Mark Stewart rarely leaves his apartment in Brooklyn without an instrument of his own design, usually a chaladoo. A chaladoo is a version of a chalumeau, a Baroque clarinet with finger holes instead of keys. The chaladoo has the profile of a bass clarinet, but it is made of plastic plumbing pipe and plastic plumbing fixtures, to which Stewart has attached the mouthpiece of a saxophone. Because he is often interrupted while playing the chaladoo by people who want to know what it is, he has drawn on one side of a four-by-seven-inch card a schematic diagram of the chaladoo and, on the other side, instructions for how to build one. He carries a stack of the cards, which he calls recipe cards. He began building instruments about four years ago and guesses that he has built about four hundred. He hopes someday to have recipe cards for all of them, but only the chaladoo has one now.
Stewart would be pretty easy to notice even without the chaladoo. He has a round face, a high complexion, and long red hair that falls nearly to his waist. He is forty-two. He grew up in Wisconsin, and designing instruments is a sideline for him. His day job is as a guitar player in Paul Simon´s band. He has worked in the pit of several Broadway shows, and he is also a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, and Arnold Dreyblatt´s Orchestra for Excited Strings, and, with Rob Schwimmer, he performs as the brainy, downtown cabaret act Polygraph Lounge, in which many of his instruments find a place.
Stewart builds his instruments in a tenement apartment on Rivington Street, which he calls the lab. He describes the lab as ´a sonic salon.´ Leaning against the walls or hanging from nails are layers of wood and coils of plastic and metal tubing, along with a little bugle of a kind used at cricket matches in India. The lab has three bedrooms, connected by a footpath. Materials in the lab are piled on top of each other. Every now and then, they shift and something falls, the way things occasionally let loose in the woods. Stewart describes the lab as ´scary but not dangerous.´
Stewart classifies the instruments he makes as either macrosonophones or microsonophones. Macrosonophones can be heard. The loudest microsonophones are faintly audible to the person playing them. The rest can be heard only with a sounding board or a stethoscope. The cheapest stethoscopes, which sell for about six dollars in drugstores, work best on microsonophones. For some reason, expensive stethoscopes, while more sensitive, have poor fidelity. A typical microsonophone is one Stewart calls a travel bass, because it is good for playing privately on airplanes and trains. A travel bass consists of a flat piece of wood, like a yardstick, to which Stewart has attached three guitar strings and some split shot sinkers to color the sound. He connects a stethoscope to the stick with rubber bands.
Stewart is fond of what he calls private moments in public spaces. ´Say you´re waiting for a subway train and you´re standing next to an electric signal box humming at sixty cycles per second´which, by the way, is a B-flat. You might walk away because you don´t like the hum. But if you look at it in a John Cage way it´s a sound to work with, and if you have an instrument with you, you can play with it, and you´re treating the space differently.´
Recently, Stewart took the subway from the lab to midtown for a rehearsal. On the train, he sat and played the chaladoo softly. (The chaladoo can be either a macrosonophone or a microsonophone, depending on which way its bell is facing.) From a foot away, the instrument could barely be heard. ´You don´t disturb anyone with it,´ he said. ´As opposed to, say, ´That guy´s bugging me playing free jazz.´´ As the train approached Stewart´s station, a man asked about the chaladoo, and Stewart gave him a recipe card. ´When you have an instrument with you,´ he said, ´you become more aware of the noises around you. Cage said that he gave up his piano because the sounds of Sixth Avenue had become more interesting to him. It seems esoteric, but in practice it´s almost mundane. You don´t have to be a raging aesthete to get on board.´ The train stopped, and the doors opened. ´That doesn´t mean I´m not a raging aesthete,´ he added, ´but you don´t have to be.´
´ Alec Wilkinson