Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Lelavision, Sounds Of One-Of-A-Kind Metal Instruments Come To Life On Stage

Michelle Bates
Ela Lamblin and Leah Mann playing the long wave.

When you signed up for band in middle school, you probably didn’t have the option of playing the rumitone, the stamenphone or the violcano. These are the names of some of the one-of-a-kind instruments dreamed up and forged out of metal by Ela Lamblin.   

Lamblin is the musical genius behind the performance group Lelavision. His wife, dancer and choreographer Leah Mann, animates Lamblin’s instruments on stage. When you see one of their shows, you are witnessing the best of the couple’s talents working together.

Exotic, Otherworldly Instruments Once Even Mistaken For A Weapon

The closest thing to compare Lelavision to is Cirque De Soleil. Performers do acrobatics and play sophisticated instruments that might have been pulled from a science fiction novel or an undiscovered sketch from Leonardo Da Vinci. Lelavision is exotic.

“For the audience, seeing something really visually cool and attractive is part of it.” says Lamblin. “And then realizing, 'Oh, all of these things on the stage are going to make sound. Wow, I had no idea!”'

Lamblin and Mann met in Atlanta in the early 1990s. He was studying at The Atlantic College of the Arts and she was the founder of a professional dance company.

Mann recalls seeing Lamblin for the fist time: “Oh, that stiff guy in the yoga class, he rides his bike and he straps weird things to his back and they’re musical. The police pulled them over because they thought it was a weapon.”

“Yeah, they did.” recalls Lamblin. “I was in college and the police were doing some sort of road check. They were kind once I got it out and demonstrated to them — ‘No, really, listen!’ It looked like a giant bow, but it had a big music wire on it, a resonator.”

“The things he made were really interesting to look at,” says Mann. “His pieces didn’t need to be in an orchestra pit off to the side; they needed to be the main focal point. We would try and sound them, dance with them and animate them all at the same time instead of two different things.”

They eventually moved to Seattle and evolved into a performance that melds dance, movement, music and theater.

Mann and Lamblin’s home base is a few acres in the middle of Vashon Island at the end of a long gravel road. The workshop looks like a barn. They built this place themselves, as well as the house that stands several yards away. This is where Lamblin’s unique metal instruments live when they aren’t on a stage. It's also where Mann develops her choreography.

Stamenphone: The 'Musical Plant'

Credit Jennifer Wing
The Stamenphone.

The oldest instrument in the cavernous space is the stamenphone, which Lamblin calls "a musical plant." It has a large metal orb at its base and a pole, or stamen, that’s about four and a half feet high. Piano wires are strung from top to bottom and Lamblin plays it with a rosined cello bow; it kind of looks like a giant hookah. He built it 22 years ago after a vivid dream of a plant that could play music.

“I made this right at the end of college, I’ve had this the longest. I had no idea I‘d still be playing it. It led me on such a path of discovery that has lasted so long. I think of the instrument as my teacher,” Lamblin shares with a reverence in his voice.  

The stamenphone weighs about 120 pounds and has traveled with Lamblin to performances in places such as Germany, Turkey, Singapore and Israel. It took Lamblin 10 years to figure out how to play the stamenphone and it inspired him to keep hammering away at metal to make new, big, original instruments.  

Once the instruments are made, Mann steps in and figures out ways dance can animate them and how they can be used as props. “All of the pieces are an evolution of trying, an evolution of attempts,” says Mann.

A good example is what Mann does with metal shells Lamblin made that can also be used as drums. Through choreography and yoga, Mann creates a visual surprise that their bodies can even fit inside what look like snail shells. They tuck themselves in so the sculptures rest like rocks on the ground. Then they suddenly pop up with two human feet underneath skittering across the stage.

“There is a specific way we can get in without our bodies getting stuck, although Ela did get stuck once when he put one on, but he did manage to get out when he relaxed a little,” says Mann.

If A Viola And A Volcano Had A Child, It'd Look Like The Violcano

Another instrument Mann and Lamblin disappear into is the violcano. If a viola and a volcano had a child, this is what it would look like, says Lamblin.

Credit Michelle Bates
The Violcano.

“It’s a large steel cone that is strung with music wire,” says Lamblin. “We start out outside the edges of the instrument and eventually I get sucked inside and Leah gets sucked inside, then we erupt for seismic finish.”   

One of the most magical visions during a Lelavision show last year at the Moore theater in Seattle came when four performers, at the same time, played an instrument called the long wave.

The long wave is a giant, 38-stringed harp that resembles a cross section of a wooden schooner. But as Lamblin explains, since the strings are very long and run parallel to the floor, they can’t be plucked.

“If you pluck the string, you don’t get anything. It’s only through rubbing it with a rosin-covered glove that you get the longitudinal excitement.”

Once in a while Lamblin gets a request for a custom order instrument. One question he is asked a lot is: Why don’t you patent these things? Lamblin says the objects he makes are too big and take too long to learn how to play. He says most people don’t have the patience.

But then again, that’s what he loves about his musical sculptures. He can create completely new things because he doesn’t let size get in the way. He doesn’t worry if they are missing notes. He works around their imperfections, even if it takes a decade to civilize their otherworldly sounds.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.