Man rocks on with granite calliope
Published 4:22 pm, Monday, September 11, 2017
GROTON, Vt. (AP) — John Gordon is literally the brains behind a "rolling stone," but you can't call the bespectacled man in the buckskin jacket and black top hat a "rock musician" without being quickly corrected.
"I'm not a musician," Gordon said during the first of two musical performances he scheduled on an unusually busy Saturday.
Gordon spent most of the day entertaining folks at the Granite Festival in Barre and then scooted up to Williston so the improbable instrument he created out of a hunk of granite a little over a year ago could perform at a private pig roast.
When it comes to his act, Gordon, 70, will tell you the rock is the star and he isn't kidding because he doesn't need to be anywhere near the contraption for it to play songs ranging from "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to the theme from "The Flinstones."
"It plays itself," he said proudly.
If ever there was an example of looks being deceiving "Gordon's Granite Calliope" is it.
That was as true on Saturday as it was when it rolled down the road for the first time last year during Groton's annual fall foliage parade.
"People thought I was just hauling a rock and playing music," Gordon said recalling the debut of his unconventional calliope. "They didn't get that the rock was playing music."
Neither did at least one festival-goer in Barre on Saturday, who struggled to make the connection between what he was seeing and what he was hearing.
"What does this piece of granite have to do with this musical instrument?" he asked innocently.
"It is the musical instrument," Gordon replied with a smile that revealed just how much he relishes fielding questions about a calliope that is a testament to his ingenuity.
"Not everybody hooks a rock to a laptop," he said, quickly conceding: "That was the easy part."
It was for Gordon, a computer engineer who moved to Groton from Massachusetts after retiring in 1988.
To be fair, the laptop's role is purely a function of the fact that the man who has "played" the organ at Groton United Methodist Church for nearly a decade isn't musically inclined. Gordon has programmed a computer to play hymns on the church's organ, and while he can play one song - "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" - on the keyboard for his calliope, tickling the ivories isn't his strong suit.
Problem solving is.
Gordon is an idea guy, and he had a good one when he was in the process of dealing with a rock that had been protruding out of one his fields since he bought his Goodfellow Road property in 1977.
"I had a rock in my field that I'd been mowing around for 30 years and one day I was going by with a backhoe and I wanted to see how big it was," he explained.
After more excavating than Gordon expected, he learned it was too big to pull out of the ground without splitting it the granite into much smaller pieces.
"It was shaped like a whale," he said of the granite outcropping that was five feet high, six feet wide, 15 feet long and likely weighed more than 50,000 pounds.
Gordon started drilling the stone and breaking it into chunks - an exercise that gave him the raw material for a close-fit stone wall with a fountain, and the inspiration for the calliope that turned into an 18-month project.
While drilling holes in the rock for the wedges he used to split it, Gordon used compressed air to blow the dust away.
"When I blew across the holes it made them whistle," said Gordon, who noticed that the tone of the whistle changed depending on the depth and size of the hole.
"That's when I got the idea for the calliope," he said, noting he had long wanted to make one of his own, but hadn't discovered an economical way that fit his skill set.
The irregular shaped hunk of granite, which is now mounted on its own custom-made, canopied trailer, changed that. Though Gordon stressed it was a process.
"When I started this I had no idea whether I could do it or not," he said. "It was total fantasy."
The first hurdle was drilling a few test holes and Gordon said that was easy enough.
"Then I had to figure out a way of tuning it," he said, of a problem he solved by downloading a guitar tuning app on his iPod.
"I could keep drilling on a hole until a got it into tune," he said of what was a note-by-note exercise.
The lowest notes played by the calliope come from blowing air across a hole that is three inches in diameter and 24 inches deep. The highest pitch note comes from a hole that is a half-inch in diameter and only two inches deep.
Finding air valves to make the thing functional was another challenge. New ones would have run $125 apiece and Gordon needed 45 - one for each hole he planned to drill in the stone. That was much more than he wanted to invest in a still theoretical idea, but he snapped up military surplus air valves that were likely used in 1950s-era fighter jets for $10 apiece.
They good news was they cost $10 apiece. The better news was they worked.
"That's when I knew this job's a 'go,'" Gordon recalled. "I can do it."
Gordon got to drilling. He invested in copper tubing from Home Depot to funnel air from the valves to the mouths of each of the holes and assembled a box containing five microprocessor transistors that turn the air valves on and off and work with the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) program on his Dell laptop.
It sounds complicated, but Gordon said - electronics aside - it is relatively simple, as anyone who has ever blown across the mouth of a bottle and enjoyed the sound can attest.
"It's the same concept," he said. "It's just like blowing on a bottle."
Gordon's wife, Susan, said she was suitably impressed, but not completely surprised.
"He's very creative," she said of Gordon. "He can do anything, but this thing absolutely blew me away."
Gordon spent the winter painting and upgrading the crude trailer he initially made for the calliope. He participated at both days of RockFire and the Independence Day parade in Woodsville, New Hampsjire over the summer, and will be making a second straight appearance in the Groton fall foliage parade and will be at the inaugural FallFire event in Barre Town.
Gordon said the calliope's repertoire of simple tunes bring smiles to people's faces.
"It's the happiest music on earth," he said, borrowing the motto of the Carousel Organ Association of America - a group he joined after successfully finding a way to get music from a stone.
Information from: The Times Argus, http://www.timesargus.com/