by Jeremy Morrison
The vibration hums and buzzes, fills the room. The tone is hypnotic. Like a whale whispering secrets.
In his hands, Brooks Hubbert III holds his future. The source of the sound he is currently exploring.
Called the waterphone, the instrument consists of a water-filled stainless steel base and a series of bronze rods varying in length. Hubbert, a Pensacola-based musician, learned to make the instrument from its inventor Richard Waters.
“It’s a percussion and harmonic friction instrument,” Hubbert explains, tapping the waterphone’s rods.
When the musician first met Waters, who passed away in 2013, much of the time they spent together orbited around the waterphone, its construction and tuning — “because I was fascinated with it and in the beginning all of our conversations were dominated with questions about it” — but after awhile, their relationship evolved.
“As we became friends, over the next couple of years, our meetings changed and it was just talk about ideas,” Hubbert recalled. “Just ideas, in general. About sound, about art, about music.”
Those conversations helped lead Hubbert to continue Waters’ work constructing the waterphones, and also helped inform a philosophy that is forged into the instrument’s creation.
In his office near downtown Pensacola, Hubbert demonstrated the waterphone’s unique song, luring a tonal river from the instrument as a smile spread beneath his beard.
“It was like a sound in my dreams,” the musician recalled.
While Hubbert — who has plied the Gulf Coast region for years playing everything from psychedelia to bluegrass in the traditional bars and clubs — maintains a presence in the region with his solo shows and band Sirius Face, the musician finds himself these days focusing in large part on the waterphone. Sinking deep into its soundscape.
During a recent interview, Hubbert discussed his immersion in the atonal waves of the waterphone, as well as doing math with frogs and his pursuit of natural sounds.
Hubbert started the interview by tapping some tones on one of the waterphones sitting in his office. The sounds vibrated off the metal and rippled across the room, painting the walls in a palatable shimmer.
SANDS: What is the principal behind the waterphone? It seems like it’s an instrument that almost has a philosophical basis.
BROOKS: Ok, so, yeah, very much so. The water drum is written about all the way back in the origin of our species, really. The water drum is the drum played by the shaman, by the gatekeeper. You know? In most all ancient societies there was a shaman. Tribal, or otherwise. You go back and in the ancient big cities and whatnot, they still had, you know, tribal priest that were basically shamans, trained in those ways. And it’s all ways been that: the water drum is the drum of the shaman.
And I think, you know, it has to do with — I mean, obviously, the way the water slows the vibration of the membrane you’re playing. It creates layers of modulation and they call’em schizo sonic modulations. Which implies a shifting of the mind. You know what I mean? It implies two disparate elements fusing. And so what I notice about it is that it draws your attention very much into the present. Which is different than most other instruments. Most instruments tend to kind of space you out into a timeless kind of place that’s — it’s now, but it’s, like, kind of dreamy and unfocused. You know what I mean? Whereas this really kind of brings you into a —.
Because of the combination of elements. You’ve got this pure tone, but then the reverb suggests a larger space than it actually is, and so by virtue of that it kind of goes against what your sensibilities say it’s gonna be. Which I think is just a natural recipe for attention. You know?
SANDS: Most of the people that you make these for, what are they looking for?
BROOKS: Most people hear the sound and go ‘I’ve gotta have one,’ ‘That’s the kind of sound I want to make.’ You know? Composers, percussion virtuosos, it’s really across the board. And also sound healers. You know, yogis.
And another interesting thing is —
SANDS: And they’re using them not primarily for making quote-unquote music, but for more just their sound quality and whatever, their —
BROOKS: Well, it just depends on how you quote-unquote [define] the music, you know what I mean? If you’re gonna go with ‘Music only exist in the tonal format.’ But I think that’s already kind of been pushed through that, you know — especially with today, the electronic stuff has been tweaked so hard that — wha-wha-wha — there’s just all these other elements. That’s where I think this — it brings some nature into music. But people certainly use it — I mean, it’s a percussion instrument. You can just play melodies with it. [plays waterphone, hitting rods with mallet]
SANDS: And you can also play it like a stringed instrument?
SANDS: And are these all — are the rods and the bodies all made out of the same type of metal, or do you —
BROOKS: No, the body is made out of stainless steel and the rods are bronze.
SANDS: And each one, I guess length determines —
BROOKS: Yeah, the length determines the pitch. But this is where this takes a unique turn out into the atonal world. By virtue of it being fixed only at one end, unlike a string, the overtone series is not the same. So, you would call, like when you vibrate a string, and you go through the harmonics, those are all according to a ratio. You half the sting. You know, the lengths of it.
Because it’s only fixed at one end, the way this thing vibrates is like, you know — look at the end [plays, points out how end of rod is vibrating]. See how it’s not regular? You know what I’m saying? And so, if you take a laser or something and actually model the vibration of them what you realize is, is that the nodes are not in the same place, harmonically speaking, as what you would find on a string. And so the harmonic, the first harmonic is almost a tritone, which is, like, the most dissonant interval.
SANDS: Huh. Interesting.
BROOKS: So, it’s off. And then there’s another couple of harmonics — and I say ‘harmonics,’ they should be called ‘inharmonics,’ I guess, to be technically correct, but the easiest way for me to describe it is as a harmonic of that system because that’s where the node point is for the vibration. You know what I mean?
So, there’s multiple, usually at least three or four on each one, depending on how long it is, you can get out of it, by where you’re playing on the rod. And, so, yeah, it doesn’t line up. So, I could tune one of the nodes that I’m playing to a pure note, like a pure chromatic tone, but the other ones are all going to be out. See what I’m saying?
So, what ends up happening — and this is what was really one of the things that I think ultimately I felt like I understood well enough to be able to go and — not just knowing how to build it, but actually keeping this spirit alive of what he was trying to do with his tuning. It was like, ‘Ok, this thing has its own set of resonances, and rather than try to tune it into something else, you’re going to tune it into it.’ So, by hearing, being able to listen for these subtle variations in pitch and, you know, what I end up doing is I tap the bottom and tune in and, of course, there’s a general proportion that I’m using, but I sweeten that into harmonics, or inharmonics, whatever the right term is, built into the bottom pan [plays]. Because what you’re getting is actually a combination of the length of this [rods], and the built-in harmonics in this [on pan].
SANDS: How exact of a science is that?
BROOKS: It’s not. It’s definitely an art, and a hearing thing.
SANDS: Is each one different, or do you replicate?
BROOKS: Each one is different. And so what I— you know, the thing is, it’s something weird. A person who taps on metal all day and listens to it, is gonna have learned to listen for subtle levels of vibration. You know, not to say that anyone else couldn’t necessarily listen or hear that. But I guess just after doing it so long, you start to recognize patterns and hear how it kind of can be tuned to itself to create its own little mini cosmos of notes and sounds, you know?
And that is what I think was really his goal, because he would — you know, people would ask him to tune it to a specific thing and he’d be like ‘No, I tune it how I tune it, that’s how you’re going to get it.’
SANDS: And do you follow that philosophy as well?
BROOKS: Largely, I’ve tried to follow that aesthetic. I can’t say that I’m not interested in trying to set up some kind of thing that really could make tonal music created, like purely tonal music be created on a waterphone. And I think, honestly, that is something I’m going to, I am going to strive for being able to to. But, what I’m interested in now really is doing it with strings, as opposed to these rods. And so that’s kind of like what the future holds for me.
SANDS: And the strings are attached to something?
BROOKS: Yeah, the liquid, a water-resonator pan, and the strings are gonna run over the top. So, I’ve done some experiments and it works. So, right now what I’m trying to do is build up tooling so that I can make a functional, like, slide guitar with the water bowl. That’s my current project right now.
SANDS: So, let’s move off waterphone and on to other stuff. What kind of music are you doing these days?
BROOKS: Man, you know, that’s gonna come back to waterphone. Obviously, I’m a stringed instrument player, I do a looping kind of show as one of my things, and that’s been fun because it allows me to create these big layered tapestries of sound. And, you know, since I’ve been including the waterphone in my music much more, it certainly has changed my aesthetic into wanting really to venture into natural sounds, natural music.
SANDS: And define natural sounds, natural music. As opposed to —
BROOKS: You know, I don’t want to just disregard electronic means of the production of music, but, you know, it’s like things that seem to evoke sounds of nature. Whistles, bird calls, flutes, you know, natural methods of producing the tone. Not to say electricity isn’t natural, but I mean it certainly kind of changes the playing field in a way that kind of diverges from nature.
You’ve got an electric guitar and you can crank it up to 10 and just barely touch the string and then BLUEEERR! You’ve got all this sound and noise. Whereas someone, you know, had to have all the ingenuity to sit there and hammer all that metal and get to make a trumpet to where they can go Bleee! [quieter], like that.
SANDS: And what’s the goal with music making, instrument making, is it to replicate natural sound? Or is it to —
BROOKS: For me, now, it’s just to discover new sounds. It’s to take things that weren’t combined before and combine them and to create and to discover new sounds. For me, that’s like what my overriding aesthetic is.
SANDS: New sounds that you have not heard before?
BROOKS: Yeah. And/or new ways to generate sounds in a more accessible way. You know, maybe it’s sound that you’ve heard before, but it’s — that’s what I’m looking for, is ways to make that more accessible and easier to play. Maybe a more recognizable format.
SANDS: And you’re incorporating this kind of aesthetic or ethos into your work?
SANDS: Do you incorporate it just into your — what do you call it, your passion work? Or do you incorporate it into, you know, your sets down at McGuire’s?
BROOKS: Actually, yeah, definitely. My sets at McGuire’s, although it is electronic based because I use a loooper and I’m doing a live loop recording set up to generate those. I’ve found that by — I’ll make a loop guitar and the bass and stuff like that, but then the rest of the stuff that I do is looping vocals. So, it’s made me aware of a different space of using these different, like, you know for example, a little mouth, the little mouth jaw harp? I’ve got several different ones of those that I’d like to use. And it’s like, when you hear the tone — wheeuuzz, wheeuzz, wheeuzz — you know, it sounds like dub step or something, you know what I mean? But this is an acoustic instrument that came out of, you know, the bush. It’s a little carved-out piece of wood.
And, then, beat boxing. [Beat boxes] You know? Sampling, using those sounds, I end up making these tapestries where it’s like layered vocals, and beat boxing, and maybe I won’t even — you know, some of the thing will be a [making blowing noise] sound. You know what I mean? Something like that.
So, yeah, I find that by imitating nature it forces me into a new space artistically speaking. Which I guess is the art imitates life imitates art — you know, constantly goes back and forth kind of thing, the yin-yang, natural ebb and flow.
SANDS: One reflecting the other?
B: Yeah. And it’s like that’s the thing, I feel like as I attune myself to what those sounds are and then let myself be musically moved by it as opposed to just, like, recognizing it as a sign post of reality, like ‘Oh, I hear the waves, that must be the waves.’ You know? The water. No, I listen to the sound, and rhythm, [making waves sound], you know, and then slow down and listen and there’s all these other different applications come to mind, for me.
Which is the same thing — I’ll sit back in the yard and listen to frogs chat with each other. “Meh-meh. Meh-meh-meh-meh-meh! Meh-meh-meh-meh!’ You know?
SANDS: Well, if you take the visual away, and you take even the context, your awareness-context away, those sounds can mean entirely different things.
B: Absolutely. And so then it’s, like, that sort of thing and I rather than just listening to it as ‘Okay, this seems like it’s a spacial location application for them,’ when I’m hearing it I’m listening to the rhythms. And then I immediately start tapping out and counting the rhythm and I go ‘Oh, wow, that made a five-touple against a four, you know. I mean, I doubt that — obviously, I don’t think frogs are aware of math, but they are certainly expressing it as a force of nature.
SANDS: You never know.
B: I know, absolutely I don’t know. But it’s not logical for me to think, ‘Oh, a frog is aware of math and that’s why they’re doing this.’ You know what I mean? I am recognizing that because that’s a pattern that I have been attuned to recognize. They are expressing it out of some natural means.
And so basically what I’m saying is, by picking that up and then reinvigorating my art through this natural sound it ends up creating a continuum, I feel like, that puts it in a place that is actually meaningful, as opposed to, you know, I don’t know, most people — music has just become a big commercial, where it’s just a commodity. You know? At this point it’s value has just been so stripped away through the application of — And I know it’s made it’s easier to consume certainly, but it’s definitely pulled it out of it’s natural place and stuck it in a thing that’s made it super easily manipulatable and, you know, at that point subject to whatever the attitude is of whomever is applying it. You know?
Whereas, for me, as an artist, when I find my place inside that continuum it allows me to become part of something bigger. You know? Whereas, like, the other end of that extreme seems to me to be the most localized, smallest place that you can be on it. Or, not even — I don’t want to say ‘smallest,’ but like … it’s not the most connected place. Even though it’s connected infinitely through the internet. You know what I mean? It’s not rooted in the natural world.
I also love combining technologies. It’s super fun and there’s lots of amazing applications that just make — to me it allows creativity just to kind of run rampant.
SANDS: Is there any conflict in these two — you know, technology versus natural sound?
B: So, yeah, you’re looking at, like, natural volume disparity. I mean, one easy representation is, like, trying to mic up a waterphone versus a direct electric guitar, or something like that. You know, you’ve got all these issues with micing it and picking up the sounds. It was the same thing with people trying to model a piano and trying to take a real grand piano and trying to get it —
SANDS: Fit it into a keyboard?
B: Yeah. It’s sorta that kind of concept. Where it’s like, you know, you’re looking at the edge of where two things are converging. And anytime they converge there’s going to be a natural clash within that, too. But —
SANDS: Or, just an overlap.
B: Or an overlap, absolutely. So, I think, just for me, recognizing the two streams as being, you know, somewhat interdependent now. You know, it just allows for a syncretic application or expression of all those sounds.
And really, for me, it’s just what tickles my ear. Because I hear so much stuff all day. Random stuff. To where when I hear something unique or that’s not in a — out of it’s context or whatever — I’m kinda immediately drawn to it. Which is what I like about the waterphone. It’s like no matter how well it fits in the mix, its creepy, kind of edgy, other-worldly sound lets it just kind of stand out.
You do lose a lot of the real subtleties of the water, especially in a live-mix, if you’re trying to use it in a live band. And that’s one thing that makes it super — really useful for recording, studio recording.
SANDS: Are you still playing with Sirius Face?
B: Yeah, man, right now — man, the realities of doing band-life are really difficult. I’ve got some work to do with this [waterphone] that is really taking my attention.
I’ve got other stuff that I’m going to be doing. I’ve got an acoustic record. I’m going to do another looping, a solo looping record. There’s also — I did a batch of covers that I’m going to be putting out pretty soon on Louder.
But, what I’m really excited about right now, I finally conceived what I’m going to— you know, the concept for my first waterphone-centric album. And it’s going to be, the theme is acoustic ambience. It’s kind of, for this one particular thing I’m not going to have any electric instruments whatsoever. And I’m going to go for that ambient, spacial vibe that a lot of ambient music creates with electronic instruments. Why not — I’m going to really go for that, or go for that aesthetic without, you know, using the typical tools that people use to achieve that.
SANDS: Is the destination the same, and maybe even the route the same, but the vehicle’s different? Is that what —
B: Maybe, I dunno. I feel like it’s a different space. It’s really more about — whereas there is an element for me to channel in Sirius Face, with improvisations and stuff, this I see as more a channeling of like some sort of sacred space that could be used for meditation, that could be used for, you know, really the possibilities are — I don’t know exactly what it’s, I mean I know what I’m influenced by and what I want to put into it, you know, and so it’s a really wide range, and kind of clash of different sounds. But, it really kind of dawned on me that that was the next thing I had to do. And so it’s exciting.
SANDS: And that kind of work — and it seems that maybe your career, or your work in general is taking that path right now — when you’re doing that, do you consider yourself a musician in the verse-chorus, verse-chorus way, or do you consider yourself more of a, you know, explorer of or experimenter with sound?
B: Sound. Yeah, definitely. And that’s the thing, it’s taking the transition from form to formless and back into form that, you know, you end up recognizing these signposts of where you are. You know what I mean? Because when you’re gone from form, how do you express that? With a form. So, there is a sort of — it’s like using zero as a digit. I mean, it clearly has meaning, but not value. See what I’m saying?
So, in that same thing, it has shape, or it has existence or representation, but maybe still is formless. To a certain degree. Or maybe it’s just using form to express formlessness. You know? There’s definitely some — I don’t want to say just strictly oxymorons, but there’s some opposing elements that are being brought together. Which, once again, is kind of the theme of what I feel like what my work is, to take these elements that are somewhat disparate and then by forging them together in a new way or application, you know, leads me towards a new path of discovery. And I think that’s what really the goal is with me with the music, is to be open enough to recognizing the new sound when it reveals itself so that I can be able to kind of do something about it.
For more information about Brooks Hubbert III, or to find out where to catch his next show, click here.
For more information about the waterphone, click here.
To check out the music of Sirius Face, click here.