My Percussion Instruments
by: Roger Cline, CSO string bassist since 1973
Out at Ravinia a number of years ago, Jim Ross, one of the CSO percussionists who knew that I did a lot of wood work, asked me if I could help him cut some pieces of wood to make a slapstick (an instrument consisting of two long pieces of wood that makes a sound like a whip). I was intrigued, so I set about making a replacement for the slapstick they had that was broken. I developed a new type of design that proved very effective and have since provided these slapsticks to many percussionists in orchestras throughout the U.S.
The next project I worked on was a Hammerschlag Box that, along with a very large mallet to strike it, is used for the “Hammer Stroke” in such works as the Mahler Sixth Symphony. Besides producing a very loud sound, I came up with a new design of the instrument that doesn’t break when hit. It is one of the few pieces of furniture I know of that is designed to be hit by what amounts to a sledge hammer.
Hammerschlag Box and Hammer
The picture of me standing beside a replica of a Ford Model “T” was my next project, a ratchet for our former composer-in-residence Mason Bates’ work “Alternative Energy.” In the movement of the work titled “In Fords Garden” a number of car parts are struck and a ratchet part is needed, which was incorporated by having the starter crank in the front radiator part of a Model “T” be the operating crank for a very loud ratchet. It was fun making a replica of a Model “T” that looked like it actually came from the car itself and fulfilled the need for a very powerful ratchet that was a thematic part of the work.
Roger standing along side the Model "T" ratchet
The next instrument, a ratchet that can change loudness while being played was originally needed for a work by Varese, “Ameriques”. I came up with the design in a couple of days and it was fun to hear the results in the Varese work when we played it on tour in Carnegie Hall. The current ratchet is the result of a number of years of design change which has improved the sound characteristics and dynamic range possibilities.
The Crescendo Ratchet, the only ratchet that has control over dynamics
The final instrument pictured that I have designed and made is a “wind machine”, which I made at the request of CSO principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, for the performance of Maurice Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” this past May, and was also used in our performance of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” this month at the Ravinia Festival. This instrument produces a sound like wind by rotating a number of specially designed wooden slats past some very heavy cotton duck material by a cranked circular barrel type construction. Similar wind machines have been used since the baroque musical era for sound effects in baroque operas,
One would think that a better sound could be had in modern times by simply recording wind sounds, but the resulting recording would have to be played over an amplified sound system with loudspeakers which would not have the sonic impact that the analog, mechanical device like a wind machine has. Many other sound effects similar in concept are still used in motion pictures and are called “Foley Effects” after the person who first invented them.
I am always thrilled every time the CSO performs a work that uses one of my percussion instruments. Even so many times around Christmas when one of my slapsticks is used for the famous Leroy Anderson work “Sleigh Ride” it still makes me think that I am lucky enough to be able to design and make an instrument that can be used by my colleagues in the great CSO percussion section.