Karl Steven’s collection of musical instruments isn’t the largest in Australasia, but it’s certainly a peculiar assortment and feeds into his fanatical search for new sounds for his work as a film and TV composer.
This year will see the release of a new film, The Justice of Bunny King, featuring Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) and Australian actress Essie Davis (The Babadook and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). Equally important to the film’s success will be the music created by Karl Steven for its soundtrack, which will include many odd instruments from his personal collection, which he has been obsessive about collecting since his mid-teens.
One of the fascinating and unique items Steven used on the soundtrack is the nyckelharpa, a medieval stringed instrument with odd wooden rods sticking out the bottom that you depress to hold down a note. It was played alongside other acoustic instruments to short melodic tunes, which were then shattered into fragments of sounds using digital effects. He also used an ebow to make long haunting notes using a kantele (an instrument made from recycled NZ hardwood based on a historical style that originated in Finland).
The nyckelharpa in action // PHOTO: PAUL TAYLOR
A visit to his home studio highlights Steven’s passion and devotion to rare and unusual instruments - a seven-stringed guqin hangs beside a brass ‘singing’ bowl on a stool; a pair of tank drums are laid out next to a musical saw; a vintage 808 drum machine rests above a modular synth. Many more instruments are arrayed around the walls or are crammed into cabinets - every inch of the studio is packed. It is a working environment which Steven has dreamed of creating ever since he was a boy.
Around ten years old, he began making his own fake instruments and hanging these on hooks in his room alongside whatever real music-related items he could find (a xylophone, his parent’s old dictaphone). He desperately wanted to create a workshop similar to his grandfather’s tool shed, even if most of the items were more aspirational than functional. Reminiscing about the time, Steven recalls taking a discarded display-stand from outside a chemist and painting it to resemble a moog synthesiser (a modular synthesiser composed of separate modules of different functions), complete with vocoder tube connected by string!
The first real instrument Steven learnt to play was the family pianola - a self-playing piano that required air to be pushed through it via foot-pumps. Yet the music lessons weren’t as inspiring as seeing his grandfather set their vacuum in reverse mode and hook it up to the pianola, causing it to play its music reels at high speed until they tore. Steven realised that the important thing was making a fresh type of sound, rather than how you achieved it.
He picked up more instruments once he began playing in bands, starting with a guitar, harmonica, and keyboards. His 90s group, Supergroove, were popular enough to play in front of large crowds on each leg of Australia’s Big Day Out Festival and had many fans across the Asia-Pacific region. Despite their busy tour schedule, Steven’s fanaticsm for collecting instruments never dwindled, grabbing them whenever an opportunity presented itself:
“A couple walked into the Rock Shop (instrument shop) looking to trade their old 808 drum machine. I saw it under their arm and blurted out ‘I’ll give you a thousand dollars for that’ and they agreed. That was many years ago; these days people pay $5000 for them, which seems absurd, but my one is pretty beat up and rusty. They played island music, so it had all these Cook Island rhythms programmed on it; it was a legit touring instrument for their covers group.”
In the early 2000s, Steven took a break from music to complete a PhD in Philosophy at Cambridge in the UK. It was only once he returned home to create his own music studio that his obsession with unusual instruments and sounds started in earnest. He found work as a film and television composer, and began searching for new instruments that could add something different to his sound repertoire. He was intrigued by the strange distorted whine made by brass ‘singing’ bowls and spent hours choosing the right one from a market in Sydney. He bought a specially-made musical saw from his mother’s homeland of Sweden, then experimented with bowing it and banging it with a mallet.
On other occasions he came across instruments through pure serendipity. His guqin (a seven-stringed fretless instrument from China) was an item confiscated by customs which Steven excitedly stumbled across and won at auction. He is reluctant to use it for his soundtrack work, however, since the instrument has a profound tradition and vocabulary he’s keen to learn more about:
“It’s very deep. All the parts have different names. The dragon pool and the phoenix pond are the two resonators [hollow areas inside the wood]. If you play an open string that signifies an earth tone, while a harmonic is a ‘heaven’ tone, and fingered notes are the ‘human’ tones.”
Karl Steven explaining the guqin // PHOTO: GARETH SHUTE
Even when Steven is asked to collaborate with orchestras to create a more traditional score, he searches for ways to push against convention. Fortunately, there are some genres, such as horror movies and thrillers, that have an openness to a broader soundscape.
Recently, Steven worked on horror flick Come To Daddy (starring Elijah Wood) which saw him using instruments from deep within his collection: a hardwood slit drum was played with brushes, and notes were tapped out on two tank drums made from recycled LPG canisters. Through experimentation, he and percussionist Chris O’Connor found that circular saw blades have an intriguing sound when they are hung from string and blown against while being tapped with a drumstick (which are now stored in Steven’s cabinet as another instrument for future use).
Two tank drums made from LPG canisters, a cantle in its case (with ebow), power line insulators (also used as instruments), and Karl's two APRA Awards for composition // PHOTO: GARETH SHUTE
Steven often finds that creative ideas will come to him most easily during his first sessions of playing a new instrument. As a result, when he first bought the nyckelharpa in Sweden, he purposefully put it aside untouched until he had a composition job, harnessing the joy of discovering an instrument for the first time.
Steven does admit that there are many instruments in his collection that he could easily find from a sample or emulated sound then play it through a MIDI keyboard - especially when it comes to some of his old synths and the 808 drum machine - however, he finds that having the actual item in the room is far more inspiring.
“Each person that sits down with an instrument will get something different out of that dialogue. Emulations can be great but you can easily end up using the same software as everyone else. The more I could afford good sampled instruments, the more frustrated I got because it just sounded like all the shit you hear on TV. I also really like the physical properties and limitations of instruments. That’s the kind of creatures we are - we have these big aspirations, but we're bound by these physical limitations. That’s part of the pain and the beauty of being human, so it makes sense for that to be reflected in music as well.”
Karl Steven in his home studio // PHOTO: PAUL TAYLOR
MAIN IMAGE: Karl Steven plays musical saw // PHOTO: PAUL TAYLOR
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