wash” demonstrates Whitehead’s inspirational artistic perspective –   you can create beauty out of the mundane, unassuming, and strange. “I was always drawn to sound [with] lots of harmonics – drums and buzzing sounds; things with a slight amount of distortion in them,” he says.

But some tracks on the album are milky and melodic, like the piece Anna Halprin commissioned (aptly titled, “For Anna H”). And others feel like a sexy blast of electronic sound.

“[The Brightness of the Day Is Bigger Than the Bed] is unusual in that I started using [more] electronics,” Whitehead says. He also explained that his frequent use of conventional instruments (about 50 percent of the instruments on the album are his own and 50 percent are conventional) makes it an atypical work for him, as in the past he’s created albums in which 90 percent of the featured instruments were his creations.

Whitehead will be exhibiting about 30 of his instruments at Gallery 60Six, and while he’s shown instruments and visual art in museums and galleries in the past, this exhibit will be his first time bringing together the various aspects of his music, visual art, and instrument building for one show. He’s also planning on playing an experimental instrument or two at the opening. Watching a grown man make a water bottle attached to a spoon and steel string sound good is probably not something you’re going to want to miss.

The Brightness of the Day . . .
Fri/23, 6 p.m., free
Gallery 60six
66 Elgin Park, SF