Pinch pots and sound

Last Wednesday, among the cool smell of clay and shelves of various clay creations, Susan Rawcliffe made a special appearance at USC to expand the budding artists’ minds about ceramics and wind instruments.

Rawcliffe, a recipient of multiple grants for art, explained that her passion lies in anything and everything dealing with wind instruments — researching, making, performing, lecturing and exhibiting.

Bringing her expertise to students, she exposed them to the unfamiliar world and dynamic personality of clay wind instruments.

“I want to teach kids about making sound in clay,” Rawcliffe said. “I want them to know that it’s fun and that you can play with it — different shapes make different sounds.”

The students present at her lecture are part of a new class on the USC campus that merges two seemingly unrelated schools and creates a brand-new experience.

Sound Art (FA 499) is a joint project between the Roski School of Fine Arts and the Thornton School of Music. Thornton faculty member Veronika Krausas teamed up with Karen Koblitz, ceramics area head in Roski, to create the idea behind this unique interdisciplinary course and the lecture series Rawcliffe was a part of.

In previous weeks, the class included appearances from John Schneider, Thornton faculty member Kenneth J. Lopez, and CalArts faculty member and composer Arthur Jarvinen.

But the project goes beyond the appearances of these speakers.

“[We want] to give [the students] a wide perspective of different kinds of non-traditional instruments and instrument makers with the goal of them building their own instruments and the musicians composing for and performing on the instruments, culminating in a concert of the instruments and works,” Krausas said.

The class will not only organize a concert at the end of the semester but will also record its compositions and venture into the surrounding community to perform in art galleries.

“Both Veronika and myself came up with a list of guest speakers for the Sound Art course that would give students information for creating a series of handmade instruments,” Koblitz said. “We wrote a proposal for a USC Funding for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching Grant, which we were awarded, and allowed us to have the funding to go forward with this course.”

The course is particularly unique in that it presents students with the opportunity to see how exhilarating and satisfying making and playing their own instruments can be, a point that Rawcliffe stressed.

From mere blocks of clay, the students were able to create aesthetically interesting wind instruments from which they could create a variety of tones. Rawcliffe demonstrated throughout the lecture how even the simple use of her hands helped create a rhythmic and clear sound from the clay shapes the students formed.

Rawcliffe’s second lecture started with the making of small pinch pots — students took orange-brown clay and formed it into two round shapes. They then put pressure on the top, creating an indentation. Starting from the bottom up, the sculptor pinches the creation in a circular motion — thus the name pinch pots — to create a miniature bowl. Students were told to create pinch pots that would fit with each other.

Up next the sculptors took a simple tube of the same clay open on both ends and used a small knife to insert a hole in it. Afterward, they made the holes deeper and then blew into them to produce a stream of surprisingly loud sound. Students experimented with covering one side or another, carving out more, and blowing at different angles and with different gusts of their own wind. The room soon filled with failed attempts and rough sounds as well as high and low pitches blending with the smiles and excited sounds of the students.

Rawcliffe supervised the making of the instruments and amazed the students by creating high- and low-pitched noises reminiscent of a jungle-like sound.

After the pinch pots dried, the students put them together and created a hole at the top, making yet another unique and surprisingly simple wind instrument.

This is just what Rawcliffe wanted.

The initiative brought together students artists but was also open to the public. Krausas hopes to offer the course every second year and therefore spread the interest in making instruments to more of the student body.

“This is the first time at USC this course has been offered in collaboration with both art and music students,” Koblitz said.

And perhaps the course will pave the way for even more relationships between the various schools on the USC campus.

Correction: 10/17/10 — A previous version of this story misspelled Veronika Krausas’ last name. This entry has been corrected to reflect the changes. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.