Since the late 1990s, sound artist Walter Kitundu has been creating his own musical instruments, all of which are built around one central element — the phonographic turntable. Kitundu disassembles and reconfigures his turntables to integrate elements from traditional instruments, alternative and unstable power sources, and other technologies, including effect pedals and MIDI equipment. Spark takes a tour of Kitundu’s impressive output as the artist gears up for a solo show at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery. Entitled “LP,” the show features Kitundu’s handmade instruments, alongside diagrams and drawings of ideas about the turntable’s past, present and future as a musical instrument.
Kitundu has not received formal musical training. He was first introduced to making music by Alton Heraldon, a Chicago-based hip hop deejay and turntablist. Kitundu began playing the turntable as a percussion instrument and found the stylus and cartridge to be tremendously sensitive in picking up and amplifying sound. He began work on a series of stylophones, instruments that combined styli as resonators for single strings that could be struck or plucked.
In 2001, Kitundu extended the technology of Stylophones to produce his first phonoharp, which combines multiple strings with a turntable set into a beautifully crafted resonant wooden box. As does the stylophone, the phonoharp receives and amplifies all the sound through the turntable stylus and cartridge.
Kitundu has also developed what he calls “elemental turntables,” record players that are powered by the elements of water, fire or air. Each of these elaborate machines combines a turntable with an elemental power source, which then determines how fast or how consistently a record placed on the turntable will be played. In 2005, Kitundu built an ocean-powered turntable and demonstrated the piece at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. Kitundu’s machine featured an accordion and melodica that were powered by the ocean’s waves, alongside an old 78-rpm record player that was driven by the ocean breeze.
Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Walter Kitundu has an ongoing residency at the Exploratorium Museum of Science in San Francisco. He has been an artist in residence at Skriduklaustur (Iceland), Eagle Rock School (Colorado), the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Singapore Science Centre. Currently, he is developing a geologic sound casting project for volcanically active regions.