Not only from the mind of Fred Carlson, but from the workshop of Fred Carlson.

He’s made stunningly creative harp guitars that are both exquisite musical instruments and works of art.

He’s invented imaginary musical instruments, captured in poetry and woodcuts.

(A Luthier’s Alphabet of Imaginary Instruments available from the Guild of American Luthiers)

And now he’s combined the two into an actual working, playing, music-producing, 3-dimensional sculpture of what is essentially at its core – it’s heart and soul – how can I say this?…

…a cartoon.

I’m teasing my friend, of course, and over-caricaturizing the results…

but not by much! …

well, you decide:

Fred had long talked of his hope to build his dream Imaginary Instrument – an actual functioning Humanitar, though I didn’t take him too seriously (even though after reading his book I, too, was wishing that several of his fictional instruments could be produced!).  He had sketches on his shop walls for years (along with the Banjalarpe, the amazing harp-banjo-thingy he has long intended to build…perhaps now he’ll finally have time?).

I’m chagrined to admit that I was not in the loop on the “secret project.”  I only heard about it at the beginning of the year from Jeff Titus (who will be bringing his own two one-of-a-kind Carlson harp-sympitars to the 12th Harp Guitar Gathering in October).  He pointed me to the Santa Cruz County Art of Guitar Exhibit and Festival, which had announced that the Humanitar would make its debut in their exhibit (which opened on February 1st) and that Alex de Grassi would be performing on it!

Well, Frank (Doucette) and I could not resist this harp guitar event – so we made the 6-8 hour drive, and that’s where we are as we speak (having scheduled this blog to coincide with the event).  We’ve theoretically spent a couple hours now at the exhibit showcasing 18 local Santa Cruz luthiers, where we’ve met/will be hooking up with Jeff, Alex and Fred.  At 8 pm, we’ll sit down in the Gallery for a special concert featuring Evan Hirschelman, William Coulter and Alex performing on some of the handmade guitars in the exhibit (other February concerts have included Muriel Anderson and lutenist John Schneiderman).  If all goes according to plan (and by plan, I mean “a wing and a prayer”), we’ll soon be listening to the musical premiere of the Humanitar in the hands of the brave (if foolhardy) Alex de Grassi.

Fred had been frantically trying to finish the instrument for the exhibit (his first actual “deadline”) and I think the paint was still drying as they installed it the day before the exhibit.  He planned to meet Alex there at one point to “hang out in the Gallery with the instrument and tweak things, get him familiarized with it a bit.”  A bit.  I can’t wait to hear his (presumably improvisational) upcoming performance – in front of a live audience yet!  (I asked Alex if he would be wearing a complimentary outfit, but he avoided answering my legitimate professional question)

Lest you think this “command performance” too audacious, remember that this isn’t the first time Alex has “improvisationally composed” a piece on an untested Fred Carlson creation.

In 2006, he took the newly-completed “New Dream” (destined for customer Bob Gore) for a couple week loan/test drive and Matt Chapman captured a final performance in this striking video.  At my prodding, they additionally mixed this into Alex’s first ever harp guitar recording, which I managed to snag for my Harp Guitar Dreams compilation CD.  Perhaps the Humanitar experiment could lead to something similar?  (Meanwhile, I’ll also be pestering Alex about what he’s doing with his custom Holloway).

In any event, I’ll have more comments and photos when I return in a couple days with Humanitar Highlights, Part II.

Meanwhile, while you’re waiting for the trip report, you’re probably wondering…what exactly is the Humanitar?

According to Fred, it’s a 40-string Harp-Sympitar.  The 6 main strings are baritone nylon strings.  On the bass side are 11 steel sympathetic strings on a jawari (buzzy) bridge that also divides the strings so that each gives two notes, one an octave above the other.  On the treble side are 11 actual gu zheng strings set up similar to the Chinese instrument, but with a bridge dividing the strings to give each string a second note a fifth above.  Finally, across one of the legs is a bowed/plucked psaltery with 12 steel strings.  (By my calculations, this will make it approximately twice as difficult for Alex!)

Here is a series of shots (some from the Forum, others currently exclusive) of the construction process and comments from Fred (those in “quotes”):

“This was the first full (to scale) sketch.  Things have changed a bit since then….not much.”

‘It’s got fairly typical guitar construction for the top.  Backs & sides of body, arms and legs are all papier-mache.  It will be a free-standing sculpture, playable in a standing position without having to hold it up.  Also the legs can be removed, allowing it to be held/played in the lap/on the knee, like a more normal guitar.”

“Frame assembly”

“Inside top and back”

“Humanitar shell”

“…checking out the leg castings; back not attached yet; old German spruce top; perimeter frame from maple plywood; neck is Englemann spruce.”

“The Humanitar gets legs…Here’s the basic mock-up with legs; back/shell is glued on (lots of epoxy!!), legs bolt onto frame.”

Humanitar with human (Fred)

Carved peghead

Attached to the frame

Paint, hat, eyes, strings

Painting the top…

…and back…

…and Viola!

“I got the thing mounted in the gallery last friday, the day before the opening reception, which was last night.  This is just after I got the instrument installed in “Fred’s Corner” (they gave me a LOT of Real Estate!), on set-up day.  I had never had time to assemble the whole thing in my shop, so the first time I had it all together was the day before the opening.  I did get to play it a little there at the Gallery, and it’s pretty amazing.  The standing leg is bolted to a 2×4 inside the white base platform.  The tennis shoe covers the access hole for bolting.  There is another bolt that secures the green-checked arch at the peghead end; it’s pretty solid, enough so it can be played by standing behind it on the platform.”

Outrageous, ain’t it?

And that’s where things stand/stood as I type/typed this on Friday before our trip…

Road Trip – Destination: Humanitar!