GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — The sound can be compared to humpback whale calls with a sprinkle of alchemy. It might send a shiver down your spine — it’s a little eerie, like the soundtrack of a dream sequence.
It’s the music made with a Waterphone, the creation of Richard Waters of Gulfport. Waters crafts the instruments in the carport and sunroom of his house, using matching serving trays welded together, solid bronze rods and other common items.
“It’s used in a lot of science fiction and spooky movies,” Waters said while sitting on the patio at his home.
He plays the Waterphone while sitting, the base on or just above his thigh. With the instrument’s neck in one hand, he uses a bow, “super ball mallets” or his hand to make sounds. The bow is drawn across the rods of various lengths to create a high-pitched screech; a tapping motion produces a sound similar to glass wind chimes.
Maletts’ rubber heads drawn slowly across the bottom produce the humpback whale effect; the pad of a thumb can do something similar. The sound resonates when the Waterphone is rocked gently back and forth.
The not-so-secret ingredient is water added to the inside of the welded trays or pans. Hence, the name.
“People have asked if I named it the Waterphone for me, but if I did, it would be the Watersphone,” he said, chuckling. “It’s about the water.
“That’s a Megabass going to Italy this afternoon,” Waters said of a Waterphone sitting in what looked like a large, round insulated cooler in the sunroom/workroom.
Waterphones have been used by a variety of artists, including jazz drummer and legend Shelly Manne, Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin and composer and conductor Jerry Goldsmith.
According to Waters’ website, he has worked, recorded or performed with musicians such as Mose Allison, John Abercrombie, Gary and Mike Knowlton, Thollem McDonas, Andy Narell, Clyde Pound and Tom Waits. Several musicians also collect or play Waterphones, including Richard Barone, Andrew Carter, Evelyn Glennie, Imogene Heap, Kitaro, Emil Richards and Steve Roach.
Even environmentalists have played Waterphones, not for the music but as an experiment.
“A real surprise for me was that a fellow working for Greenpeace took it in the water,” he said. “He started hand rubbing it, and soon this group of whales started coming closer. He stopped, and they slowly started swimming away. He started up again, and they started coming back.”
The Waterphone began back in the 1960s.
“I got out of grad school in ’65, from California College of Arts and Crafts,” Waters said.
At that time, his focus was on painting, and branching into sculpture. He began doing kinetic sculpture — perhaps a natural progression for the Ocean Springs native, who is a third-generation metalworker.
“I got a chance to be the photographer in a light show in San Francisco, and I got involved in the Sausalito Art Festival,” he said. “Meanwhile, I noticed that my kinetic sculptures started incidentally making sounds.”
The possibilities intrigued him, and he started making what he called American thumb pianos; inspiration came from an African thumb piano he had seen.
Waters’ American thumb pianos were made with tin cans and bronze rods, but they were primitive creations. He tinkered with the design, making them sturdier and larger, using things like hubcaps and enameled metal bowls to create the base and exhaust pipes for the neck.
Eventually he and a friend added water to the base, or resonator, and the Waterphone was born. He began playing it in a band he and friends formed, the Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band, and other artists began noticing the unusual instrument and its compelling sound.
“My musician friends encouraged me,” Waters said. “It was pretty out there stuff, but for San Francisco, it fit right in.”
Waters lived in Sonoma, Calif., for several years; there, he played in bands and lectured while honing his Waterphone creation. He applied for a patent, which he obtained around 1975. The patent expired in 1995 while he was in Hawaii, and now others are making the instruments, too.
“There are about seven people who are making copies,” he said. “Mine cost about five times more, but they’re made better. I’m making a special instrument. It’s gaining in popularity, and I keep improving the instrument.”
The move to Hawaii spurred another one of Waters’ projects.
“In 1985, I needed to supplement my income, so I opened a nursery specializing in bamboo,” he said. “Then I moved to the big island of Hawaii and grew bamboo there.”
Politics within the bamboo industry led him to get “fed up after a while,” so Waters returned to the Mississippi Coast around 2003. Bamboo gets used in several percussion instruments Waters crafts.
“About once a year, I go to California for recording and to see my daughter in Palo Alto. I’m backordered into March, mostly for Waterphones,” he said.
He makes about two a month, and has done so for about 40 years. Waters also stays active in artwork, specializing in watercolor and giclee. But it’s the Waterphone that has made a name for him. He hopes to sell the business someday.
Materials have changed over the years, sometimes not by his choice.
“The pans can sound different, if they start making them differently, and I have to pay attention to that,” he said.
“I feel like it’ll all go forward, whatever happens. The fact it can bend tones and make echoes — people are awestruck,” he said. “Something about acoustic instruments is where it’s at. I keep changing models. Some have more distortion and some sustain longer.
“Above all, I’m very thankful. I feel the Great Spirit has guided me along through it all.”
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