Local Man Records Music With, Crafts Didgeridoos

March 16, 2011 3:07 PM0 comments

KK-pic_SelectBy day, Karl Kalbaugh is tweaking the audio tracks on Discovery Channel documentaries to give them the perfect sound. But when the work day is done, Kalbaugh indulges in a more than decade-long love of recording and even building an uncommon musical instrument.

KK-pic_SelectBy day, Karl Kalbaugh is tweaking the audio tracks on Discovery Channel documentaries to give them the perfect sound. But when the work day is done, Kalbaugh indulges in a more than decade-long love of recording and even building an uncommon musical instrument.

Kalbaugh plays the didgeridoo. The ancient Australian aboriginal wind instrument, formed by hollowing a long piece of wood, is played by passing air through the hollowed portion of the instrument from vibrating lips. The instrument produces a low, bellowing sound.

“I first heard it on a recording and was immediately attracted to the sound,” Kalbaugh said. “A lot of people have called it a voice of the earth, and I think I was attracted to that idea.”

In the mid-90s, Kalbaugh’s appreciation for didgeridoo music inspired his wife to buy him his very own.

“I completely fell in love with it,” Kalbaugh said. Though he owned the instrument, he didn’t know how to play it at first, but set forth to teach himself without formal instruction by listening to recordings and picking the brain of a fellow didgeridoo player.

Kalbaugh’s new vocation raised some eyebrows, and not the least of which was his young daughter’s.

“She always complained about it when I was first learning to play the instrument,” Kalbaugh said. “She would often complain about how it sounded like gas, and I would laugh, and she would laugh.”

Learning the instrument and working in the world of sound mixing led to Kalbaugh recording on soundtracks for a number of projects, the first being a documentary on Australian crocodiles to which he lent his didgeridoo-playing abilities.

In 2001, Kalbaugh sought to harness the power of the didgeridoo on his first CD, “Terra Nova,” to tackle an ambitious theme.

“The whole point behind the first CD was to describe musically what it would take to achieve world peace,” Kalbaugh said. The proceeds from the sale of that CD went to hunger relief efforts.

A decade since the recording, Kalbaugh looks back a bit wiser for time and experience.

“You can definitely tell that the first one was a freshman effort,” Kalbaugh said. “There are good moments in that first CD; I love it, and felt very proud of it. But you listen to it for 10 years and you begin to hear things that you wish you had done differently.”

Now, Kalbaugh is releasing his sophomore effort, in an album titled “Outbound.”

“This one is I think a little more refined,” Kalbaugh said of his second effort, which is available on iTunes and CDBaby.com. “I had a bunch of great stuff on the shelf and selected some things that I thought would go together really well.”

He hopes that the album can be used for meditation or yoga, but recognizes the challenge in creating music intended to allow self-reflection.

“A big part of it was, don’t let the listeners get bored,” Kalbaugh said. “There’s always a fear of that with meditation music.”

While the CDs aren’t solely recordings of didgeridoo performances, Kalbaugh said the instrument figures heavily into his compositions.

“I try to go for that voice of the earth, visceral response from listeners,” Kalbaugh said. “The didgeridoo really taps into that sort of sense of the ancient in people. Listeners pick up on that immediately when they hear the didgeridoo on CDs.”

Kalbaugh, who has been a sound mixer for the past 25 years and has been working with the Discovery Channel for the past six, said that his career gives him the know-how to record, but also provides some inspiration.

“Some of the visual material I’ve worked on can be pretty inspirational with my music,” Kalbaugh said. “Some of the natural history things they do in the remote places of the world, some of that imagery is very powerful stuff and it definitely influences my music in a broad sense.”

While Kalbaugh says that sound mixing and recording music are similar endeavors, he admits that his other hobby – actually crafting didgeridoos – is a departure.

“Building the instruments is something completely off the beaten track,” Kalbaugh said. “The only reference it has to the other two is that it produces sound.”

He built his first didgeridoo with the help of an aboriginal man in a workshop setting.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but that just tapped something in me,” Kalbaugh said. “But there are some other talented makers in the U.S. Looking at their work and how they achieved it, at first thing I thought there’s no way I can do this.”

He found support and instruction from didgeridoo makers across the nation.

“I would tell them, ‘your work is beautiful, I wish I could do that.’ Inevitably, they would stop and say, ‘but you can.’” Kalbaugh said. One didgeridoo maker even loaned his tools to Kalbaugh to give him the opportunity to build a few, which he admits “weren’t perfect by any means.”

“You get intimate with the wood,” Kalbaugh said. “You’re looking at the graining and it’s a very tactile experience. You begin to see this fire and eventually, within not too long a time, you’re able to actually get some sound out of it, and it has some personality after that.”

The pieces, which he makes from both wood and plastic, retail for anywhere between $150 and $300. While he ships orders across the nation, the didgeridoos are sold locally at The House of Musical Traditions in Tacoma Park, Maryland, and The Soundary in Vienna. Kalbaugh works through spring and summer, usually making six to 10 pieces through the season.

And in the hands of this Shrevewood resident, these ancient Australian instruments get a Falls Church touch.

“When a big windstorm comes through, I go scouting for downed limbs to make into didgeridoos and that’s how I get my pieces of wood for the instruments,” Kalbaugh said. “I go scouring through Falls Church at the brush pickup piles that people leave. If they see someone poking around in their pickup piles, they get suspicious. I tell them what I do, that I make instruments. Inevitably they’ll help me load it into the car, and I’ll get an excellent piece of wood out of it.”

 

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