It started a long time ago in his father’s basement, instrument-builder and musician Chris Andersen recalled in a recent conversation in his Rosendale home: “I just went downstairs one day and started messing around.”
He was in a Long Island elementary school at the time – maybe 11 years old. The medium was old aluminum pipes and things that he could easily find. What developed from those early experimentations led Andersen on a path that took him halfway around the world and back again multiple times, and to the start of a now-successful business.
At first he drew his inspiration from a glockenspiel that he messed around with as a percussionist in the school band. Then his attention was grabbed by the sound of steel drums that a Cuban friend introduced to him. Andersen sought out players and makers, pumped all of them for information and began to experiment in earnest.
His older brother, knowing his kid brother’s interests, brought Andersen a book on the anthropology of music. “That book changed my life,” Andersen said. He was so intrigued that the then-high school student determined that he had to go to Bali to hear the sounds of Balinese gamelan orchestras with his own ears. With savings stashed away from after-school jobs, Andersen finally made it to Bali at the tender of age of 19.
“I literally got off the plane and started walking,” laughed Andersen. “I didn’t know what else to do.” Where he ended up was the small and somewhat isolated mountain village of Manuk. It was the type of village that rarely if ever hosted a tourist. It was also there, on subsequent visits, drawing on the expertise of Balinese metalworkers in the village, that Andersen and his new friends began working to create the perfect steel pans.
After years of going back and forth, exploring the realms of frequencies, harmonics, the overtone series and tunings via research, trial-and-error and the internet, Andersen hit on a design for his Bali Steel Pans. Similar to the original Hang drum, these hand pans are precision tuned percussion instruments that vaguely resemble flying saucers. Two steel sheets are hammered out and attached together. Inside there’s nothing but air. There’s a center note created by the shape that has been hammered out, surrounded by a circle of tone centers that, when stuck with the hands, produce a marvelously irresistible resonance.
Andersen lived what he characterized as a somewhat strange life: half the year on Long Island at his parents’ house, half the year in Bali. Things have recently become a lot easier for Andersen; years of experimentation paid off. “It took a long time,” he said, but the business is now self-sustaining. His company, Bali Steel Pans, currently employs craftsmen from the village who, along with Andersen, have created steel pans in more than 12 different tunings, ranging from traditional Balinese pentatonic scales to eastern Asian scales. Two distributors, a Frenchman and a guy from Switzerland, found Andersen through the internet and offered their services.
His musical appetite far from satisfied, Andersen turned his attention to marimbas. “I wanted a marimba and couldn’t afford one, so I just decided to make one.” Now he makes about one a month. They’re sleek, easily assembled and disassembled for transport. “It’s kind of like IKEA for the player who can’t afford a real one,” laughed Andersen. And yet the sound is spectacular, vibrating with the warm sonorities of African padauk wood for the keys. He makes and sells about 12 custom orders of marimbas per year.
A multi-instrumentalist by nature, Andersen was quick to pick up one of his many flutes, strike a drum or tabla or demonstrate the 14-foot steel cello that takes up a corner of his living room. He and girlfriend Kate Collins-Faubion played a duet on a set of gender wayang instruments just as easily. He demonstrated his new design for portable gamelan anklung instruments. “Just listen to that ombat,” referring to a difference in vibration between the two instruments that he was demonstrating – sort of like a natural vibrato. “It’s perfect!” A Balinese friend would like to buy a set.
What’s on the horizon? Oh, there’s a daxophone that he’s messing around with, the 1960s Wurlitzer electric piano that he picked up on the side of the road and just finished reconditioning, a glass instrument that he’s contemplating. He’d like to adapt a silver flute to include a slide mechanism. Then there’s a new mallet design, made in the same village in Bali, using old tires as heads attached to beautifully carved sticks that produce a subdued tone on metallophone instruments.
Andersen noted that other than Bali, “Rosendale turned out to be the perfect place for me. There’s so much creativity going on…One day I was playing the drums and my neighbor, who happens to be the leader of the local band Living with Elephants, needed a drummer. That worked out,” laughed Andersen. He has been known to play with the Rosendale Marching Band on occasion as well.
Outside of Rosendale, when in the country, he performs with the Hudson Valley Balinese Gamelan Orchestra Giri Mekar at Bard College. He is also a member of the Kacapi Suling Trio – consisting of two zither-type instruments with a bamboo flute, indigenous to Indonesia – with Collins-Faubion and their friend Dorcinda Knauth; they will be performing in front of the Woodstock Reformed Church on Sunday, September 29 at 11 a.m. Andersen’s next performance on drums with Living with Elephants will be at BackStage Studio Productions (BSP) on Saturday, October 20.
For a creative kid from Long Island, it’s a musical life filled with possibilities. There’s time to tinker and time to tune: not bad at all.
For more information on Chris Andersen’s instruments, visit www.balisteelpan.com or www.livingwithelephants.net/#!home/mainpage.