BRATTLEBORO—When is a bench not merely something you sit on?
When is a musical instrument not something you merely listen to?
When is a park not merely a space you play in?
Such weighty metaphysical questions can be answered in the dream of Gary Jones and Erik Newquist to put the installation of their “Steel, Wood, Melody” musical bench seats into Brattleboro’s parks and public spaces.
If a musical bench seems hard to wrap your mind around, that might be because it is not merely one thing. At the same time both a genuine place to sit and a real musical instrument, the bench is a hybrid of both that becomes something virtually new.
Garry Jones, an Australian-born musician and musical sculptor, and Erik Newquist, blacksmith and artist, together came up with the idea.
Jones joined with Newquist via a commission for a musical recycle and trash can by the Gibson-Aiken Center. The men enjoyed working with each other, and in their rambling conversations that often began with “what if,” they came up with the idea of combining a musical instrument with a park bench.
To realize such visions, they formed the Harmonic Forge, a Brattleboro-based arts collaborative.
So far, two such benches have been made from Vermont white cedar with inserts of webster cedar, supported with hand-forged iron.
The bench seat approximates a marimba, which descended from a Mayan instrument that consists of a set of wooden bars with resonators. The bars are struck with mallets to produce musical tones. This instrument is a type of xylophone, but with broader and lower tonal range and resonators.
One of the benches built for private residence has a cast-iron back with bells and is indeed struck with a mallet. However, for safety reasons, the benches that are being planned for the park are backless and can be played without the mallet.
Each wooden bar has a large brass button that signals a musical mechanism underneath.
The buttons can be struck with the hand “or any other body part,” says Jones, although so far he has never seen anyone “try to play a concerto with his or her rear end.”
He believes “the benches will invite people to play together.”
“Our intention for these benches is manifold,” says Jones. “We have a mission to get as many people playing music as possible. A more musical world is a happier, more peaceful and balanced world.”
“And a musical instrument — for that is what these finely tuned benches are, big enough to accommodate a few people playing simultaneously and placed in a public space accessible by all — can be a catalyst for unexpected, spontaneous social interaction, solitary musical exploration, or a focus for more formally orchestrated community events.”
That the musical benches are a genuine musical instrument was proven last week when Hugh Keelan made them the focus of a concert with the Windham Orchestra, with a program called “Our Community.”
Keelan, the orchestra’s music director, says he wanted to “demonstrate how the musical benches function for people as real instruments, and to show how they could shine in the big environment of the concert hall.”
“The benches were not just intended for the collector’s environment,” Keelan adds. “Although they may be sculptural objects of unusual ability, they are also advanced musical instruments.”
In a partially improvised piece composed by Jacob Mashak, Keelan invited the entire audience to join with the musical benches in creating a new piece of music.
“Keelan is a big supporter of our project. He is intending to plan summer musical programs around the benches,” Jones says. “He agrees with Erick and me that they can be a catalyst for musical events and gatherings in the park.”
“What is wonderful about the bench is that groups, especially those with disabilities who normally do not get together, can join around the benches,” Jones adds.
Jones himself is also a composer who wants to take “take the elitism out of classical music by bringing it to the community.” He is now working on a piece of music for his creation that he calls “Concertina for Park Bench.”
The pair is hoping to fund their project from a community base. They are conducting a sponsorship drive, appealing to local residents, organizations, and businesses to get behind the concept.
Newquist and Jones envision eventually installing 10 benches around the greater town area, each one individually designed to reflect the “spirit of place” of its immediate surroundings.
They speculate that “each bench will cost $3,500, which includes installation and an engraved metal dedication plaque for major donors if they would like that.”
Jones and Newquist both say that there is wide support for the project in Brattleboro, noting endorsements from Town Manager Barbara Sondag, the Town Arts Committee, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, the Public Works Department, the Recreation and Parks Department, Building a Better Brattleboro, and the Brattleboro Music Center.
“Everyone we talked to is really excited about the project,” says Newquist.
Brattleboro has a “national reputation as an arts town, and we see the need to make that visually and audibly obvious,” he adds.
“People drive long distances to visit Shelburne Falls’ Bridge of Flowers,” Newquist says. “How many would come to a town specifically to view and interact with fantastic artwork scattered around a town already known for its artistic excellence?”