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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #299
Le fourneau du bois
David Gunn

The woodstove is probably not the first acoustic instrument that comes to mind when one thinks of late 20th and early 21st century music, but it shouldn't necessarily be the last, either. While American society has long embraced it as an apparatus that mysteriously refutes the First Law of Refrigeration ("An object, once chilled, will remain so, so long as said object remains chilled, Q.E.D."), the woodstove is only now gaining acceptance among musicians as a uniquely timbred instrument. Each of its components -- the furnace, hearth, smoke chamber, firebox, flue and chimney sweep, plus the interconnecting labyrinth of tubes and Möbius ductwork -- resonates at a different waveform frequency when clobbered, so it isn't surprising that the woodstove has been happily cannibalized for parts in sound sculptures since Proexhibition. But taken as a whole, the woodstove initially didnít offer much in the way of "acousma" -- in Jungian psychology, the unconscious inner self of perceived sound -- to the experimental composer. Not until an innovative music theory professor named Lamar Clobberwork affixed a keyboard to the heating appliance did it make the leap of faith to contemporary performance art.

A problem inherent in the woodstove as a musical instrument is its cause-and-effect response time: because it relies on the theory that heat rises and a cold is a viral infection characterized by inflammation of the chimney that is traditionally accompanied by fever, chills, coughing and the First Law of Refrigeration, it -- and I've lost track of which it I'm referring to here, but it is protracted to the point of inertia. (Coincidentally, Antonio Firepit, the nom de guerre of New York's most celebrated woodstove player, is an anagram of point of inertia, as is the title of his seminal duo for woodstove and on-fire Bösendorfer, "Finite Piano Rot.")

Kindling, the easily ignited material used to start woodstove fires, has a gruesome history indeed, for the word evolved from the noun "kindle," a litter of kittens. During the very middle of the Middle Ages -- which would have been a chilly Saturday in February in the year 908 -- an irregularity in the Pan-American ecosystem caused a decline in the number of forests and a corresponding increase in the number of cats, both hep and feral. And while those hunter-gatherers who responded to the survey question, "If you had to choose a companion, would you prefer a cat or a tree?" selected the former at a ratio of 3 to 1, it -- a still different it -- didn't take them long, once their caves became inherently damp and cold, to discover the easily ignited attributes of a good fillet of cat ... and the younger, the better. Still, the sounds that ensue from the grisly act of kindling have become the acoustic bread and butter of more than one controlled conflagration performance artist.

Perhaps the woodstove most prized in contemporary composition is the Bengaze Kiln, named after the famed if borderline fictitious musical shaman. Five features set the Bengaze apart from the competition: (1) Its chamber is so resonant that avant choirs regularly use it to rehearse in. The fact that most of the singers are eventually overcome by smoke and flames doesn't seem to deter them. (2) Weighing a mere 80 meters, the Bengaze is portable to the point of being purloinable. The majority of them, in fact, are possessed by other than their rightful owners. (3) It burns wood, electricity, Anbesol and vanilla extract -- which has the added advantage of producing a friendly, puddinglike aroma. Contraptionologists have tried to connect a windmill to the stove to increase its energy output, but the two media have irreconcilable differences and have filed for divorce. (4) Because it consists entirely of a microtonal firewall that exists in Algonquin stasis, the Bengaze needs no keyboard to effect acoustic events. (5) Composers with arsonistic tendencies like the Bengaze, too, because it sometimes spontaneously self-immolates. Not a malfunction of its flue, this is the premeditated act of a sentient musical instrument suffering from inertia angst.

Today, as the 21st century gets a late start embarking on a new millennium of discovery and dysfunction, the woodstove is poised to petition for entry into the rarefied musical ranks of the chamber orchestra, the marching band, the string quintet and the acoustoelectrician guild, while at the same time we at Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar attempt to embark on our 299th episode, an episode that is to the First Law of Refrigeration as creosote is to Kalvos.