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 Article and Interview with John Sumner

From "The Tucson Citizen" - Saturday, April 8, 1978
By Arline K. Anthony



Hey, man, what kinda ax ya blow? A what? A Helmholtz resonator?

Actually, it's a syrinx. It's like an ocarina...you know, a sweet potato.

By whatever name, it's a slick new design for a humble, old-fashioned musical instrument, and it's the inventive handiwork of John Sumner, University of Arizona professor of geophysics. Shaped like an inverted "Y" with a bobbed leg, the syrinx is a slim, pleasingly proportioned version of the lumpy old ocarina that earned its nickname from its potato-like shape.

"It looks like the pipes of Pan, so I named it after Syrinx, the nymph who eluded Pan by being transformed into a reed...which he then picked to make a musical pipe," explains Sumner.

But why a "Hemholtz resonator?" Sumner grins.

Most wind instruments, like clarinets or flutes, are open pipe resonators; because they're open at the end, the sound travels the column in one dimension--up and down-- and, incidentally, produces overtones. In a closed pipe, or "Hemholtz resonator"-- he upends the syrinx to show its solid tips-- "the air travels in three dimensions; up and down the column, back and forth across the width and from top to bottom through the depth. the air is squeezed in all directions within the body by the pressure of the walls." The resultant music has none of the rich tonal variety of an open pipe resonator, but that doesn't detract from its appeal to an ocarina player.

The syrinx's unusual shape developed out of sheer curiosity; Sumner enjoys applying the principles of mathematics and physics to technical problems, just for the fun of it. "I can't take credit for an entirely new idea," he insists. "There's a similar instrument of, I think Czechoslovakian origin called a 'frula,' but it has two chambers, whereas the syrinx has only one."

Musically, the syrinx sounds just like its fat progenitor, with the same muted, flat tone that gives the ocarina its rather haunting, primitive quality. Its pitch depends solely upon size-the interior volume of the enclosed area determining the natural frequency--with the smallest ones sounding as shrill as a tin whistle and the largest as mellow as a recorder. Most of Sumner's instruments are about 3 1/2 to 4 inches long and have a middle range pitch-- "it's the most whistle for the least amount of work"-- but he's made some as long as seven inches and one less than two inches long which he wears on a bola tie. The tone? Piercing, man. All are strung on leather thongs, convenient for carrying around the neck.

In appearance, the slender syrinx bears no family resemblance to its stout cousin. The angled pipes are elliptical in cross section, giving the instrument an air of delicacy. It is made of lovingly matched woods, one variety on the top, another on the underside. No two instruments are identical, but each has contrasting tones of light and dark wood meticulously hand finished with oil and wax to accentuate the natural graining.

Sumner has experimented with many varieties of wood, finally settling on an assortment of exotic African types like zebra wood for its distinctive striping and padouk, or vermillion, for its deep reddish hue.

"There's as much to woods as there is to rocks and minerals," he says, "and they require study the same way, in thin sections under a microscope. Each wood has it's characteristic tone. You can see how they modify the wave train, with the softer woods producing lower harmonics and the harder ones giving a sharper tone. It's all a function of the material's absorption of sound.

"I've tried them all. you should see my scrap pile out back. These rare African woods give me just the degree of hardness I can work with best...and, besides, they're beautiful."

Sumner doesn't always go so far afield for his wood. He made one syrinx entirely from mesquite and found the native wood rewarding to work. It has a tight, interlocking grain that takes well to whittling because it doesn't split easily, has a slightly waxy feel and a rich ochre color.

"I'd like to do more with mesquite. It's not really a tree, you know, but a bush, a member of the pea family-sort of an overgrown legume. Not too much is known about it; the dendrochronologists can't use it because its rings are too indistinct for accurate dating."

Although he uses standard woodworking tools like a jigsaw and a sander for roughing out his instruments, Sumner does most of the detail work by hand, carefully smoothing the outer surfaces, rounding out the finger holes, whittling the narrow air passage at the mouth, matching the woods. Every operation is critical for getting the tone just right. He makes just a few at a time, producing on the average no more than one finished instrument per month.

I'm trying an assembly line of sorts right now. I've got eleven in the works, but I've been on them for a year already, so it'll still average out to one a month. I don't think I'll ever do this again. I find I get bored doing the same operation over and over again, rather than making one instrument from beginning to end. It takes the same amount of time in the long run and, after all, this is my hobby and if it isn't any fun there's no point in doing it at all.

Sumner has turned out more than two dozen syrinxes in the three years since he first conceived the idea. Most of them have been bought by university students, but the word is spreading and other musicians who like the feel and sound of his pipes have placed orders. He prices them according to the amount of work involved, which can vary from piece to piece, and the expense of the particular woods.

"It's a bit difficult to play at first," Sumner admits. "Most wind instruments place your fingers like this"--he aligns his hands flute-style--"but, with a syrinx, even though the octave sequence is the same, you hold your hands at this angle"--pivoting his hands to fan out at a fork--"and it's tricky to make your fingers obey." The syrinx has four finger apertures along the top of each pipe, ascending the scale from lower right, then from lower left, and two thumbholes on the bottom. Sumner tootled a quick chorus of "Yankee Doodle" to demonstrate.

For Sumner, the syrinx is a new twist on a familiar old craft of his youth-making ocarinas of wood. As a teenage ocarina player in Minneapolis, he was constantly frustrated by the high attrition rate of the clay instruments. "The darn things were always breaking...they never survived even the gentlest fall, and I was always dropping them." So he made one of wood and ended up at the age of 16 as one of the youngest patent holders ever registered at the U.S. Patent Office at that time. He still owns several of those first wooden sweet potatoes, fashioned of laminated woods--the only way he could achieve the hollow interior--and still sounding "okay, I guess." Even then he liked to test extremes of sizes, his biggest extant sweet potato from those years looks like the Goodyear blimp, sounds like the Queen Mary in distress and demands a considerable stretch of the fingers to play. Those early ocarinas were made of mahogany and North American woods like maple and walnut.

Out of that patent grew a corporation, the Superino Manufacturing Company, headed by Sumner and two high school friends. The company's businesslike letterhead listed its president as "J. Stewart Sumner," a youthful affectation that John S. Sumner dropped promptly and permanently on entering the service some years later.

The company had four or five friends in its employ and made hundreds of wooden ocarinas to order. They made matched sets for musical groups like "The Escorts and Betty," who played on Don McNeill's famous Breakfast Club on WGN in Chicago, and once got a nibble from the august Baldwin piano company. For a time their ocarina was listed in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, but they were so swamped with orders they fell behind and Sears dropped them in disgust.

"We were so naive, we didn't know the difference between wholesale and retail," Sumner recalls.

Mass production eventually squeezed out craftsmanship and today ocarinas are still made of clay, or plastic. And they still break or crack.

But the three youthful partners were too occupied with a more glamorous profession to fight the trend. They were increasingly in demand as performers who, as a sweet potato trio called "The Potato Bugs," played together in brilliant company throughout their high school years.

"We were a well-balanced group," Sumner remembers. "I was the introvert inventor, Ingebretson was the born promoter and Fjellman was a musical genius and composer."

During the late '30s the Potato Bugs toured the vaudeville circuit, appearing on stage with such luminaries of the Big Band ear as Ted Lewis, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Paul Whiteman, Les Brown and Gene Krupa. Glenn Miller's "Sweet Potato Piper" was written expressly for their featured appearance with the band. They had their own agents, who booked them in Chicago, throughout the Midwest and as far as New York, Boston, and Florida.

"We traveled during school vacations...and sometimes during school." Sumner ruefully admits. "We appeared several times on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour radio programs from New York, winning first and second prizes. But even then I thought it no big deal to be on an amateur hour. After all, we were professionals!" Sumner also did many solo stints on radio in Minneapolis and Chicago and still has the low, low Social Security number from his early working days.

How much money did they make from their joint manufacturing and performing labors? "Not much, but we did manage to pay for our tuition for the first two years at the University of Minnesota."

It was after starting college in 1939 that Sumner began drifting away from the trio. Although the others stayed in show biz long enough to appear in a specialty number in "Call Me Madame" with Ethel Merman, Sumner found himself becoming more interested in rocks than in music. He was committed to a major in geology when he left college in 1941 to enlist in the Marines, taking his favorite ocarina with him. He became a Marine pilot and flew combat over the Pacific until the end of the war, earning more medals than he will talk about now.

In 1945 he returned to the University of Minnesota and graduated in 1948 with two bachelor of science degrees, one in geology and one in engineering physics. After two years with a mining company in northern Michigan, he was recalled for the Korean conflict, finding himself in combat in land and carrier based fighters exactly ten days after reporting for duty. He flew his first jets soon after, later training others in jets before leaving the service in 1952 as a major. He received his Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Wisconsin in 1955, taught for a year, then worked as a geophysicist in Canada and for Phelps Dodge in Douglas before joining the UA faculty in 1963.

A friendly, casual man whose easygoing manner gives no hint of his crowded, active life, Sumner has also been wrestling over the past five years with another challenge, as far removed from the syrinx as geophysics is from music. The culmination of that "hobby" is his geodome, a structure similar to Buckminster Fuller's famous geodesic dome, but with certain fundamental improvements that make it simpler...and stronger.

"I didn't start from scratch on this problem," he says. "I'm standing on Bucky Fuller's shoulders." His admiration for the renowned engineer-philosopher-futurist is unrestrained. "But, thanks to the hand calculator, I've been able to bring Fuller's work to a degree of refinement that I'm sure he envisioned but that was impossible, for all practical purposes, thirty years ago when he first designed his dome. The long, complex mathematical processes involved just in formulating the calculations to feed into a computer were too time-consuming before we had this handy gadget." Sumner's "handy gadget" is a programmable calculator capable of many more functions than the typical $9.99 Saturday special.

The basic difference in the two domes is that Fuller's is composed of flat triangular planes which merely approximate a spherical surface, while Sumner’s uses a sequence of right-angle triangles which curve, in one smooth, unbroken ark, to form a true spherical surface. There are no points or straight edges-hubs and struts-jutting out of the geodome.

The mathematics behind this breakthrough sound formidable as Sumner lists them: spherical trigonometry--"a beautiful, elegant mathematical field"--differential geometry, topology and "a blending of some fringy, flaky mathematical fields."

A single-family house using the dome will soon be built near Benson.

Geodomes and syrinxes are strictly spare time enthusiasms for Sumner. In addition to his teachings at the University, he is a consultant on geophysical exploration and has done studies of Arizona groundwater, regional geophysics and geothermal problems. He flies his own Cessna 180, which he used in his aeromagnetic mapping of Arizona some years ago. He has also consulted during the summer for the Palo Verde nuclear site in the Four Corners and for the Mexico Consecu de Recorsas Minerales.

He has published nearly seventy professional papers and two books, one of which, Induced Polarization for Geophysical Exploration, is used as a supplementary text for undergraduates in geophysics, physics, and mathematics.

Evidences of the Sumner interests strew the family's comfortable home near Himmel Park. A small and surprisingly strong paper model of the geodome sits on the living room floor, next to a rug hooked by Nancy Sumner which she designed from her husband's aeromagnetic map of Arizona, the topographic patters of the magnetic intensities worked in brilliant colors.

What looks like basket weavery hanging from the ceiling is an actual sectional model of the dome, an airy open-work illustration of the structure made from plywood strips. Out in the patio, looming above the garage-workshop, is the huge framework of a much larger geodome, a black skeleton of steel tubing that breaks the view of the horizon like a mullioned window.

Nancy is a speech therapist with the Tucson school system who likes to remind her husband that a bird's Y-shaped voice box is called a syrinx.

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