Making Music Out of Invasive Weeds
by Glenn Jochum
As a young boy growing up in Wisconsin, Jay Loomis felt the presence of the indigenous population that makes up much of the state — places bearing Native American names — but it was the music he heard that changed his life forever.
That Native American flute music drifting from a car radio placed him firmly on a quest to learn to play and later to make wind instruments.
When he moved to Long Island to live with his great aunt and uncle, Earl and Merly Loomis, who made Greenport their home, he became passionate about this quest to experience the beauty of native cultures through music.
Today he is pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, and he is collaborating with fellow musicians and computer scientists to learn how to create better wind instruments from natural and man-made sources alike.
Sometimes, he uses elements of both in the same instrument, like fashioning the flute itself from a plant and using a 3-D printer to make the saddle block or “bird,” which controls the flow of air through the instrument.
This part of the flute is largely responsible for its unique sound. When Loomis uses 3-D printing, one material in the process is called PLA or polylactic acid, a biodegradable polyester derived from renewable sources such as sugar cane and corn starch. He may be inspired by native design to adorn the instrument with leather cords, snakeskin or beads.
For a number of years, Jay struggled using bamboo for the flute body. “Bamboo is fairly hard wood and it splits and cracks with changes in the weather,” said Mr. Loomis.
But then one day in 2005, when he was running an arts and crafts summer program at Camp DeWolfe in Wading River, Mr. Loomis made a pleasant discovery.
“As part of my duties I had to clear out a large area of Japanese knotweed, which like bamboo, is one of the world’s most invasive plants,” he said. “I noticed that as I removed the plants some of the large, tougher pieces wouldn’t break and I decided to take a closer look at Japanese knotweed as a substitute for bamboo.”
He added that Japanese knotweed possesses the best of both worlds — it is easy to work with like balsa wood but hollow like bamboo. And although Loomis no longer relies on that particular stand at the Wading River location, he needn’t worry because Japanese knotweed is abundant on Long Island.
Mr. Loomis found a prolific patch of it at a public park alongside the Peconic River on West Main Street in Riverhead, much more than he could harvest in multiple lifetimes, even if he started up a flute factory.
“What I’m doing isn’t going to solve the problem of eradicating this invasive species, but I love the fact that it allows me to bring an awareness of indigenous culture and ecology to the public,” Mr. Loomis said.
Mr. Loomis does not need to utilize power tools with Japanese knotweed but can use a Dremel, a small drill used by wood hobbyists, to get nice round finger holes. The most difficult part is fashioning the bird and this is where Loomis often relies upon the 3-D printer.
By changing the shape of the bird he can alter the nature of the sound, which he demonstrated by playing a flute entirely fashioned from wood and then one that features a plastic bird.
“See how the 3-D printed bird has a brighter sound?” Mr. Loomis noted.
Although he currently uses epoxy to secure the bird to the flute body, Mr. Loomis is researching plastic that consists more of plant products than fossil fuel derivatives. He is also experimenting with birds that are 3-D printed miniature models of pipe organs and applying their design to a Native American style.
Mr. Loomis has been both educating and entertaining audiences with the results of his handiwork for much of the past decade. He typically spends two to three days each year instructing a fourth-grade class at the Ross School in Bridgehampton, guiding the students through the creative process of making the flutes, sanding them and adding beadwork. After he teaches his young pupils about Native American culture and history, the process culminates with an assembly at which they get to play their hand-made instruments.
Mr. Loomis is tirelessly trying to perfect the flute-fashioning process. As a teaching assistant at Stony Brook’s CDACT, the consortium for digital art, culture and technology he works for Margaret Schedel, CDACT director and associate music professor. That is where he connected with Roy Shilkrot, assistant professor of computer science, who collaborates with him on securing a grant to create 3-D printed replicas of ancient wind instruments.
Professor Schedel also introduced him to Hideo Sekino, a visiting professor from Tokyo Institute of Technology, affiliated with the Institute of Computational Science at Stony Brook. Professor Sekino plays a traditional Japanese flute called the shakuhachi and performs at the University’s Staller Center and in his native Japan.
Mr. Loomis was inspired to try to learn to play the instrument, which he used to co-compose an electronic music piece with colleague Tim Vallier, which you can watch below.
Every summer for the past five years, Mr. Loomis has also performed volunteer work at Stony Brook University’s Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, helping underserved primary school students to gain self-confidence in their creative abilities by making and playing Native American flutes and through other crafts.
Loomis has also conducted a series of workshops and performed at Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, Southold Library and Camp DeWolfe, and the Maker Fair in Port Jefferson.
His work with indigenous instruments also serves a far more personal function for Loomis.
“I was only a few hours from the Menominee Tribe Reservation growing up in Wisconsin and I never learned about their culture,” he said. “It wasn’t part of our curriculum, although it has existed for thousands of years. Learning to play the Native American instruments and teaching others above indigenous culture is my effort to compensate for that educational gap.”
Jay Loomis has indeed found a homecoming in teaching and performing on the East End of Long Island. He can be reached at jaymloomis@gmail for concerts or workshops.