Ed Potokar is a musician who’s been playing the drums, composing (he wrote the theme to MTV’s Unplugged) and creating instruments for decades. So it’s a bit surprising to hear he was “a little scared” when 450 people descended on the exhibit of his new series of “sound sculptures” and started to play with them. Many weren’t typical passersby, either.
The collection of instruments, displayed in John Houshman’s SoHo showroom, brought out a cadre of acclaimed musicians including Suzanne Vega, Shawn Pelton (who’s performed with Bruce Springsteen, Edie Brickell, and Billy Joel), and Sterling Campbell (who works with numerous acts, such as David Bowie, Duran Duran, and the B-52s). “I make things pretty strong,” he explains, “but I thought for sure they were going to blow through the drums.” (That didn’t happen.)
What did happen was that the success of the show (which runs through Feb 3) served to strengthen Potokar’s resolve that there are commercial applications for pieces like the "Drum Wall,” a sleek wooden room divider fit with 11 tuned drums of varying sizes. “We live in sound,” he asserts, “but we only react to it; we never make it.”
Beyond showcasing the instruments in interactive shows for which he’d like to score music, Potokar’s vision is to incorporate sound into everyday design, particularly in public spaces like hotel lobbies. Together with Houshmand (also an artist and musician who crafts furniture) they’ve formed Soundwall, a company that will create installations that can be heard as well as seen.
“I did a lot of interior design in restaurants in New York in the early 80s and that kind of led to learning about how to use space,” says Potokar who was trained in industrial design. Unfortunately, he says, the audio spectrum is largely neglected in architecture. He’d like to change that. “I had this crazy idea using a human-powered revolving door; when it spins, it’s like a giant music box that you only hear when you are in the door,” he says.
The latter emphasis on how the sound plays is top of mind for Potokar, who admits that though he’s a drummer he’s intrigued by quieter sounds and lower frequencies. “You’d want it to be adjustable, subtle, and not abusive,” he explains, “You could just turn it off so it works for only a couple of hours in the day or have directional speakers to redirect the sound.”
As the cocreator of the Potofone, a ribbon microphone for studio recording and performance, Potokar is well versed in the blending of advanced materials with hand-built construction. And while he wants the sounds emanating from his creations to be as pure as possible, he’d also prefer to eschew tech in favor of simple concepts. “It’s easy to add tech and lights,” he contends. The challenge comes when stripping things down to their essence. Just don’t expect to see his slide guitar coffee table at a Target near you any time soon. “It is really difficult to do something clean and simple. That’s why it’s so expensive,” he adds with a laugh.
“I want all things to be art first, beautiful unto themselves,” Potokar maintains. “The next step, the bonus, is the interesting interface to create musical structure and sound.” So for now, Potokar’s going to focus on taking the collection to the next level by scoring music for the instruments and taking the show on the road. “I like the idea of other people playing them. There is something magical about passing this stuff off and seeing what other people do and how others’ minds work. Anything could happen.” And that’s music to his ears.