Music Box Man
John Morton Picks up the Pieces to Make Music

Start streaming audioListen to Liane Hansen talk with John Morton

Nov. 18, 2001 -- With his album Outlier, John Morton may have transformed himself into the ultimate postmodern composer and performer.

Morton plays themusic box

John Morton plays one of his creations.
Photo: Dan Mitchell, NPR

Morton takes apart music boxes, reconfigures their innards, and builds new instruments out of them. He "plays" the collection of music boxes by manipulating them both manually and electronically. The result is unmistakably still the sound of music boxes, but with a layered density and depth that combines the human with the mechanical. One critic describes Morton's compositions as "at once soothing and disturbing."

Morton talks with Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen this week about his career as a composer, pianist and instrument builder, and how he got started on music-box manipulation and composition.

It all started, he says, when his wife, sculptor Jacqueline Shatz, persuaded him to help her with a piece she was working on. After they built their first music box together, he was hooked, and he grew interested in using music boxes to create new sounds.

One of the attractions, he says, was that music boxes "allowed me to play with giving up some control." Because his contraptions play at different speeds, and because they behave differently each time they are played, the results are "unpredictable," he says.

A music box sculpture

One of the works created by Morton and his wife, sculptor Jacqueline Shatz.

He recognized early on that working with music boxes fit well with his postmodern approach to composition and performance. His father, a composer for movies and TV shows (he wrote the theme for The Waltons) would spend whole evenings playing the same chord over and over in different arrangements. "I think that was very instructive to me," says Morton, "because it was the details of sound that I became tuned in to rather than the romantic qualities or the overarching qualities of music."

It's one thing to break music down into its component parts and piece it back together a la John Cage. Morton takes it several steps further -- he deconstructs not only the music, but the instruments themselves.

Morton has been working with music boxes in one way or another for several years. He and Shatz construct large-scale music boxes that use multiple moving sculptures, as well as interactive displays of multiple music boxes operated by the observer.

The pair spent last summer as artists in residence at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which is affiliated with the Kohler factory in Sheboygan, Wisc. Yes, that's the company that makes bathroom fixtures.

This piece was produced by Ned Wharton

Other Resources

Sample some of the sounds from Outlier.

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center.