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Making music with farm machines
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John Morton is using pipe salvaged from a junkyard, and an abandoned farm implement to make a supersized music box. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)
Artists from around the country are coming to a small Minnesota town to explore and expand their artistic ability. The artist retreat is run by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. The Center provides a house for the artist to live in. The Jerome Foundation pays the bills. That leaves the artist free to spend a month simply creating. This summer, an artist from New York City is finding a connection between music boxes and abandoned farm equipment.

New York Mills, Minn. — John Morton is blunt when it comes to discussing the instrument with which he's most associated.

"I actually hated music boxes as a child," he says. "There was just something really irritating and annoying about them. And actually I still kind of hate music boxes."

John Morton was a classical composer, living in New York City, writing music for chamber ensembles and piano, when his wife asked him for a favor.

She was creating a sculpture with moving parts reminiscent of a child's toy. She wanted a music box to be part of the sculpture.

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Image Music box instrument

"At first I said, 'No! I don't really like music boxes, they're sort of horrible and they keep repeating the same thing over and over and I hate those little tunes.' She said, 'Well, write your own tune,'" recalls Morton. "That got me intrigued, so I said 'OK, let me see if I can do this.' So I bought some of those cheap little music boxes and started to work on taking the tines, which are the pitched materials of the music box, and the cylinders and the pins, which pluck the tines and changing them around so they would play what I wanted rather than 'Love Me Tender' or Brahms Lullaby."

Morton started with one music box, then added another and soon was creating tunes for multiple music boxes. Then he started using electronics to change the pitch, which increased the rather limited range of music boxes.

He's now created an instrument with 18 music boxes, stripped of their twirling ballerinas and snow globes, and fastened on a piece of rough pine lumber. The sound is processed by the same kind of electronics you'd use for an acoustic guitar.

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Image John Morton

John Morton has written pieces for music box and piano, music box and vibraphone and recently music box and voice. He sees no end to the possibilities for music box composition.

"The music box when it started was really a musical instrument. People actually wrote pieces for music boxes and would create arrangements for music boxes. It was a form of home entertainment before there were stereos," says Morton. "So I'm trying to revive the original sense of the music box in that it is a musical instrument in itself. And that people can actually write music for music boxes and it can be novel and difficult and intriguing and beautiful."

Several music boxes playing simultaneously provide an unpredictable blend of slow notes and rushing trills.

"I like the idea that I'm giving up control by running more than one music box at a time," says Morton. "I really don't know when one sound is going to happen because I just start them and they go. They speed up and slow down on their own. It's really a question of setting the compositional state so these music boxes can work no matter what the sounds are."

Morton says his experimentation with music boxes has earned praise, but not from music box aficionados.

"People who love music boxes are aghast at what I'm doing. I've sent my CD to people who sell music boxes or repair music boxes and it's worse than just getting a rejection. There's absolutely no response. They want nothing to do with me," says Morton.

The music box compositions are an acquired taste for many, according to Morton. He's still not sure exactly what residents of New York Mills think of his music.

"I recently gave a concert out here in New York Mills and I think a lot of people were very challenged by the music. Some of it is very loud and raucous and some of it is very quiet and beautiful. So I think people in their polite way said, 'Oh! that was different!'" says Morton.

And that brings us to the next evolutionary step in John Morton's music, making a connection between music boxes and farm equipment.

When Morton applied for a grant to come to the arts retreat in New York Mills, he wrote that he intended to explore the sonic qualities of abandoned farm equipment.

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Image A music box in the making

So he went looking for farm equipment he could turn into a musical instrument.

What struck his fancy was a stalk chopper. Picture a metal cylinder about 5 to 6 feet long and 3 feet across. Lay the cylinder on its side and cut off the bottom. Put a shaft through the middle and attach pieces of chain. Spin the shaft at high speeds and you have an implement that beats corn stalks and other crop residue to a pulp. Hence the name 'stalk chopper.'

When he looked at a rusty stalk chopper abandoned in a farmers yard, John Morton saw a music box. He made a deal with the farmer, who delivered the chopper a few days later.

"Then I looked at it and said now I'm really in trouble because I don't know how to weld. I don't know anything about farm equipment. I just have a vision, a notion really, not even a vision just a notion that this could become a music box," says Morton.

But local residents came to his aid. The high school shop teacher lent his welding expertise. Others have helped scrounge scrap metal. While Morton worked on the internal sound mechanism, his wife, who's a sculptor, helped design some exterior adornments.

He calls the big music box 'ichop' in part as a nod to the recent popularity of the I-Pod mp3 player. The ichop will become a noisy fixture in the New York Mills sculpture park. It will be a reminder of an artist who brought new ideas and new sounds to town.

John Morton jokes he'll take an extra ten pounds back to New York, courtesy of the local café. But he'll also leave with a new appreciation for people in rural Minnesota.

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Image Lynn Kasma

"I've found the community is unbelievably friendly, accepting, delightful. Maybe it's always like this in rural Minnesota, but I'm just amazed at the generosity and kindness here," says Morton.

That's a common reaction, according to New York Mills Regional Cultural Center Artist Retreat Coordinator Lynn Kasma, who says many of the artists who come to the retreat are from big cities.

"They get a feel for small towns. A lot of them leave sort of dumbfounded at how differently they viewed rural America compared to what it actually is," says Kasma.

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center looks for emerging artists who may benefit from time to focus on a current project, or taking their art in a completely new direction.

"They come a little frazzled. And by the time they leave they've all said it gave them time, it's such a luxury to get away, it does re-energize them," says Kasma.

John Morton will leave New York Mills with another new idea to pursue. He wants to compose music using samples of the cacophony of sounds made by farm equipment.

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