A musician's eerie sheet music

  lie beneath a 10-foot sheet of stainless steel bolted to a bar and stuck with 23 steel and brass rods. My back hurts. Not from the apocalyptic sounds this outre musical instrument emits, but from bench pressing 190 pounds without a spotter. I seek healing, which this instrument purports to deliver.

I look up to see the warped image of Constance Demby, her purple crushed-velvet pants paired with black boots twisting in the steel's mirror finish. "What Demby likes to do," says Demby, pausing to consider my 6-foot frame sprawled beneath her," is to play energy, and play the audience as one of her instruments."

Right now, Demby is playing a musical sculpture she calls the Space Bass. She works the rods with two bows, carving out intervals of octaves, fifths and fourths. Otherworldly overtones slide along the rods, gather like harmonized thunder in the steel sheet below and resound in my bowels. I don't know whether I feel bliss or terror. Demby, her elfin face growing mischievous beneath gold curls, takes a hard rubber ball attached to a stick and draws it across the sheet. A primordial cry, not unlike a whale, floods her studio. The sound is astonishing.

I've been to Demby's concerts before, held in her Mar Vista studio packed with three synthesizers, computer monitors, mixer, hammered dulcimer, tamboura, the infamous Space Bass and a black nest of wires that networks it all into the dozen CDs the artist has produced. Some call it space music, and most agree it's not of this world. Reason enough for sound recordists from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to have recently licensed Demby's music for use in their films. It was the Space Bass, the instrument I lounged under, that most intrigued them. Demby says the instrument discovered her while she was sculpting one day in 1968. Taking a torch to a thunder sheet, she was struck by the vast sound, and later added the bar and rods.

We sit with cups of tea as Demby talks of "Novus Magnificat," a 1986 CD widely hailed as a breakthrough in electronic music. Demby says she has "drawerfuls of letters" that relay tales of healing - mostly of hardened hearts - from those who have listened to "Novus" and the Space Bass. She later plays a cut of her singing. Her fertile voice, rich with reverb, sounds like Kali loosed. "I call this Deep Mother," says Demby, fingering a gold ankh around her neck. "She was moving through me on this one."

- R. Daniel Foster

LOS ANGELES TIMES MAGAZINE, April 9, 2000

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