Mark Applebaum

Mousetrap Music

Innova 511


It was in 1990 that I designed and constructed my first sound-sculpture, an instrument called the mousetrap, our of junk, hardware, and found objects mounted on an electro-acoustic soundboard.  The mousetrap was inspired by several antecedents, including the famous instruments of American composer Harry Partch.  Most important-an proximate- was an instrument called the bug designed by Tom Nunn, a Bay Area musician and former University of California, San Diego student who continues to design fabulous instruments.   I found the bug in contrabassist Bert Turetzky’s office and was immediately captivated, both aurally and visually.  The mousetrap which includes a working mousetrap, was a response to the  bug, a challenge “to build a better mousetrap.”  Instead I found that I had succeeded in building a bigger mousetrap.


On this CD I play four instruments the three-legged, table sized mousetrap, the mini-mouse, a smaller instrument designed to sit on the music desk of a piano so that I can play both new and old instruments together, the duplex-mausphon, a two-tiered affair, and the midi-mouse designed for Steve McKinstry and his Salmagundi Recording Studio.


The instruments consist of threaded rods, nails,, wire strings stretched through a series of pulleys and turn buckles, plastic combs, bronze braising rod blow-torched and twisted, doorstops, shoehorns, ratchets, steel wheels, springs, lead and PV pipe, corrugated copper plumbing tube, Astroturf, parts from a Volvo gearbox, a metal Schwinn bicycle logo, and, indeed, mousetraps,.  It was great fun to collect this stuff and particularly satisfying to cause anxiety and suspicion among the hardware clerks who nervously eyed me as I conducted investigations of the acoustical properties of their wares.  It was feeling of accomplishment when weeks into my research, the same salesmen would excitedly welcome me into the store, giddy with their own myopia-shedding epiphanies:  “Mark, listen to how this thing sounds when you hit it with this!”  My project became an informal and unexpected arts outreach program. 

The sound-sculptures were intended as tools for improvisation and I have used them primarily in this capacity: in solo performances, such as the 90-minute improvisation in accompaniment to a 1993 Merce Cunnignham Dance Company performance and in ensemble contexts such as the “S-log Trio.  However, twice I have composed “formal” works using these instruments:  Zero-One is a solo mousetrap composition that was performed by Steven Schich at the Darmstadt New Music Festival in 1992, and Scipio Wakes Up for the Paul Dresher Ensemble employs six micro-mice; the Dresher piece was a fascinating and challenging project for me because the low-tech medium was modulated with a thigh-tech medium.


There are many compelling aspects about these instruments as well as drawbacks: their diverse sonic landscapes, their hybrid material constitution, their miniature and portable natures, their unconventional and low-tech sensibilities which suggest broad creative responses, their uniqueness, their postmodern appropriation of disparate vernacular elements signifying a diffusion of transgressed cultural locations, etc.

Like all things in life one weighs advantages and disadvantages.  At this point in my creative development, the exploration of these instruments makes me think about music more deeply.  That’s a big advantage. – Mark Applebaum (October, 1996)


Mark Applebaum (b. 1967, Chicago) earned his Ph.D. in music composition from the University of San Diego where he studied with Brian Ferneyhough, Joji Yuasa, and Rand Steiger, taught composition and music history, and served as Co-Director of the New Music Forum, an organization that presents new works by emerging composers.

Applebaum’s most substantial formal work is the Janus Cycle (1992-1996), a set of eleven compositions, each of which articulate a bipartite structure in which a mercurial kaleidoscope of rapidly-juxtaposed material either precedes or proceeds a laconic monolith of relatively directional narrative.  The cycle, includes Janus for five winds and five strings, Mt. Moriah for string quartet, Dead White Males for orchestra, Scipio Wakes Up for sound-sculptures, electronic keyboards, electronic percussion, violin, and bassoon, Tlon for three conductors and no players, Triple Concerto, for piano, percussion, and contrabass with large choir, and five solo works.  In 1996 Applebaum was the Dayton-Hudson Visiting Artist at Carleton College where he taught composition and music history.