Funky Harps: The Innovative Instruments of Walter Kitundu

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Watch and listen to Walter Kitundu play his phonoharps.

In the mid-1990s, Walter Kitundu, a hip-hop DJ living in Minneapolis, was pushing the turntable’s limits. Rather than shying away from vibrations that the sensitive stylus, or needle, was capable of picking up, he embraced its ability to produce unique percussive sounds. His experimental tapping techniques were the beginning of a journey that would eventually tap the turntable’s true potential.

Over the next decade, Kitundu became a 21st-century experimental luthier, building instruments he calls phonoharps: hybrids that combine turntable technology and traditional strings. These aesthetically gorgeous and sonically innovative objects began attracting the attention of the avant-garde music intelligentsia, including the Kronos Quartet, which made him its “builder in residence.” In September, Kitundu snared a major arts coup–a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship–for his musical innovations.

The phonoharp can be traced to a eureka moment. Playing around with an empty peanut can one day, Kitundu held it against a turntable’s stylus and gave it a whack.

“When I hit the can,” he says, “I got a note, not the thud that I expected. I thought, Wow, that’s great. I want to see what else it can do.”

The accidental epiphany ignited his imagination, prompting a series of experiments to find what new sounds a turntable might emit and leading to the phono­harp. To envision how it works, first, think about a turntable–when the stylus touches the surface of the record, it’s reading vibrations, which in turn creates sound. As anyone who’s played a record knows, the stylus is capable of beautifully playing a favorite album, picking up a nearby thud, or creating a nightmarish record-scratching screech. Now, think of a harp–when you pluck it, the strings’ vibrations produce sound and melody. Finally, combine the elements–strum the harp, tap the instrument’s body, and play an Aretha Franklin track on the turntable. With one nifty invention, a single musician can be a little bit Afro-Cuban, a little bit soul, and a little bit Symphony Hall.

“There are a lot of things you can do just with a turntable, and there are a lot of things that you can do with just strings,” Kitundu says. “And there are some interesting areas where, when you put the two things together, new possibilities come up. Basically this is a tool for exploring those areas.”

A constant innovator, Kitundu has built dozens of phonoharps. Almost all of his instruments are designed in the tiny kitchen alcove of his simple San Francisco studio apartment, constructed from spare parts and plywood and various objects gleaned from the scrap bin of the Exploratorium, a museum where he works as a multi­media artist. Some have as many as 27 strings. Others are powered by forces of nature–wind, ocean waves, light, fire, and even birds.

Listening to Kitundu play a phonoharp reveals the instrument’s endless musical variations. Using a pencil, he taps a simple rhythm on the turntable, then steps on a foot pedal that loops the beat. He improvises a quick harp-plucked melody and electronically mixes it into the rhythm; finally, he spins a track from a 1970s album called Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions on top of this musical foundation. The combinations of rhythm loops, spur-of-the-moment string melodies, and vintage vinyl tracks are endless, a quality that Kitundu exploits in his improvisations.

“When I play, I don’t know exactly what I am about to do,” he says. “The best shows I have ever had are ones where I had no idea what I was going to do. I’m like a child amongst my favorite things. I love picking things out and trying different combinations.”

The members of the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based ensemble that has pushed the boundaries of string quartet performance since 1973, consider Kitundu to be one of their closest collaborators. He has built seven instruments for the group and performed with them at Carnegie Hall. David Harrington, the quartet’s founder and violinist, describes Kitundu as part Leonardo da Vinci and part Harry Partch, the eccentric musical instrument inventor.

“His sense of poise and creativity and just the way he allows himself to imagine things is breathtaking and inspiring,” Harrington says. “The instant I met Walter, I felt like he was a brother. There’s a quality to him that is absolutely beautiful. It’s a wonderful curiosity and confidence and calm–he’s always felt like a member of the group.”

Their latest project began as a brainstorming breakfast conversation in which Harrington expressed his desire for the Kronos Quartet to sound like Alemu Aga, a famous Ethiopian musician who plays the begena, a harp thought to have been played by David in biblical times. Kitundu ran with the concept and created three instruments: a double-necked cello to replicate the rattle and raspiness of the begena; a viola, to recreate Aga’s vocals; and a double-vesseled drone instrument that helped set the overall foundation and tone for the composition. They recently recorded a piece using the instruments and will send it to Aga, hoping to gain his approval for a future collaboration and performance.

Kitundu has more instruments in the works for Kronos, from traditional stringed instruments with metal horns that amplify the sound (similar to the Stroh violins used by klezmer bands) and at least seven more instruments for a planned theater piece.

Even though Kitundu is honored to have received the MacArthur Fellowship, often known as a “genius grant,” he isn’t wedded to a career as a composer or being in the spotlight for one particular invention. He might be just as happy photographing birds (he has published a book of images) or banding raptors near the Headlands Center for the Arts north of San Francisco, where he is an artist in residence.

In his soft-spoken, humble manner, he describes what may be ahead: “I like my life. I don’t need to get a new apartment. I don’t have anything to run away from. The first thing I want to go do is see my parents in Tanzania, then maybe go to the Galapagos to do some writing and photography, sea kayaking in Alaska, a hot air balloon over the Serengeti. The world is such a vast, strange, and wonderful place, and I want to experience it.”

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