Joe Rauen Builds Instruments from Everyday Things
Joe Rauen was always a doodler in school, one of those kids who filled the margins of his notebooks with spaceships and dinosaurs. One day, in fifth grade, he adorned the cover of his music folder with drawings of different instruments, including two saxophones.
"I brought it to my band director and said, 'Look, I drew all the saxophones." I thought he'd like this. And he said, 'Well, you didn't draw them all.'" The director pointed out that there was an even bigger sax called the baritone and a smaller one called the soprano, with the largest being the curviest and the smallest being straight as a ruler.
The news hit Rauen, a nascent saxophonist, "like a jolt," he said, and got him wondering how much shapeshifting was possible within an instrument. What if, he wondered, the big sax were straight and the little one curled back on itself? Or what if other instruments, like guitars, were curvy? And what’s in between, say, a guitar and a banjo?
"Like, what does it mean? Is it a blank slate for technique and repertoire and pedagogy, or does it subsume half of each—and who decides?" Rauen B.M. '05 said recently from his home in Munster, Indiana, surrounded by his two dozen or so homemade instruments.
"This stuff is like the exhaust of modern life. Like, we're leaving a plume of this stuff in our wake and it's actually really interesting."
These early questions never really left him. And after he graduated from Berklee—where he worked intensely with Professor Harry Skoler and majored in performance—and had spent some time in L.A. in a band and as a sideman, Rauen started tinkering with building new musical objects.
One of his first works was a cello-adjacent two-string piece that he calls "not totally unlike the banjo," made with a metal Ikea flowerpot and a piece of wood. The instrument, played with a bow, produces a sound reminiscent of a Mongolian horsehead fiddle. "I was using the materials that I understood and trying to put them together how I thought that they would work, but [trying to] make something that looked really unusual," he said.
After his success with the cello-banjo, he moved on to his next project, a guitar made with a metal colander and a wooden tennis racket, adorned with pieces of U-shaped wood that resemble umbrella handles. Then, concerned possibly that his work would become predictable, he decided to shake things up.
"I started thinking, if I do it this way they're all going to be brown and silver. And, it's like, someone's got to take charge and put some color into the situation," he said, producing a big pea-green box featuring a red salad bowl and dozens of doodads glued inside of it. Intersecting the structure is a banjo neck, and protruding from it are a couple of oversized forks, along with more umbrella ends for good measure.
What he wanted, he said, was to create an instrument made with items people had an association with, that made an aesthetic statement, but one that could also really play music. In this instrument, these items include: a large letter E, a fake bug, a little wheel, a number 2, and a plastic hand from a children's toy.
"This stuff is like the exhaust of modern life. Like, we're leaving a plume of this stuff in our wake and it's actually really interesting," he said. "It's part of the thingoverse—it's part of an ecosystem of hands and wheels and letters and numbers…and it just seems to flow through all of our houses." The idea is that people will see these familiar objects and on some level feel like it’s playtime.
From Home Workshop to ELLNORA
Rauen, who works in a school office during the day, started playing his creations publicly in libraries in January 2018 until July of that year, when he got a residency at the vibey Ace Hotel Chicago. Once a month, he’d bring his collection of instruments to the hotel and play for two hours. Being a solo performer, he'd use a looping pedal to build songs layer by layer as he moved from instrument to instrument.
That gig ended when the pandemic started, but Rauen was able to do a couple of warm-weather shows this summer. Then, despite having relatively little experience road-testing his collection, he decided to try his luck at getting on a much higher-profile stage, where his fellow performers would be Ben Harper and Joan Jett, to name a few.
He contacted the organizers of the biannual guitar festival ELLNORA, hosted by the Krannert Center, at the University of Illinois. Turns out that Rauen’s act was just what the organizers were looking for: a performance full of Instagrammable moments. Though it's a guitar festival, Rauen was able to bring the kitchen sink—literally, one of his instruments is a kitchen sink—to play at the September showcase.
Last month, Rauen was awarded a grant from the state of Indiana to make an album. And though his instruments are very visually forward, the album won't allow for people to see what he's playing. The focus, instead, will be on his original music based on ideas that have developed during his live shows. "I'm going to try to make an album that's just very me, and whether or not people know that it's a shovel [I’m playing] is just maybe the wrong question to be asking," he said.
From there, he just wants to see what doors will open based on how people respond to the album. He said he doesn't know what form his career will take. There's no blueprint, just a sketch—a general outline of ideas he wants to let "churn away in there until the answer comes, maybe years from now."
Watch Rauen demonstrate a variety of his homemade instruments: