Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

When we first decided to interview Brian Dewan for our show the weekend before the election, it was because of his love of historical political folk songs. Take a listen.

(Soundbite of political folk song "John F. Kennedy")

Mr. BRIAN DEWAN: (Singing) Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy for me. Kennedy, Kennedy.

STEWART: But when we showed up, recorder in hand, at Dewan's home in upstate New York, we found, well, so much more.

(Soundbite of train horn)

STEWART: As you approach Brian Dewan's house in Catskill, you're likely to hear all sorts of sounds.

(Soundbite of train horn)

STEWART: From the freight train chugging by.

(Soundbite of grandfather clock chiming)

STEWART: To the grandfather clock inside.

(Soundbite of music played on a solid body zither)

STEWART: To a melody played on a solid body zither.

(Soundbite of music played on a solid body zither)

STEWART: To the sounds of a Dewanatron.

(Soundbite of music played on a Dewanatron)

STEWART: What? You've never heard of a Dewanatron? That's okay. It's a unique genre of instrument developed by Brian and his cousin Leon.

(Soundbite of music played on a Dewanatron)

Mr. BRIAN DEWAN (Musician; Inventor; Instrument Maker; Performance Artist): Dewanatrons would behave like a clock that strikes on the hour, or the quarter hour, that makes some kind of a periodic sound that goes away and you forget about it. So we made instruments to do that. But it has nothing to do with measuring time. They just spit up little sounds at very irregular intervals of time. So I'm fond of these kinds of periodic sounds, the trains, the clocks, the regularity of things out there in the world, or irregularity, as the case may be.

STEWART: How do you get a Dewanatron to spit out sound? Well, one model called the Coin-Operated Melody Gin requires the insertion of a quarter into a coin slot which was taken from a commercial washing machine. And for your 25 cents, you get to manipulate sound.

(Soundbite of music played on a Dewanatron)

Mr. DEWAN: So you put in a quarter, and you get four minutes to monkey with the controls.

STEWART: OK. So, I'm going to monkey.

Mr. DEWAN: Yes.

STEWART: The Dewanatrons are bread-box-sized pieces of art. They look like something from a 1950s sci-fi movie: levers, and dials, and ignition keys. Dewan's tiny 19th-century house is cluttered with variations of these devices along with at least 10 keyboards. We lost count. We saw a few walkers, old vacuum cleaners, eight-track tape decks. He uses and re-uses the parts to create more unique music-making machines. One he calls the Courtesy Modulator. Also lying around, an Alphatron and a Vigilometer.

Mr. DEWAN: So I've got all sorts of junk in here. This instrument with a one-octave keyboard sticking out of the front of it is something a friend of mine found at a yard sale. I can't tell if it was a homemade thing or a manufactured thing. It's kind of this nether region in between, which is something I always love, things that are kind of half homemade and half professionally manufactured.

STEWART: Brian Dewan holds many titles: musician, inventor, instrument maker, performance artist. He has worked with Blue Man Group, designed an album cover for David Byrne, and collaborated with They Might Be Giants. For New Year's Eve, he makes clock-tower sculptures that look like inverted cathedrals that count down to midnight and then automatically dispense an elixir. You can own a piece of this functional art for seven or eight thousand dollars. In his 40s, Dewan is eager with nervous energy and has a take on the world that seems to go back and forth in time. He retains excitement about things that were once considered avant-garde.

Mr. DEWAN: Obsolescence is really more about a strange compulsion to define things by time or by their time. They're still what they were. They're still as good as they ever were. So you might find some other way of doing it to be more useful. That doesn't mean the previous way is dead or we aren't allowed to think about it anymore because it belongs to another era. All these things have their own virtues.

(Soundbite of vintage filmstrip)

Unidentified Announcer: Innovation, innovation.

STEWART: Like filmstrips. Remember them from your fourth grade health class? The ones about oral hygiene. Dewan's filmstrips tell surreal and sometimes existential stories frame by frame on film acetate advanced by a hand turn of a knob. Dewan hand-paints each storyboard, transfers the image to the filmstrip, records an accompanying audio track, complete with the signal to advance.

(Soundbite of beep)

STEWART: Ah, the beep. It seems a natural art medium for a man who has a philosophy that things from bygone eras deserve new consideration. Some of the titles of his filmstrips: "The Course Of Your Research," "Brand New Packages For Sale." And this one is "The Habit Of Innovation."

(Soundbite of filmstrip "The Habit of Innovation")

Mr. DEWAN: It has become a cliche to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

(Soundbite of beep)

Mr. DEWAN: I propose we say that in a new way. Let's instead say increased frequency of flux gives way to a progressively static condition.

(Soundbite of beep)

Mr. DEWAN: Sometimes it starts out very straight and benign and gets weirder as it goes along. There are different personas of the different narrators, and they all have a kind of a different agenda.

STEWART: Do you take the nostalgia of filmstrips into account when you're creating your stories or your pieces of work?

Mr. DEWAN: To me, it's not about hearkening back to a memory, even though it does. But it's really more about the properties of this medium. And one of them, too, is this tone that's really addressed to one person, but that everyone hears. It has this Pavlovian aspect, the repetition of the tone. So I don't think it's necessary to be familiar with it in order to get a load of it. But if you do remember, that's just another dimension.

(Soundbite of song "Richard M. Nixon")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) Buckle down with Nixon, buckle down. We can win with Nixon if we buckle down.

STEWART: Brian Dewan's musical tastes run from electronic to novelty jazz to American folk to cathedral bell ringing to those presidential campaign tunes we mentioned.

(Soundbite of song "Richard M. Nixon")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) Make them yell for Nixon, Make them yell. We can win with Nixon, If we make them yell.

STEWART: On election night at an upstate New York theater, Brian Dewan will be performing these and others. Who knew James Polk had his own song?

(Soundbite of song "James Polk")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) November Election is coming. To arms, all true Democrats rise. Fear not the loud braying and drumming, Then which oh Whig argument lies.

STEWART: FDR had his song for one of his many re-elections.

(Soundbite of song "Franklin Delano Roosevelt")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) No more bread lines, we're happy to say. The donkey won Election Day. No more standing in the blowing snow and rain. He's got things in full swing. We're all working and getting our pay. We got Franklin D. Roosevelt back again. Back again. Back again. We got Franklin D. Roosevelt back again. Now, if Roosevelt has been re-elected, Moonshine liquor's been corrected, We've got Franklin D. Roosevelt back again.

STEWART: Dwight David Eisenhower songsters went for a simpler sound.

(Soundbite of song "Dwight David Eisenhower")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) I like Ike, I'll shout it over a mike. Or a phone, Or from the highest steeple.

STEWART: And somehow Jimmy Carter winds up with a sexy tango-type number.

(Soundbite of song "Jimmy Carter")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) Can government be competent? Jimmy Carter says yes. Jimmy Carter says yes. Can government be...

STEWART: So we got what we came for, some full-on political kitsch, and left knowing about Dewanatrons, film strips, and inverted cathedrals, and also that the trains seemed to run on time in Catskill, New York.

(Soundbite of song "Jimmy Carter")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) Our 39th president, he has spoken, yes. Jimmy Carter says, yes.

(Soundbite of train horn)

Mr. DEWAN: As your president, I, Jimmy Carter, know it was possible to win the government decently. Without sin or any corruption...

STEWART: You can hear full versions of Brian Dewan's political folk songs and watch one of his surrealist filmstrips at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song "Jimmy Carter")

Mr. DEWAN: (Singing) Errors and wrong doing, I will make known. I will not barter. I'll stand tall like old glory, Sure as I am the president.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: