Playing with fire: Musicians use ‘organ’ that shoots out flame

Playing with fire: Musicians use ‘organ’ that shoots out flame
Where there’s smoke: Bushwick singer Ziemba will add burning fragrances to her performance with the fire organ at National Sawdust on Oct. 15.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

It’s the hottest show in town!

A trio of musicians will heat up National Sawdust in Williamsburg on Oct. 15 with the “Fire Organ Soundscapes” show, each playing a device that spits out fire in response to music. The show is sponsored by Guerilla Science, a Brooklyn group dedicated to connecting people to science in new and eye-catching ways, according to its head of operations.

“Fire is very effective at getting attention,” said Olivia Koski, “So for this, we’ve combined music and fire and science.”

The flame organ consists of five black steel tubes, dotted with holes from which spring propane-fueled flames. A speaker at the end of each causes the flames to dance as it resonates. Called a Rubens’ tube, the devices are common in physics classrooms, said Koski, where they demonstrate frequencies — with the right tone, the flames will flare up into a sine wave. The tubes are usually solo, but Guerilla Science saw great possibilities in making a larger, more elaborate version of the device, she said.

“We decided to stuff five of them in a box and make this beast of an instrument,” said Koski, who lives in Fort Greene.

The group then recruited three artists to develop original compositions for the combustible device, including Bushwick singer Ziemba, who will give a performance that combines smoke, song, and scents, using the flame organ to burn fragrant woods and herbs as part of her show. The organ allows her to expand on her multi-sensory performances, she said.

“I’ve been working with fragrance, and combing fragrance and sound for the last couple of years. So this was a unique opportunity to take it to the next level, with the music directly causing the scents — our voices are igniting the items in the organ. It was a really exciting synaesthetic opportunity,” she said.

Ziemba spent some time experimenting with the fire organ to figure out the sounds it responded to best.

“I spent some time being very playful — seeing what it likes, what vowel sounds, or what kind of melodies or percussive elements looked good,” she said. “It’s a musical experience, but it’s also a visual experience. So it creates a really tricky challenge. I’ve never had so many constraints when composing.”

During her portion of the show, Ziemba and four female vocalists will sing, clap, and create various sounds designed to provoke the fire into burning 10 glass tubes suspended within the fire organ’s interior, each filled with a different assortment of wood and other flammable items, which will release different scents as the work progresses.

Also performing that night will be P. Spadine of the Ashcan Orchestra. His work will play with the shape of the fire, creating tones that cause the flames to ripple and waver in patterns, according to the night’s organizer.

“You can see the melody creeping across the flames,” said Dave Ruder.

And percussionist Levy Lorenzo will use drums to pump the flames higher.

“It’s going to be very primal, which is great because fire is very primal,” said Koski.

“Fire Organ: Soundscapes” at National Sawdust (80 N. Sixth St. at Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, www.nationalsawdust.org). Oct. 15 at 7 pm. $34.

Reach arts editor Bill Roundy at broundy@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4507.

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