Norman Andersen flipped a switch on the side of a contraption that looks like a combination of a pipe organ and a china cabinet, albeit with a bright red Scandinavian door harp perched like a cherry on top. “This is called Valkommen!,” Andersen said. The thing began to wheeze and hum, then the pipes moaned out an uneven dirge. A bass drum started booming slowly from within while a mechanical arm strummed a shrill tune on the door harp, another tapped a handmade cymbal, and a pair of cheap red castanets clattered. After a few minutes, the whole thing folded back into itself with a gentle sigh. It was a mesmerizing performance. “Thing is, I just can’t sell these,” Andersen explained. “They’re like elephants. Everyone loves elephants, but no one wants to own one.”
Andersen is a tidy man, with the impish look of a fellow who takes sheer pleasure in his work. He’s always been interested in music and art, in fashioning things from found objects, and in combining the two. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, the son of an architect father and a music teacher mother, Norman would enlist his pals to help him make spook houses and work with electricity and model airplanes.
As a young man, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute and eventually ended up at MCAD, where he also taught for some time. “At first, I thought I wanted to be a painter,” he said. “But then I discovered that I could make contraptions.” Andersen’s large house is filled with musical instruments, from a trombone to a drum set to a grand piano. All this competes for space with Valkommen! and other indoor sound sculptures that make countless types of noises when engaged but are often simply pleasant to look at. Some are as big as refrigerators, some as long as a Cadillac, while others fit snugly on top of a speaker or end table.
Even Andersen’s doorbell is a sound sculpture. Hanging on a plank above the sink in his retro-style kitchen is a series of three plates with plastic fruit glued to them, a wine glass on its side, a carving knife, and a Bundt cake pan with blue stripes. When the front doorbell is rung, wooden balls strike the plates and butter knives, the wine glass spins, and the carving knife slices back and forth through the air. The back doorbell makes the Bundt pan spin and emit a ratcheting noise.
Lately, Andersen has turned his attention from indoor sound sculptures to outdoor art objects that also make noise or simply twirl in place. These “self-composing” devices use wind and the elements to make all kinds of noises. Accord, commissioned by the City of Minneapolis, sits in the gateway of the Southeast Como neighborhood’s Van Cleve Park. Looking like one of Wilhelm Reich’s cloudbusters, it’s a giant cylinder surrounded by a spiral of rusty organ pipes pointing straight into the sky. Accord performs its kinetic concerts at noon, three, six, and nine o’clock each day. At these times, an electric blower pushes air through the pipes while a windmill controls the tempo, determining what you’ll hear on any given day—from one note, when the air is dead, to a whole chorus on a blustery day. “I like to work with technology,” Andersen explained, “but I don’t like the coldness and aloofness of machines by themselves. It’s a great transition to go from machine to wind. The capriciousness of nature—that’s what’s human.”
Andersen’s garage and basement are filled with junk acquired during his travels, from bicycle rims to old organ pipes to metal bowls that, when struck, give off lovely, hollow sounds. A visit to his basement, with sawdust everywhere and windows made from Mrs. Butterworth’s bottles, is like stepping into the man’s brain. There’s a circular UHF antenna that, when plugged in and stroked with a violin bow, makes a melancholy moan. Tossed about this cramped dungeon—but undoubtedly in some sort of order—is a Flexicord (an Andersen-invented pedaled device with strings), pieces of bamboo, shell casings, bugles, cowbells, toy drums, and a pair of tiny, elf-like shoes that his aunt, a former CIA agent stationed in Vietnam, brought him years ago.
Andersen’s pièce de résistance is Rainmaker’s Baggage, a thirty-two-foot sound sculpture on display at the Northwest Airlines baggage claim at Sea-Tac International Airport. Pink, red, yellow, and purple suitcases, guitar cases, makeup kits, and overnight bags are skewered on a long pole. When the sculpture is engaged, luggage begins to spill out along the conveyor belts, and the programmable-logic controller spins the kebabed bags around and around. These have been modified to rattle like rainsticks while acrylic sheets rumble below, approximating thunder. Andersen created Rainmaker’s Baggage at the behest of the Port of Seattle and had to scrounge around on eBay for some of the luggage. “Reaction to that piece is divided by the sexes,” he said with a laugh. “The men want to know how the thing works; the women want the luggage.”