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May 30, 2014 6:39 pm

‘I invented the carrot clarinet’

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Linsey Pollak©Renee Melides

Linsey Pollak has also created music with onions, potatoes, pumpkins and watermelons

I’ve toured all over the world for the past 23 years doing solo shows featuring the instruments that I’ve made. I developed the carrot clarinet after a concert producer asked me to come up with a totally new concept for a show. Somehow, the idea of boring out a carrot and turning it into an instrument popped into my head. You have to have a very firm, fresh carrot; it can’t have been down the back of the fridge for too long. But it’s pretty straightforward really – it’s just a matter of drilling the right-sized hole.

My entry into music was as a kid in Australia, studying classical clarinet until I was about 19. Then, at university, I started making and selling bamboo flutes. I was in my second year of physiology at the time, but I then dropped out so I had more time to make instruments. My parents had been scientists, so they were probably a bit disappointed but they let me follow my own path.

After that, I got a grant to spend six months travelling around museums in Europe, measuring Renaissance instruments to make copies. I saw quite a few beautifully crafted walking-stick flutes, so I started making some, just for fun.

In 1977, I ended up in London and set up an instrument workshop in Rotherhithe, before the gentrification of the area. There was a collective of about 25 craftspeople based in an old wool warehouse. While I was there, I discovered Macedonian music from an album in a friend’s collection and decided that I wanted to learn the Macedonian bagpipes, or gaida. It was cheap to travel from London to Macedonia – £25 on the bus to Skopje – so I was there about eight months in all, spending time with Romany gypsies and studying the Macedonian bagpipe.

After a couple of years, I came back to Australia and I didn’t have any money, so I was busking with my bagpipes outside a cinema. One night, a group of burly, tough-looking guys came out and headed straight for me while I was playing. They formed a circle around me, and I started getting a bit worried. Then they suddenly joined hands and started dancing – it was a group of Macedonians. They were blown out that there was this Australian guy who spoke a bit of their language and played this crazy Macedonian instrument.

By this point, I was mostly making Renaissance flutes and Macedonian bagpipes but I kept experimenting. I started making flutes out of an aluminium chair and a camping stool. The first big show I did featured lots of instruments made from household objects – ladders, brooms, mops, garden forks and cutlery. Later, I did a food-themed show using onions, potatoes, pumpkins and watermelons. If you push bamboo satay sticks into watermelons at different lengths you amplify the sound: it’s like a giant thumb piano.

In total, I’ve probably made about 100 types of instrument. I usually know what I’m after but sometimes I get a very interesting surprise. Mr Curly, a contra bass clarinet made from garden hose, was nice because I didn’t imagine I’d get such a great sound out of such a long, narrow pipe.

Then there’s my rubber-glove bagpipe, which has gone through a range of transmutations. There are more than 230 types of bagpipe all over the world and people have used all sorts of things for the bag – the Macedonians use a whole goat, while the Scots use stitched leather. The first bagpipes I experimented with were made out of a plastic wine bag. Then I moved on to the rubber glove. The current version uses the glove, an irrigation water pipe and a reed made from a bit of vibrating garbage bag.

My most popular instruments are Mr Curly and the carrot clarinet. People go, my god – you can get that sound just from a bit of vegetable? But it really is as simple as making a tube, as it’s the air in the tube that’s vibrating. The material affects the sound but not as much as you would expect. That’s why you can get a pretty amazing sound from something like a carrot.

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