Experimental musical instruments Volume IX #1 September 1993


By Roman Pawlowski
Translated from Polish to Dutch by Jacek Kawalec
Tronslated from Dutch to English hy Danny O’ReaIIy

This article first appeared in the Polish newspaper Kurier Poranny in 1991.

Have you ever seen a groen colored Mercedes bus converted into a “House on Wheels” with a red dog lying behind the windscreen peering outside? The owner of this extraordinary vehicle is none less than the soundhunter Martien Groeneveld from Amsterdam. The wooden interior of the bus produces a sound which closely resembles the squeaking of an old Spanish galleon. So even when driving ho is surrounded by sound. Besides his dog Luna, a complete collection of magical instruments accompany him on his travels throughout Europe. For example, an electric basket, an enormous xylophone, a sea-machine, a roof-tileophone and numerous other small self-made instruments.


Groeneveld’s roots lie in a small village near the sea in the vicinity of Rotterdam where he grew up. During his youth he never failed to attend the launching of a new ship. All inhabitants of the village gathered round the hull to christen the newly born ship. The sound of the breaking champagne bottle, the hammering of the big wooden wedges which support the construction, the splashing of water, the excited crowd, the ship’s horns, all made a deep impression on Martien. It’s very likely that these experiences gave him the idea for visual music: theater for sound and vision! There is no doubt how he became inspired to build a machine which imitates the sound of waves at sea. This machine is only one of the many he uses to perform his spectacular plays throughout Europe.


Another big influence in Groenoveld’s music centers around urban life. Amsterdam! Noise tower of Babel. A melting pot for languages and cultures from all over the world. This is the main hunting ground for Martien’s sounds. He found his “Tileophone” here: a numbor of ceramic rooftiles, hung on a wooden frame, originally coming from a l9th contury building in the city center. Also the “Electric Washing Basket” which involves a number of washing lines attached to a wicker work basket and stretched across the stage during performance. In a magical way this basket produces the sounds of dripping water and careening trams. When Groeneveld first started to perform at the end of the seventies he used a similar set up, that required members of the audience to turn a number of handles and so operate a bank of tape recorders making the theater sound like a tram depot!


For Martien the urban jungle is the ultirnate natural theater of sound. He talks enhusiastically about an ex- traordinary three-day concert that he witnessed when the street in front of his house was broken up and repaved. In the mornings the still-fresh workmen would go about their activities tapping the stones, with a steady rhythm. Later on in the day the rhythm would slow down and start an Irregular syncopation. No, Martien’s collection of musial instruments doesn’t include percussive paving stones anymore. However, listen to his xylophone playing and you just might recognize the rhythm of the roadworkers in the Bakkerstraat, central Amsterdam.


Many of Groeneveld’s ideas about music are based on experimenting with conventional instruments. During the “Festival of Unpopular Music” in England Martien played “the biggest harmonica in the world”. This consisted of a car bumper functioning as the sound board for 15 ordinary mouth harmonicas. Equally avolacious* was the artist’s treatment of a grand piano, standing on it and playing it with rubber tippod bamboo stieks. One of these concerts started in the destruction of a piano made of packing foam that was fastened on the side of the real instrument. Recently Groeneveld added a new instrument to his colloction: with a sawn oft Volkswagen Beetle chassis strung like a harp he parodies the conventional instrument. It somehow sounds like an Indian sitar. Within his seemingly insane expression of his aversion to the conventional use of instruments there lies a philosophy: “More important than any perceived rules of sound or the preconception of an audience, is the personal creative language ex- pressed by the artist”.


Groeneveld started as a painter. In 1974 he graduated from Amsterdam Art College. Escaping from the claustrophobia of his workshop was the real beginning of his artistic life; he needs contact with his audience without the intervention of a galery or art foundation. Leaving his workshop behind also involved leaving his house. For almost a year he lived in his Mercedes van, the interior of which resembles a ship’s cabin. The artist is at home anywhere. The realization of this idea was one of Martien’s most original happenings, which took place in 1979 in the “Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam” (one of Amsterdam’s two universities, where Martien was a student). For an hour Martien lived in one of the revolving doors in the main entrance to the university. Between the windows on a wooden platform stood a little table behind which Martien was sitting on a chair. On the table were a few books, a camping stove and a potted plant. A pair of wooden skates were hanging from a hook attached to the window. Only curtains were missing! Many people entering the building didn’t notice the unusual dwelling. With some difficulty they would overcome the resistance of the revolving doors causing Groeneveld to circle round and round. Some who acknowledged the presence of a human being within the doors assumed it to be a protest against the appalling conditions of student accommodation at the time. Others stopped to converse with him about Art, Civilization and Life. This performance, held ostensibly for the latter group, was ended by the intervention of the porter.
*AvoIacious: This wonderfully obscure word, which entered the article in the course of translation first from Polish into Dutch and from there into English, is not to be found in contemporary English dictionaries. However, the Oxford Engllsh Dictionary, with its extensive historic annotation, contains Avolation, marked as “?obs” (= obsolete), and defined as “the action of flying away; escape; exhalation; evaporation.”