Rhythm in a rock: One Seattle couple's tribute to nature

If you're anyone but Ela Lamblin and you accidentally kick a rock while hiking in the Cascades, what do you do? You move on.

But if you're the musical sculptor Lamblin, you take note of a percussive and clear sound as the rock strikes other rocks. You pick it up and study how the water and erosion in the mountains sliced it into a thin, neat sheet. You find tons of others just like it, bring them home and tune them — thinner for a lower sound, shorter for a higher one.

Then you make mallets out of the same batch of stones, build a tree out of fabricated steel on which the stones will hang and practice playing your new musical instrument.

Which, incidentally, creates cold, jarring melodies resonating with what Lamblin calls "kack-dinks."

Oh — and you also name your invention the "Slate Tree."

The Slate Tree is just one of Lamblin's fanciful instruments: The Seattle artist has made 20 large pieces (30 by 18 feet) and at least 100 small ones. Some resemble enormous steel beach balls, others take up entire walls.

"Inventing instruments is inventing new ways to make sounds," said Lamblin, whose show "Rhythm of the Landscape" opens Friday at On the Boards. "People are often so surprised that we can make such amazing music from seemingly odd sculptures."

The show, themed around the cyclical pattern of the universe, mixes music, dance, video projections and 12 of Lamblin's sound-sculptures. The pieces are used as both instruments and props by performers including Lamblin and his wife, Leah Mann. The two co-founded the performance group Lelavision, for which Mann choreographs the works.

Mann was never formally trained in music. Lamblin was never trained in dance. But Mann copes, for example, by remembering to hit the third rock or third string on one of her husband's inventions instead of trying to understand that she needs to hit an A sharp. When Lamblin dances and plays music, he thinks of the dual activity as similar to rubbing your tummy and patting your head.

They don't take themselves too seriously.

"Humor is a huge part of our aesthetic," Lamblin said. "The predicament (of playing and dancing simultaneously) works in well for the humorous element."

Lamblin played the violin as a child and the guitar as a teen. His music is inspired by Indian scales, modes from different cultures and Asian music in general. He started making his own instruments while studying sculpture in college.

But the inventive streak started early on.

"My parents kind of instilled in me this idea that I could create my own things," the 30-year-old said. "At one point in my life, my father told me he wouldn't buy toys for me but that he would help me make (them)."

Lamblin's parents also owned a large collection of ethnic instruments — African percussion pieces, little harps and Japanese flutes.

In "Rhythm," Lamblin plays his own version of a flute — a drilled-out carrot with holes. Mann chomps at it from one end, which makes the pitch rise.

"If you compared my flute to a piccolo, it might not sound so good, but in the way we're using it, it's very successful — the fact that a carrot can make a sound at all."

The comical segment aside, Lamblin's other instruments are elaborate, multipart pieces that require everything from harnesses (for the bungee drumming) to a wall-size harp made of piano strings and river rocks. The show's instruments weigh a total of 1,200 pounds — "it's heavy metal and rock," Mann laughed.

One steel piece is called "Violcano" — a giant steel cone with a hole at the top in which a performer stands. Most of the cone's surface is strung with piano wires, which Lamblin plays with a cello bow while standing in the sculpture. The instrument spins on a turntable as video-projected images of an erupting volcano dance on the moving walls.

"There's a surprise element that's very fun in our work," Lamblin said.

With a name like "Lelavision," fun is almost a prerequisite. "Lela" is a combination of Leah and Ela, but the name also derives from Sanskrit, as "Lela" means the aspect of God that is play.

"We just have a rule that we won't let being bad at it stop us," Mann said.

Young Chang: 206-748-5815 or ychang@seattletimes.com.

Performance preview

"Rhythm of the Landscape," 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, On the Boards, Main Stage Theater, 100 West Roy St., Seattle, $15 general, $12 children, students and seniors, (206-217-9888) or www.ontheboards.org.