Q&A: Daniel Fishkin, Mad Scientist of Musical Instruments

Daniel Fishkin is an artist with the kind of tenacity that is mostly reserved for politicians and mountain climbers. When he was in college, he became fascinated with the daxophone, an experimental instrument played by drawing a bow over a thin piece of wood — known as a tongue — that’s clamped to a wooden block. The daxophone was  invented by the reclusive musician and typographer Hans Reichel, so Fishkin e-mailed Reichel, asking to purchase one of the instruments. His request  was ignored. Undeterred, Fishkin began his own course of daxophone tutelage, seeking out a teacher and crafting his own tongues and eventually taking an immersion course in German. Three years ago, he arrived on Reichel’s doorstep and they spent a week together, talking shop and building new instruments.

Now, in his quest for still more exotic and interesting sounds, Fishkin has turned to yet another source: circuits. Specifically, the interaction between light and sound, as perceived by a series of cathodes and a battery. Check out photos and video of Fishkin’s inventions and read our interview with him, after the jump.

Flavorpill: What are you working on now?

Daneil Fishkin: Right now I’m adapting these circuits, which were originally very loud, to be used with headphones. There’s this one, for instance, that’s called “Discharge.” [Pulls out a slim wooden box, outfitted with a lock, inside of which is a small circuitboard, which he plugs into a mixer]. This actually isn’t meant to be heard during daylight. It’s photo-sensitive, which means that the sounds it’s making are actually interpreting incandescent light to noise. And you can interact with it, touch various components. When you do that, the electricity is actually moving into your body.  When you touch these wires, you’re actually leeching energy off, coming from the battery going into these components and the sound is changing because of it.

Discharge, a circuitry work by Daniel Fishkin. Photo credit: Alex Abelson and Daniel Terna

FP: How did you get from the daxophone, which is a pretty obscure instrument, to using electronics, which are much more common?

DF: Well, for one thing, electronics are more populist. Daxophones are these incredibly arcane instruments. Making them and playing them is like alchemy or something. There are more electronics in the world than daxophones and that’s one of the reasons I got interested. It’s sort of refreshing to not worry about originality all the time. To learn how to make a daxophone and how to play one is a real pilgrimage, there’s so much heart in it. And I’ve come to think of the circuits not as instruments, but as compositions, as art projects. I don’t play them when I perform, generally.

FP: Why not?

DF: For one thing, if you build these strictly as instruments, they’re supposed to be able to interact with other instruments. Other musicians want to communicate with you and these circuits don’t really play by typical rules. Playing major scales on these circuits is incredibly difficult. It’s like going to another country and expecting that everyone speaks English. I’ve been thinking about these circuits as art pieces. For me, it’s less about the music that comes out of it — though that’s important as well — than the situation that comes out of it. Watching people interact with a circuit is beautiful: there’s a hand in the air, they step back, the move around. I wanted to step back and get myself out of the picture.

FP: Why not demonstrate the circuits yourself?

DF: I’m very interested in letting people explore it because I think they develop more interesting ways to use it, rather than just saying “I made this machine that plays one song.” For me, that’s the hieirarchy of composition of these machines. When it comes to actually showing them, I try to get out of the way. This is a John Cage argument. He was obsessed with freeing himself of authorship, and I’m inspired by Cage in many ways. But I’d be a fool to say that I’m trying to free myself of authorship. This is agency. You look at the back of the circuit — all that intricate wiring — and that’s my signature. I don’t need to play it, too.

Fishkin’s Candle Piece.

FP: How did you learn how to make these?

DF: I took a few classes in college, but it was mostly through experimentation. You have to fail a lot. All of these awful things happened. At the time I was interested in instruments and I made all of these bad electronic instruments. With electronics you think anything is possible. You look at computers and you look at air traffic. And maybe anything is possible, but you actually have to learn how to do it. Things go wrong constantly

FP: How do you deal with it in a show if the piece isn’t working as expected?

DF: [Laughs] Well, the thing is, even though you might know the basic principles, you don’t quite understand why it’s working the way it does. I was working on a piece for a show in Greenpoint. At my studio in the Lower East Side, it worked fine. But then I came to set up at the show, and when I touched it what came out was this roar of static. It was like someone had switched a radio station on. And turns out, that’s what was happening. When I touched the circuit, I was becoming an antenna for what turned out to be the Disney station.

So the Disney station was coming in through my body. I tried everything I could, called every engineer and artist. They all had different answers; none of them worked. So finally I showed the circuit for the first time and I wrapped the walls in tinfoil and turned the show into a protest against the Disney corporation. I don’t have the same  issues many people do with Disney. For me, my issue with Disney is that they hijacked my piece of art.  And  I found out that it wasn’t because of radio signals. It’s because Disney broadcasts through the electrical grid, and so it can be anywhere at any time. And you have to be doing stuff like this to come across this information.

Daniel Fishkin is playing daxophone as Dandelion Fiction at 9pm on November 12th, at 428 Broome Street in Manhattan.