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Ellen McCallie's Carriacou diary: Science of celebration

Updated Monday 28th January 2008

Life on a Caribbean island just wouldn't be the same without some music. The team devise some makeshift instruments – but can physics help you get them in tune?

Day 1

This challenge is absolutely crazy. First, I never knew you could tune instruments using physics. I thought Kate was joking, but Kathy seemed fine with it. After thinking about it, I don’t know why I hadn’t connected the fact that sound waves vary in length and amplitude, thus the pitch and volume changes.

Easiest for me are mbiras, made from gourds. The more I work on them though, the more I realize how hard it is to control the pitch of an instrument. I can make a mbira just fine, but I can’t tune it. Percussion instruments are also easy to make, but hard to tune. We don’t have things to make the tops of drums. I just don’t see us killing and skinning an animal in three days. Plus, tightening and securing things together is really hard without readily available string and glue. Sure, we can make these products botanically, but they take so much time.

Day 2

As Mike, Kathy, and I have been struggling with our instruments, two of the crew (Derek and John) have put together the most wonderful string bass. They did it quickly for a lark. It’s much better than anything I’ve put together. I’d offer to switch places with them, but I can’t run a TV camera or sound boom…

The group has chosen a piece that is so difficult we are doomed to sound awful. It is bad enough to have non-musicians tuning instruments, but then playing a tune that isn’t simple - I think I have found my limit. I cannot subject myself, those around me, or viewers to horrendous noise! Let’s play something simpler like Ode to Joy. It only has six notes and they are all in one octave. It still may not sound good, but at least we’ll recognize the tune and the effort will be worth it. But we are a team, we are supposed to collaborate and make decisions together. It is particularly tough to make good decisions when no one is intimately familiar with the subject matter. This is a classic (pun intended) example. We all like music, but none of us are accomplished musicians, so when we make decisions about making and playing music we aren’t making well informed ones. We’re dreaming and trying…

Kathy has once again worked her magic. The pan pipes, though not perfectly in tune by any means, sound reasonable. This is quite a revelation for me.

The fact the instrument is not perfect is because the note changes depending on how you blow in the bamboo tube. I am working on being more consistent in my playing style but am not there yet. I have been sent to the ocean and far afield several times today both by scientists and production crew.

Day 3

Ode to Joy – ah, we’re sounding so much better! Kathy and Mike L are really good on their instruments. Kate is great at whacking the 'pipe organ' once the candles go out. The fireworks are going great guns, despite the rain. Ah, the weather. In our daily lives we work so hard to control our immediate environment: houses with heat and air conditioning, roofs, walls, cars with windows and windshield wipers, even sprinklers for our lawns and gardens! It’s fun (and frustrating) to be dependent on the weather here. You just can’t be so serious about everything, because the weather is out of our control – and Jonathan and Mike B have already established that it is hard to predict!

What a celebration! It came off so much better than I expected. I can’t wait to get home and try more of this Rough Science business in my yard with the kids in the neighborhood.

 

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