"I have a secret dream of playing this place like a drum." I said that over a year ago to Ron Baraff, the Director of Historic Resources and Facilities at Rivers of Steel, when I gave him my elevator pitch and business card during an art exhibition at Carrie Blast Furnaces. Ron, whose generosity and faith in my abilities I am especially grateful for, opened the communication and the gates to the facility so that I could make music through this historic place.
I'm a percussionist, so I think a lot about the sound of a surface when it is struck and the effect it can have on the listener. At first glance, Carrie Furnaces look like a rusted, metal castle out of science fiction - what many see as a relic of a bygone era of industry when molten steel was lifeblood, particularly in the Pittsburgh region. That was my first thought. My second thought was "I bet it sounds amazing!"
And, damn it, it does! Yes, the elaborate machine that fueled the Industrial Revolution is a giant, iron ghost, yet the individual parts are very much alive. They each produce a miraculously imperfect sound that speaks the language of history. These objects are composed of various metals and alloys meant to withstand a hellish environment, not call the congregation to church like a bell. The surfaces are rough and worn by the elements and decades of heavy use by gritty men and women. They comprise large, cavernous structures whose echo confirms that whatever sounds came from this place in its heyday, they were big and loud like thunder. Carrie Furnaces has a colorful, sonic story in its bones which, to me, makes it a tune worth playing with respect on film.
In order to play a place, I have to think like a percussionist who dances. My instruments, in this case, are ladders, railings, floors, walls, steps, and so on. That means, in order to strike them musically, I have to walk, stand, sit, and, in general, move my body with the same intentionality as my hands. It's a fun challenge that, ultimately, comes down to decisions on when to complicate imagery and when to simplify it. For the record, I always spend more time simplifying creative projects nowadays.
With that, I invite you to watch and listen to The Blast Furnace. Many thanks again to Ron Baraff at Rivers of Steel and J. Aaron Hager for, once again, lending his filmmaking talents (and equipment) to another wild circus adventure. Finally, if you get the chance to visit this metal castle in person, do it! Rivers of Steel offers tours, art exhibitions, and movie screenings at various points throughout the year (riversofsteel.com).