Raketon - a myriad of sounds on two strings

Raketon, photo: Tomáš Rasl

A one-of-a-kind instrument called raketon made its first public appearance three years ago in a museum exhibit, but this week it had its debut in a contemporary classical music concert, together with Prague’s Berg Orchestra. I had a chance to speak to Raketon’s inventor Michal Cimala and to composer Jakub Rataj who mastered this simple and elegant instrument and wrote the first orchestral piece that includes it. Both of them perform on the raketon as well by plucking, striking and touching its two strings with bows, mallets and even milk frothers.

Raketon,  photo: Tomáš Rasl
I began by asking Michal to describe what the raketon is made out of.

Michal Cimala: “So, it is made from a tube, usually used in a pipeline or for water. The tube is deformed. I created a new shape with just simple cuts. Inside is a frame from steel and the important parts are two pick-ups from bass guitar and two strings from a piano, and it also has a special stand.”

When did you first start working on it and how long did it take you to get the instrument into the shape that it is now?

MC: “The process was pretty long. I started in 1999. And I finished the first instrument around 2001. And later I tried to develop it and make it an even better instrument, and I work pretty continuously on it and finally there was an exhibit in the DOX gallery in 2010 and 19 of my experimental instruments were exhibited there.”

Have any of these instruments appeared in concert before?

MC: “Yeah, I used them during performances at the openings of my exhibits. And I have also played in concerts and as a guest with some professional musicians. And this experience with the berg Orchestra and Jakub Rataj, the composer of the piece for Raketon, because it is very professional work and this is the first time that I am working with this type of musicians, with an orchestra. It has been a very special experience for me.”

Michal Cimala,  photo: archive of Eva Kesslová
So what was the experience like for you, Jakub? When did you start to get to know this instrument?

Jakub Rataj: “The idea to write a piece for Raketon came about when the conductor of Berg Orchestra came and told me that there is this new instrument and that it looks great and it has a wonderful sound and asked me if I would be interested in writing something for it. He knows that I play on the electric guitar myself, and I like to play with objects and I am active as a performer.

“So I was very curious about what the work will be like. I went to the atelier Trafačka and started to play on it and look for the sounds, to discover the possibilities that the instrument is able to give.”

How long did it take you to get comfortable with all the possibilities that Raketon has to offer?

JR: “Well, I think I have only discovered a piece of all the possibilities that Raketon provides, but it probably took me about a few hours, but they were few very intense hours.”

Can you compare Raketon to any other instrument or is it completely unique?

Raketon,  photo: Tomáš Rasl
JR: “It is completely unique in the sense that it combines many instrument in one. So, for example, there is this one native instrument from Brazil called Berimbao. And if you play with a stick on these metal strings it makes a sound that you get from the Berimbao. When you use the bow you get a sound that is similar to the sound of an amplified cello. When you use a different technique is sounds a bit like a strange electric guitar, and so on. So it is a combination of different shapes and materials it is unique, but you can find these known sounds in different parts.”

Is this an instrument that is easy to compose for? Can you imagine yourself composing more music for it in the future?

JR: “Well, it was not easy to compose this one piece, because it only has two strings and I needed to figure out what I wanted to do, if it will be a virtuoso piece or more a timbre piece. So I used it in a more timbre-like way. But if I write another piece it will be more difficult, because there is actually no literature, so you are absolutely free in what you can do and write, but at the same time it is harder, because it is new.”

While Jakub was discovering the raketon and writing the music for it, did it help you, Michal, discover something new about it, maybe new sounds or special instruments that you use to play on it?

MC: “Definitely. [Jakub Rataj] showed me how it is possible to play regular tones on it. He measured the strings, divided them up and made points on it, so you can play simple melodies.”

Jakub Rataj,  photo: archive of Eva Kesslová
Do you think this is an instrument that can eventually be taught at a musical school? Is it simple enough to learn?

MC: “I don’t really know, I am not sure.”

Are you planning to make more raketons?

MC: “I will make a new one this year and it will be possible to play regular music on it. It will have bars and six strings, so it will provide more possibilities.”

How often are new musical instruments invented these days?

MC: “There are a few people around the world who are interested in creating new and weird musical instruments. It is not a new community, but I think there may be about a hundred people.”

JR: “I’m quite sure that there are more of them. This is linked to sound art in general and there are lots of people who are interested in sound installations in making sound sculptures, sound objects, and that’s just one step away from creating new instruments.”

And raketon is a very modern and almost futuristic creation in many ways, because it combines technology and art?

BERG orchestra,  photo: Karel Šuster
JR: “Yes, but this is what people were always looking for, even 100 years ago with the Intonarumori of the futurist composers and others. The interest in looking for new sounds and new methods of getting these sounds this interest I think will never die, it’s like looking for new colors.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 23, 2013.